When Rhonda Porche Bullock was elected to the board of Chicago’s police union, she didn’t have to be pushed to work hard. She believed in the union’s mission to advocate for officers. She put in long hours. She made rounds to units all over the city — all three shifts. And there were countless meetings.
Bullock had her first reelection campaign in 2005. The four candidates at the top of her slate — all white men — won their races and retained their seats.
Bullock, however, did not. Union members rejected her.
“When they realized that I was a young Black woman, I didn’t get the votes,” she said.
In 2008, Bullock ran again and, like the previous election, the white men who headed her slate won, while she lost.
“It’s very disheartening to keep losing,” she said.
Bullock did not run for the board again and retired from CPD in 2013.
It turned out that Bullock’s time on the board was a high point for Black leadership in the union. She was one of three African Americans on the 28-member board. Since 2011, according to union records, the board has never had that many.
As a Black candidate, Bullock was not alone in struggling to win influence in Fraternal Order of Police Chicago Lodge 7.
A WBEZ investigation puts numbers on the scarcity of Black officers in union leadership. The investigation, which included reviews of the lodge’s newsletters, city contracts and annual tax filings over the years, found 108 people who have served on the union’s board since 2000. Just seven of them are Black, according to CPD records.
That amounts to 6.5% of union leaders who are Black in a police department with more than 20% of sworn officers who are Black in a city with nearly 29% of inhabitants who are Black — a city where race has long been a dividing line between the police and the most heavily policed communities.
A zoom into the top officers of that board — the lodge’s president and three vice presidents — finds 20 people who have served since 2000. Of those individuals, none are Black.
The dearth of African Americans on the union’s board is not because there have not been Black candidates. WBEZ looked at the two latest lodge elections. In those contests, held in 2017 and 2020, 175 candidates ran for 54 elected positions, according to union records. The 175 included 14 African Americans candidates but none won.
At present, according to the FOP’s most recent publicly available newsletter, the lodge’s 28 board members include no African Americans.
The union’s current president, John Catanzara, did not respond to questions about the board’s racial makeup.
His Black critics did.
“Year after year after year, when you see who’s on the board, it’s very obvious,” said Shawn Kennedy, an advocate for Black police officers nationally who retired as a CPD sergeant in 2019. “They still want to keep Black officers in a subservient position and place within our department and also within the union.”
Kennedy said Black police officers in Chicago should consider withdrawing from the union — a step taken publicly by an African American cop already. But Bullock is among Black cops and retirees who say the stakes are too high for them to give up on the FOP. They say African American officers can have a greater impact on the union and the Police Department by getting more involved.
Before Bullock was elected to the board, she was the lodge’s unit representative in Grand Crossing, a South Side patrol district. In that position, she wrote a monthly newsletter for her co-workers and helped them with all sorts of workplace issues, including a messy job that many cops assigned to squadrols did not want to do.
“The wagon officers,” Bullock said, “picked up dead bodies. We didn’t have any specialized equipment. You had your uniform on. And if something got on it, the uniform was just destroyed.”
The lodge got the city to bring in other workers to handle corpses.
Bullock said cops need a union just like other workers: “The union steps in and negotiates for you and gets things done that one officer alone can’t do. There’s strength in numbers.”
But as a Black woman, Bullock had challenges on the union’s leadership team. When she was elected to the board, she attended a packed dinner at the lodge headquarters, 1412 W. Washington Blvd. The dinner, held to inaugurate the new leaders after elections every three years, included bigwigs from the union’s national office seated at a front table.
Bullock had never attended the event.
“I didn’t know where I was supposed to sit,” she said. “I didn’t know the protocol. So I asked one of the older officers.”
Bullock declined to name that older officer but said he was white and had helped lead the union for decades.
He directed her to a table in front, she said.
“Not knowing any better, I sat there and then I learned, after everyone was seated, that I was at the table for the national officers,” she said. “I think he thought it would be funny and that I would not know how to handle myself. He did it to try and embarrass me.”
Bullock endured it. And, as a board member, she says she had accomplishments. One was increasing the union’s visibility in Black communities.
“We were being involved with various things like the St. Patty’s Parade. I was questioning why we were not involved more with Bud Billiken,” she said, referring to the annual back-to-school parade that attracts many Black participants and onlookers as it moves through South Side neighborhoods.
