A formidable candidate is trying to unseat John Catanzara as head of the union for Chicago’s 10,000 rank-and-file cops. But officers of color, women and political moderates in CPD may find Det. Robert Bartlett similar to the incumbent. Both are white men in a union long run by white men. Both have spoken highly of Donald Trump and both have opposed efforts to toughen police oversight.
Bartlett, a former Fraternal Order of Police Chicago Lodge 7 field representative, is running for the union’s presidency atop a slate seeking to sweep out Catanzara’s team in membership balloting that starts next month. His backers are lambasting Catanzara, 54, for his combative and undisciplined style and his alleged hypocrisy in battles with Mayor Lori Lightfoot over COVID vaccination.
“John gives our members bad advice and then he doesn’t stand behind them,” said Patrick Murray, a Bartlett running mate who helped assemble the opposition slate. “He also lacks the ability to get along with people who could help our members.”
Those people, Murray said, include police Supt. David Brown and First Deputy Supt. Eric Carter, who are frequently the subjects of Catanzara’s public barbs and insults, as well as Bureau of Internal Affairs staffers and pro-police elected officials such as Ald. Nicholas Sposato (38th Ward).
Bartlett, 48, did not return messages seeking comment about his campaign, but is well-known among Lodge 7 members.
Hired by CPD in 1998, he worked for two years in the Rogers Park patrol district before landing a coveted spot in the SWAT unit, according to department records.
In 2017, he narrowly lost an election to become the union’s third vice president but Kevin Graham, who won the presidency, appointed him to the field-representative post, a full-time job that lasted three years and put him in frequent contact with cops across the city.
Later that year, Bartlett joined Murray and Martin Preib — both of them Lodge 7 vice presidents at the time — outside Chicago Public Schools headquarters to leaflet against a curriculum for middle- and high-school students about the torture of suspects and witnesses by Chicago detectives under Cmdr. Jon Burge.
Bartlett also helped lead the lodge’s legal defense committee as it paid for the attorneys of Jason Van Dyke, the officer sent to prison for killing teenager Laquan McDonald.
In 2019, Bartlett authored an FOP newsletter article that attacked Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, saying she “doesn’t enforce many of the laws and has created an environment where the police can’t do their job.” If she remained in office, he implied, Chicago would be overrun by “homeless drug addicts — many with mental illness — who urinate and defecate anywhere they please.”
In the union’s 2020 election, Bartlett and Murray backed Preib for Lodge 7 president — a split from Graham, who has characterized their opposition as a push for more confrontational union leadership. Preib came within 30 votes of derailing Graham’s reelection bid in the balloting’s first round.
Graham limped to the second round, where Catanzara trounced him.
Losing his union post, Bartlett returned to work as a cop and quickly made detective. He was assigned to Area Four, a West Side station, according to CPD.
The same month Catanzara took over the union, Minneapolis police killed George Floyd, and Chicago erupted into protests and looting.
Catanzara, heading a 28-member FOP board that included no African Americans, threatened to expel a Black cop from the union for kneeling with protesters. His threat sparked a rare protest by African American police retirees in front of the union’s headquarters.
Scorn for Catanzara exploded in 2021, when he initially supported the Jan. 6 rioters at the U.S. Capitol, leading to a rebuke from the FOP’s national office and to an apology by the wayward lodge president.
WBEZ reported Catanzara’s comments about the riot. Since then, he has refused to talk to the station’s journalists, though he has never disputed the reporting’s accuracy.
Later in 2021, Catanzara’s bombastic nature also led to a Police Board hearing about whether to fire him from CPD due to alleged misconduct in 18 previous incidents — mostly Facebook postings that deployed vulgar or allegedly racist language. The hearing was scheduled for three days but ended abruptly after the first day, when Catanzara retired from CPD, a move that did not require departure from the Lodge 7 presidency.
Catanzara brought more negative attention to the union when he likened Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s vaccination mandate for city employees to Nazi genocidal methods.
Catanzara apologized and said he had chosen to be vaccinated himself. But he still encouraged members to disobey orders to report their vaccination status, leading some to be stripped of their police powers.
“These guys could get terminated and he says now it was up to them,” Murray said. “He failed people with his leadership.”
Catanzara scored at least one big victory for Lodge 7 members — a win that had eluded Graham, who spent his entire term trying to negotiate a new contract with the city. Catanzara’s team won contract provisions that led to big retroactive paychecks for the city’s cops.
Now, though, some members are grumbling that the 2.5% annual raises in that agreement are lagging behind inflation.
Catanzara, who did not respond to requests for comment about his reelection campaign, has tried to connect with members by posting weekly videos on YouTube. He recorded one this past Memorial Day in front of Lodge 7’s food trailer after union officials drove it to various worksites.
“The fraternalism is inspiring,” Catanzara said. “The smiles, the camaraderie, the stories between officers and lodge members is definitely telling me we’re on the right track on what we’re trying to do here — trying to rebuild morale that has been continually shattered by the mayor [and] a sh**show of incompetence at 35th and Michigan,” a reference to CPD headquarters.
In the fall, Catanzara forged an amendment to the union’s constitution that lengthened the president’s three-year term to four years, setting up the winner of this winter’s election to serve until at least 2027, the same as the winner of this year’s mayoral election.
In a Lodge 7 newsletter article, Catanzara promised big things if members keep him on.
“If we’re fortunate enough to get reelected,” he wrote, “I will guarantee we have a new [union hall] by the end of that next term. And we might be able to get our new health care facility and plan in place that will significantly reduce costs for members during that time as well.”