Incendiary Chicago police union chief John Catanzara faces termination hearing this week

Even if fired from the Chicago Police Department, he could remain president of the local Fraternal Order of Police lodge.

John Catanzara
John Catanzara, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7 in Chicago, spoke in front of the union’s headquarters on June 26, 2020, as Black police retirees protested his leadership. Catanzara now faces potential firing from CPD. Chip Mitchell / WBEZ
John Catanzara
John Catanzara, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7 in Chicago, spoke in front of the union’s headquarters on June 26, 2020, as Black police retirees protested his leadership. Catanzara now faces potential firing from CPD. Chip Mitchell / WBEZ

Incendiary Chicago police union chief John Catanzara faces termination hearing this week

Even if fired from the Chicago Police Department, he could remain president of the local Fraternal Order of Police lodge.

The Chicago police officer who heads the city’s main union for cops has been in the national spotlight over the past year, first for defending the U.S. Capitol rioters and more recently for leading resistance to Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s mandate that city employees get vaccinated — resistance in which he likened the policy to Nazi genocidal methods.

John Catanzara’s bombastic nature will be the focus of a three-day Police Board hearing this week that could result in a decision to fire him from CPD. The hearing concerns alleged misconduct in 18 incidents before he ascended to the local Fraternal Order of Police presidency. The proceeding’s outcome won’t immediately affect his grip on the union post, but it will still have gravity for the city’s officers and the people they police.

“It is unlikely that the imposition of discipline will result in major changes in the Fraternal Order of Police,” said Northwestern University law professor Sheila Bedi, who directs the school’s Community Justice and Civil Rights Clinic. “But it might help establish the legitimacy of the police accountability apparatus and could send a message to officers who are trying to do their job — without racism, without reactionary impulses — that their colleagues who proceed otherwise will be held accountable.”

The dismissal case originated with a November 2017 complaint brought by one of Catanzara’s police bosses, according to records of the Civilian Office of Police Accountability, a city agency that conducted the investigation. At the time, Catanzara was a 22-year CPD veteran assigned to work inside the Southwest Side’s Hubbard High School as a “school resource officer.”

The case eventually expanded to 18 incidents that took place between 2016 and 2018. Fifteen consist of Facebook postings by Catanzara.

In a posting November 22, 2016, he wrote, “Wtf its [sic] seriously time to kill these motherf*****s” above a link to a news story about a Wayne State University police officer getting shot and a suspect remaining at large, according to COPA records.

On January 30, 2017, Catanzara posted a Facebook comment that the dismissal charges describe as “biased against Muslims.” In the posting, Catanzara reacted to a video of a woman being stoned to death: “Savages they all deserve a bullet.”

The incidents also include Catanzara’s filing of a 2018 criminal report against then-police Supt. Eddie Johnson. The patrol officer accused the top cop of breaking the law by joining an anti-violence march on the Dan Ryan Expressway.

The Police Department rules that Catanzara allegedly violated include bringing discredit to CPD, disobeying an order, and failing to promote the department’s efforts to accomplish its goals.

The officer’s record

Since joining CPD in 1995, Catanzara has been the subject of at least 50 complaints, according to the nonprofit Citizens Police Data Project.

In 10 of those, according to the project, the city found sufficient evidence to justify disciplinary action. Those consisted of two incidents with use-of-force violations, two with conduct unbecoming an officer, a domestic incident, and five incidents with personnel violations. Orders for discipline have included at least eight suspensions, according to CPDP.

Two past police superintendents have tried to fire him, the Chicago Tribune has reported.

Some of those discipline cases helped bring Catanzara to prominence among rank-and-file cops. In September 2017, during Donald Trump’s first year as president, Catanzara posted on Facebook a photo of himself dressed in his police uniform and holding a U.S. flag and a hand-lettered placard: “I stand for the anthem. I love the American flag. I support my president and the Second Amendment.”

The Police Department punished Catanzara with a reprimand for partisan political activity on duty.

Throughout the FOP’s presidential campaign last year, Catanzara was stripped of police powers in a case linked to his criminal report against Johnson, the former superintendent.

The rebellious officer still defeated incumbent Lodge 7 President Kevin Graham.

That same month, Minneapolis police shot and 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 went national in January, when he initially supported the U.S. Capitol rioters during a WBEZ interview. He apologized later.

Catanzara had to apologize again for the comparison of Lightfoot’s administration to Nazi Germany, but the FOP’s legal efforts against the vaccine mandate led a Cook County judge this month to suspend it.

And Catanzara also scored a victory for Lodge 7 members that had eluded his FOP predecessor: He negotiated contract provisions with hefty retroactive paychecks for the city’s cops.

Termination case

The dismissal recommendation came from COPA in June 2020 after an investigation focused largely on the Facebook postings. Police Supt. David Brown pushed instead for a one-year suspension, but a Police Board member last December decided to put the proposed firing before the entire board.

Those charges were expanded in January to include two criminal reports filed by Catanzara against police bosses, including the one against Johnson.

Catanzara’s attorney, Tim Grace, did not return messages about the charges.

Catanzara earlier this year told WBEZ the dismissal case was a “dog-and-pony show” resulting from city officials’ inability to remove him from the union office: “They know they can’t do anything.”

Lodge 7’s constitution does include mechanisms for the union’s board to keep him as president even if he gets fired by CPD. And, even after the public uproar about Catanzara’s initial support for the U.S. Capitol rioters, there has been no public movement on the board to oust him ahead of the union’s 2023 election.

A white officer on the West Side said Catanzara’s supporters will be watching this week’s hearing closely “but the loudest guys and gals don’t necessarily reflect the majority.”

The officer, a veteran beat cop, said “a lot of level-headed officers” believe that Catanzara has worsened relations between community members and officers.

“When you see Catanzara speaking the way he does, it drives a wedge between the public and the police, and that’s not something that needs to be happening right now,” the officer said, speaking on condition he not be named for fear of repercussions at work.

Presiding over the Police Board proceedings will be hearing officer Lauren Freeman, a former assistant Cook County state’s attorney who led the prosecution of former CPD Cmdr. Glenn Evans, acquitted in 2015 of felony charges alleging he put his service pistol down the throat of a suspect.

The Police Board, a nine-member panel with two vacancies since July, is supposed to review the hearing before deciding on Catanzara’s guilt or innocence and the discipline, if any. That decision is not expected until early next year.

Chip Mitchell reports out of WBEZ’s West Side studio about policing. Follow him @ChipMitchell1. Contact him at cmitchell@wbez.org.