Waterloo, Iowa’s first Black police chief is facing opposition from some current and former officers as he attempts to collaborate with city leaders in an effort to reform his department.
One of Joel Fitzgerald’s reforms includes the removal of its longtime insignia that resembles a Ku Klux Klan dragon. During his 16-month tenure as chief of the department, he says he’s an example of what a Black police chief faces when they try to bridge a community with a history of racial divisions.
“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, who previously served as the chief of larger departments in Fort Worth, Texas and Allentown, Pennsylvania, according to the Associated Press. “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, police chiefs who attempt reform within their department always face backlash, which is amplified 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,” she said, according to the AP. “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.”
Among those angered with Fitzgerald’s tenure are Waterloo’s police union and a white City Council member who is running to unseat Quentin Hart, the city’s first Black mayor, while vowing to oust Fitzgerald if elected. Additionally, three of Fitzgerald’s predecessors as chief released a letter saying they were outraged at what the department has become, claiming it was “imploding” and that morale had hit an all-time low.
Opponents of Fitzgerald have attacked everything from his salary, which is comparable with similar city chiefs in Iowa, to his off-duty trips to visit his family in Texas, where his teenaged son is continuing treatment after having a brain tumor removed.
Since taking the helm at the Waterloo Police Department, Fitzgerald has banned chokeholds, outlawed racial profiling, required all officers to intervene if they see excessive force, and investigating all complaints of misconduct departmentwide.
Fitzgerald is only one of a handful of officers in the department, which polices a city that’s 17 percent African American, according to NBC News. City Council member Jonathan Grieder said the police chief has been slandered by people claiming to love 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.”