Waterloo, Iowa, a city of 67,000 has a history of racial divides. Its first black police chief Joel Fitzgerald is meeting intense backlash from current and former officers as he works with city leaders to reform the department. This is includes the removal of an old insignia resembling a Ku Klux Klan dragon.
With its history of racial divides, black police officers have had to spend time seeking community trust and holding officers to a higher standards. Fitzgerald told the Associated Press, the negativities lashed out against him are driven by misinformation and racism. Fitzgerald previously served as police chief in larger departments in Fort Worth, Texas, and Allentown, Pennsylvania. By his own testimony, 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.”
The backlash intensified when the City Council began pushing to remove the departments’ emblem — a green-eyed, red-bodied, winged creature known as a griffin. This emblem had adorned patches on officers’ uniforms since the 1960s. The council voted 5-2 last week to order the department to remove the symbol from its uniforms by the end of September. This was the latest of changes the department made under Fitzgerald that have met the approval Mayor Quentin Hart, most City Council members and some community leaders. But there is always opposition stemming from the police union, retired officers, and conservatives.
What Fitzgerald is experiencing is nothing new. 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. She said, “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.”
Some of the oppositions to Fitzgerald’s reforms can be read on Facebook. A white City Council member vows to oust Fitzgerald. Three of his predecessors claim the department’s morale had hit an all-time low. Others claimed him being an outsider disqualified him.
Despite all the opposition, Fitzgerald did move the ball forward in Iowa. Fitzgerald helped ease the tension surrounding George Floyd’s death by meeting with protesters. Banning chokeholds. Outlawing racial profiling. Requiring officers to intervene if they see excessive force. Investigating all complaints of misconduct.
Some are now calling for Fitzgerald’s resignation.