On the FOP board, Bullock said, “there was a lot of pushback initially.”
But eventually she prevailed and the union sent a group of officers to hand out snacks along the parade route.
Inside or outside
Today some Black officers are pointing to bigger problems. They say the lodge provides sub-par legal representation to African American cops who are disciplined or targeted by lawsuits. They say it should abandon its traditional knee-jerk opposition to police-reform efforts and allow officials to rein in cops who trample on human rights.
Kennedy, the retired sergeant, said many Black cops are also angry that the lodge and its national office endorsed Donald Trump for president in both 2016 and 2020.
“If you have a union [that doesn’t] give a damn about you, why do you still give them your money when you don’t have to?” Kennedy asked.
Julius Givens, a young officer in CPD’s South Chicago patrol district, said he was already asking himself that question last year when Catanzara, the union’s newly elected president, publicly blamed the city’s gun violence on parents.
“I love being the police,” Givens told WBEZ in a recent interview, “but my former union in its current form, I had moral disagreements with it.”
Givens renounced his lodge membership.
Sgt. Jermaine Harris, a cop who lives and works on the West Side, is leading a new group for Black cops in Chicago called the Black Public Safety Alliance.
At a news conference unveiling the group last month, Harris said the group will take on “systemic racism” in both the Police Department and the union.
“Right now, we don’t have the necessary seat at the table and our voices are shut out,” he said. “This is about ensuring that Black officers play a more elevated role in deciding the direction of our department, ensuring we are a department that reflects the communities we serve and polices with compassion and empathy.”
But the alliance will lack the powers of a union. It will not be able to bargain contracts about wages, benefits and work conditions.
Bullock, the former lodge trustee, said Black cops should stick with the FOP.
“You make more changes from within than you do from the outside,” Bullock said. “You might not feel that it’s working for you but, if you don’t vote and stay involved, you can’t make any changes.”
Bullock said Black officers need to attend the lodge’s membership meetings, serve on its committees, run for office and, most important, cast ballots in the elections.
Bullock said African American members should also speak out when they disagree with lodge leaders — as she did last summer when Catanzara, the president, moved to expel a young Black officer from the union for kneeling in solidarity with Black Lives Matter protesters.
“I felt that was truly unfair,” Bullock said. “She has a right to her beliefs. And there is nothing that she did that disqualified her from being a member of the union.”
Standing up for the officer who knelt, Bullock and other CPD retirees last June held their own protest — right in front of the lodge. When Catanzara came outside, Bullock confronted him.
“We’re still very blue, very blue,” she told him, insisting the Black officers were sincere about law enforcement and loyal to their co-workers.
But Catanzara told Bullock he was booting the cop because her kneeling took place amid protesters calling for defunding the police.
“How does that promote fraternalism?” Catanzara asked. “You are basically giving a big middle-finger to [fellow cops] standing next to you and you’re saying, You should abolish my job. That’s pretty much what she was doing.”
In front of the lodge that day, Catanzara said the union is doing all it can to bring more African Americans into its leadership.
“To say that this lodge does not stand for anything about diversity is ridiculous,” he told the Black retirees.
Compared to African Americans, who have no seats on the lodge’s board, the union has done better at bringing in Latinos. The board now includes five Hispanics, according to FOP records. That’s 18% of the board. Hispanics make up 28% of the department’s total sworn officers, according to city figures.
But former lodge President Kevin Graham, unseated by Catanzara last year, said the union is not diversifying fast enough.
“There haven’t been enough times that the union has reached out to demographics within the police department that have generally not been well-represented,” he said. “I think right now we’re losing people in our membership that could be quite valuable people to the union.”
Graham said the union should call Givens and other Black officers who have quit, invite them to serve on committees, and consider including them on a slate in board elections.
But some other influential rank-and-file cops say the absence of African Americans on Lodge 7’s board is not an urgent problem.
“I don’t think Chicago police officers are hyper-focused on race,” former lodge President Michael Shields said. “I don’t think there’s any type of bias, voting for or against. It’s just, ‘I know this guy. I know this guy is going to do a great job for me.’ And, at the end of the day, it doesn’t make a difference about the color because we all look at ourselves as one color: blue.”
Many Black officers say that is just not true — that racism remains the central factor in their absence from the union board and that they’re trying to figure out what to do about it.