Joel Fitzgerald, the first Black police chief in Waterloo, Iowa, is facing scrutiny from some current and former officers for leading reform efforts throughout the department, the Associated Press reports.
During his 16-month tenure, Fitzgerald, who previously served as the chief of larger departments in Fort Worth, Texas and Allentown, Pennsylvania, said his time has been a "case study” for what Black police chiefs are subject to as they seek to build trust within the community and raise the standards for the entire department. Also, he said that he and Waterloo’s first Black Mayor, Quentin Hart, have been regular targets of racial hostility.
“I don’t think there’s been any police chief in America in a small- or medium-sized department that have endured this for the reasons I have endured it and I think the reasons have to do with race,” Fitzgerald said. “This is my fourth job being the first Black police chief. I’ve dealt with pushback in other places but never so overt. Never so nonfactual.”
One of the major points of contention is the removal of the insignia from police uniforms which has a striking resemblance to a Ku Klux Klan dragon.
Last fall, when the City Council began to press for the removal of the department’s emblem, a green-eyed, red-bodied, winged creature known as a griffin that has been a part of the police uniforms since the 1960s, the backlash against Fitzgerald was swift.
After a tumultuous process, the council voted 5-2 last week to allow the department to remove the symbol from its uniforms by the end of September.
The Waterloo Commission on Human Rights called for the removal of the griffin emblem, saying it evoked fear and distrust among Black residents of the city. The changes implemented by Fitzgerald have drawn praise from Mayor Hart and certain members of the City Council while angering conservatives, retired officers, and the police union.
A white City Council member who’s challenging Hart’s seat in November has described herself as a “champion of police,” and has promised to fire Fitzgerald if elected. Additionally, a political action committee supporting her and other “pro-law enforcement candidates” called Cedar Valley Backs the Blue, has attacked Fitzgerald and Hart on social media, claiming they are not leading the department or the city in the right direction.
Fitzgerald said he was criticized for his academic degrees and admitted that “it didn’t look good” when news broke that he was a finalist in other cities for police chief positions during his first year.
Jonathan Grieder, a City Council member, said that Fitzgerald has been defamed by the same people who claim to support the police.
“We are grappling with the very real issues that have long been embedded of race and force and policing,” he said. “I get that some people have never had to reckon with that until now. I get that it's uncomfortable."