How a Black Iowa police chief is urging change, despite backlash

The city of Waterloo, Iowa, has a longstanding history of deep racial divisions. Its first Black police chief, Joel Fitzgerald, is working to build community trust and implement police reform. Even though he’s integrated forces before, he says this is his hardest test. 

Charlie Neibergall/AP
Waterloo Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald speaks during an interview with The Associated Press, on Sept. 7, 2021, in Waterloo, Iowa. Mr. Fitzgerald was sworn in June 1, 2020 and immediately helped to ease racial tensions in the wake of George Floyd's death.

The first Black police chief in Waterloo, Iowa, is facing intense opposition from some current and former officers as he works with city leaders to reform the department, including the removal of its longtime insignia that resembles a Ku Klux Klan dragon.

Joel Fitzgerald says his 16-month tenure in Waterloo, a city of 67,000 with a history of racial divisions, is a “case study” for what Black police chiefs face as they seek to build community trust and hold officers to higher standards. In an interview with The Associated Press, he said the attacks were driven by misinformation and racism toward him and his boss, the city’s first Black mayor.

“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,” said Mr. Fitzgerald, who previously served as the chief of larger departments in Fort Worth, Texas, and Allentown, Pennsylvania. “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.”

Jacinta Gau, a University of Central Florida professor and expert on race and policing, said new, reform-minded chiefs always face backlash, and that is intensified when they are Black leaders of historically white forces.

“The power dynamic in America has always been that Black people are subordinate to white people. When Black people acquire leadership positions, that power dynamic is flipped on its head and white people who were comfortable with the status quo are now feeling very threatened,” she said.

The backlash against Mr. Fitzgerald has intensified 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.

After a messy process, the council voted 5-2 last week to order the department to remove the symbol from its uniforms by the end of September.

It was the latest among several changes the department has made under Mr. Fitzgerald that have won praise from Mayor Quentin Hart, most City Council members and some community leaders – while angering the police union, retired officers, and conservatives.

A white City Council member running to unseat Mr. Hart in November has portrayed herself as a champion of police while vowing to oust Mr. Fitzgerald if elected. A political action committee supporting her and other “pro-law enforcement candidates” called Cedar Valley Backs the Blue has attacked Mr. Fitzgerald and Mr. Hart on Facebook, claiming they are mismanaging the department.

Three of Mr. Fitzgerald’s predecessors as chief released a letter saying they were outraged at what the department had become under his leadership, claiming it was “imploding” and that morale had hit an all-time low.

Adding to the backlash is that Mr. Fitzgerald is an outsider to Waterloo with academic degrees some critics mock as elitist. He acknowledges “it didn’t look good” when news emerged that he was a finalist for chief openings in bigger cities during his first year.

Opponents have attacked everything from Mr. Fitzgerald’s salary – which is in line with similar chiefs in Iowa – to his off-duty trips to visit family in Texas, where his teenage son is receiving medical treatment.

Last year, he took over a department that has long experienced tension with the city’s Black community, which comprises 17% of the city population.

Mr. Hart said Waterloo could have been a hotbed of racial unrest after George Floyd’s death given its history, but Mr. Fitzgerald helped ease tensions the day before he was sworn on June 1, 2020, in by meeting with protesters for hours to hear their concerns.

“It was a resetting of the clock moment,” Mr. Fitzgerald said.

Numerous changes soon followed: banning chokeholds, outlawing racial profiling, requiring officers to intervene if they see excessive force, and investigating all complaints of misconduct.

The Waterloo Commission on Human Rights called for the removal of the griffin emblem, saying it evoked fear and distrust among some given its resemblance to the KKK symbol.

But generations of Waterloo officers had seen it as a symbol of their vigilance. The Waterloo Police Protective Association, which represents officers, denied it had racist intent and mobilized against its removal.

Mr. Fitzgerald, one of a handful of officers of color in the 123-member department, said he was met with fierce pushback when he suggested the department rebrand itself voluntarily before the council acted.

Supporters of the griffin, including the Back the Blue group, framed its removal as an affront to officers.

“The beatdown of our police officers continues,” City Council member Margaret Klein, who is running for mayor, wrote on Facebook, citing the “devastating impact of removing the beloved 50-year patch design.” She has called for Mr. Fitzgerald’s resignation.

Mr. Hart said the debate over the griffin missed the bigger picture. He said the department has undergone a “complete paradigm shift,” adopting a community policing model that has been popular.

“Decency and respect, that’s what I want. But I’m pro-law enforcement,” said Mr. Hart, who was elected in 2015 and re-elected in 2017 and 2019.

The Back the Blue group has labeled Mr. Hart a “radical mayor” and released an anonymous survey taken by half the current officers and dozens of retirees showing all 98 believed Mr. Fitzgerald was the wrong man for the job. Officers complained that they didn’t feel supported by the community or the administration.

“It’s sad and it’s pathetic but this is what’s going on at the Waterloo Police Department,” said group chairman Lynn Moller, a retired investigator.

Mr. Fitzgerald said officer morale is a national problem and Waterloo has eight vacancies after some officers retired or left for other jobs. He proposed a strategic plan to improve morale and hire more officers in coming years.

City Council member Jonathan Grieder said Mr. Fitzgerald had been slandered by people claiming to love 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.”

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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