Waterloo, Iowa’s first Black police chief is facing fierce opposition from some current and former officers as he works with city leaders to reform the department, including the removal of its long-standing insignia, which resembles a Ku Klux Klan dragon.
Joel Fitzgerald describes his 16-month tenure as a “case study” for what Black police chiefs face as they seek to build community trust and hold officers to higher standards in Waterloo, a city of 67,000 with a history of racial divisions. He told The Associated Press that the attacks were motivated by misinformation and racism directed at him and his boss, the city’s first Black mayor.
According to Jacinta Gau, a race and policing expert at the University of Central Florida, new, reform-minded chiefs always face backlash, which is amplified when they are Black leaders of historically white forces.
Since last fall, when the City Council began pushing to remove the department’s emblem — a green-eyed, red-bodied, winged creature known as a griffin that had adorned patches on officers’ uniforms since the 1960s — the backlash against Fitzgerald has grown.
The council voted 5-2 last week to order the department to remove the symbol from its uniforms by the end of September, following a lengthy process.
It was the latest in a series of changes implemented by Fitzgerald that have garnered praise from Mayor Quentin Hart, the majority of City Council members, and some community leaders — while infuriating the police union, retired officers, and conservatives.
A white City Council member running against Hart in November has portrayed herself as a supporter of law enforcement while vowing to depose Fitzgerald if elected. Cedar Valley Backs the Blue, a political action committee that supports her and other “pro-law enforcement candidates,” has attacked Fitzgerald and Hart on Facebook, claiming they are mismanaging the department.
Three of Fitzgerald’s predecessors as chief issued a letter in which they expressed their outrage at what the department had become under his leadership, claiming that it was “imploding” and morale had reached an all-time low.
Fitzgerald is an outsider in Waterloo, with academic degrees that some critics dismiss as elitist. He admits that when news broke that he was a finalist for chief positions in larger cities during his first year, “it didn’t look good.”
Opponents have criticized everything from Fitzgerald’s salary — which is comparable to that of other Iowa chiefs — to his off-duty trips to visit family in Texas, where his teenage son is undergoing treatment for a brain tumor that was removed in 2019.
Last year, he took over a department that has long been tense with the city’s Black community, which accounts for 17% of the city’s population.
Given its history, Hart believes Waterloo could have become a hotbed of racial unrest following George Floyd’s death, but Fitzgerald helped ease tensions the day before he was sworn in on June 1, 2020, by meeting with protesters for hours to hear their concerns.
Numerous changes followed, including the prohibition of chokeholds, the prohibition of racial profiling, the requirement for officers to intervene if they see excessive force, and the investigation of all complaints of misconduct.
The Waterloo Commission on Human Rights demanded that the griffin emblem be removed, claiming that it instilled fear and distrust in some people due to its resemblance to the KKK symbol.
However, generations of Waterloo officers saw it as a symbol of their vigilance. The Waterloo Police Protective Association, which represents officers, denied racism and rallied against its removal.
Fitzgerald, one of only a few officers of color in the 123-member department, said he was met with fierce opposition when he suggested the department voluntarily rebrand itself before the council acted. Back the Blue has labeled Hart a “radical mayor,” and an anonymous survey taken by half of the current officers and dozens of retirees revealed that all 98 thought Fitzgerald was the wrong man for the job. Officers expressed dissatisfaction with the community and the administration.
Officer morale is a national issue, according to Fitzgerald, and Waterloo has eight vacancies after some officers retired or left for other jobs. In the coming years, he proposed a strategic plan to boost morale and hire more officers.
Fitzgerald, according to City Council member Jonathan Grieder, has been slandered by people who claim to love the police.