If anyone thinks John Catanzara could lose the reins of Chicago’s main police union for defending the U.S. Capitol rioters, they might want to think again.
The public has no role in choosing the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7 president and, according to WBEZ interviews with cops and police retirees, Catanzara retains widespread support among lodge members — especially white members.
“For the majority of cops, it’ll be just a little blip. Either you were with him or against him, and this won’t affect it much,” said a white patrol officer who, like many cops interviewed for this story, spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of damaging his police career.
Last Wednesday’s riot interrupted congressional certification of Joe Biden’s election, damaged the iconic building, and caused several deaths. Catanzara, interviewed by WBEZ that evening, said the crowd was not violent and was “entitled” to voice its frustration.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx and 36 Chicago aldermen have expressed outrage and called for his resignation.
But Catanzara, who apologized for the interview, does not seem to be going anywhere. His power lies not with public officials but with the rank-and-file officers who elected him.
Catanzara has been building that base since 2017, Trump’s first year in office, when the officer broke department rules on political activity by posting a Facebook photo of himself in uniform, standing in front of his marked police SUV with a hand-lettered placard: “I support my president.”
He was disciplined. CPD gave him a letter of reprimand but Catanzara has continued to enthusiastically embrace Trump and the racial politics that come with that.
Catanzara’s bombastic demeanor turned him into a culture warrior for Chicago cops who feel increasingly under attack.
“Normally officers wouldn’t vote for a Facebook troll — that’s what Catanzara is — but there’s an extreme reaction of fear and paranoia,” a white patrol officer on the West Side said, pointing to discipline for Chicago officers during civil unrest over George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police.
“The mayor wanted to fire a guy just for flipping off a protester, when we were working 12-hour days, week after week,” the patrol officer said. “I don’t agree with a lot of what Catanzara says and does but it’s really important that we have an aggressive union.”
Catanzara’s apology for supporting the people who attacked the Capitol “shows that he is evolving in a positive direction,” he said. “I think that’s pretty big of him to apologize without really equivocating. Most politicians don’t do that.”
Catanzara’s social media activity, including a posting that refers to Muslims as “savages,” led to another discipline case. It’s pending and could result in his CPD dismissal.
But firing Catanzara from the force would not necessarily get him out of the city’s hair. He was already stripped of police powers when Lodge 7 members elected him last year. Their constitution includes mechanisms for the union’s board of directors to keep him in office as president even if he’s not an officer.
That same constitution arguably provides reasons to oust Catanzara. It talks about defending the U.S. Constitution and eschewing forceful overthrow of the U.S. government.
But Rhonda Bullock, a Black CPD retiree who served for years as an FOP trustee and who helped lead a protest against Catanzara last summer, doubts that board members would interpret Catanzara’s initial support for the Capitol rioters that way.
“I don’t think his statement went as far as advocating the overthrow,” Bullock said.
Even if it did, Catanzara controls the Lodge 7 discipline process. Under the constitution, the president chooses the three board members who would hold the evidentiary hearing.
Catanzara will remain, Bullock said, unless the membership votes him out when his three-year term ends in 2023.
If that election were held this week, Catanzara might win.
One of his white supporters, who works on a citywide patrol unit, said Catanzara should “stop trying to be a political commentator as if he were on Fox News.”
“It’s a distraction,” he said. “We’re already under siege with police reform legislation in Springfield.”
But this officer said he was giving Catanzara a pass: “If someone had to resign every time they put their foot in their mouth, you wouldn’t have anyone in a position of power.”
The department’s culture issues go beyond Catanzara, a Black patrol sergeant said.
“We have thousands of officers who think exactly like him,” the sergeant said, adding that it shows in their community relations. “It’s an us-against-them attitude.”
Julius Givens, a Black cop in the South Chicago patrol district, said Catanzara’s power base extends to thousands of CPD pensioners who, despite their “outdated styles of policing,” retain the right to vote in Lodge 7 elections.
Givens announced in June he was quitting the FOP after Catanzara publicly blamed parents for the city’s gun violence and threatened union expulsion for any officer who took a knee in solidarity with those protesting police violence.
Jacqueline Watkins, a Black officer who works at the police academy, said Catanzara does not represent her views and said she hopes “the national FOP president forces him to resign.”
National FOP President Patrick Yoes has condemned Catanzara’s statements about the riot.
The grand lodge, as the national entity is known, can put local lodges into receivership but rarely does. An insider who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak for the grand lodge said Catanzara’s removal is not in the cards. Yoes did not return a message about it.
Chris Southwood, president of FOP’s Illinois lodge, also did not return messages about Catanzara.
Catanzara declined to answer questions for this story.