Police Department in Showdown with Black Chief Over Insignia That Resembles KKK Dragon

The police department in Waterloo, Iowa, is in a showdown with its first Black police chief over the removal of the department's longtime insignia that resembles a Ku Klux Klan dragon, the Associated Press reported.

Joel Fitzgerald has faced backlash for his strides to reform Waterloo police that have intensified since last fall when the City Council began pushing for the removal of the department's emblem. The emblem, a red-bodied, green-eyed griffin, which has adorned officers' uniforms since the 1960s, has been compared to a KKK symbol.

Opinions on the emblem have been split, with the Waterloo Commission on Human Rights saying it evoked fear and distrust among some due to its resemblance to a hate group symbol. The Waterloo Police Protective Association, which represents officers, denied racist intent and protested against its removal.

The City Council, in a 5-2 vote last week, ordered the department to remove the symbol from uniforms by the end of September.

Though the change was praised by Mayor Quentin Hart and other community leaders, the police union, retired officers and conservatives were angered by its removal.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Waterloo Police Symbol
The Waterloo City Council voted to remove the police department's griffin emblem for its resemblance to a Ku Klux Klan symbol. Charlie Neibergall/AP Photo

Fitzgerald said 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 AP, 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 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.

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

Three of 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.

Opponents have attacked everything from 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 continues treatment for a brain tumor that was removed in 2019.

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

Hart said Waterloo could have been a hotbed of racial unrest after George Floyd's death given its history, 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.

"It was a resetting-of-the-clock moment," 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.

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 Fitzgerald's resignation.

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 Hart, who was elected in 2015 and re-elected in 2017 and 2019.

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

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.

Joel Fitzgerald
Joel Fitzgerald, the first Black police chief in Waterloo, Iowa, is facing 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. Above, Fitzgerald speaks during an interview with the Associated Press on September 7, 2021, in Waterloo, Iowa. Charlie Neibergall/AP Photo