Chicago's FOP President: Powerful, Polarizing, and Unpredictable

 /  March 28, 2021, 11:11 p.m.

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John Catanzara, Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7 President and member of the Chicago Police Department (CPD), has been in the public eye for quite some time, but his statements about the Jan. 6 Capitol violence have brought new attention to his actions and their implications for CPD. In an interview with WBEZ Chicago on the same day, Catanzara downplayed the severity of the Capitol insurrection and criticized those speaking against it. He said that “there was no arson, there was no burning of anything, there was no looting, there was very little destruction of property.” Though he said he would not have participated, he also said he sympathized with the rioters’ frustration and believed the descriptions of the violence that occurred have been overblown.

This is not the first instance in which Catanzara’s words have incited controversy and widespread negative attention for CPD. As reported by the Chicago Tribune, he describes himself as a “give no f***s, say it like it is man.” He has accumulated at least 46 complaints and been suspended at least 7 times in his career. He was also the subject of two investigations for allegations of verbal abuse and coercion for comments made on social media. 

One district commander complained that Catanzara had “bigoted views” and made “hostile remarks” against Muslims, women, and liberals. He is well-known for a Facebook photo from 2017 which appeared to be a response to NFL players protesting during the national anthem and two officers kneeling in support of these protests. The photo features Catanzara in his police uniform with a sign saying, ”I stand for the anthem. I love the American flag. I support my president and the 2nd Amendment.” Following the incident, Catanzara was verbally reprimanded by the department for mixing political opinions with his public identity as a police officer, but he received no formal punishment.

A Powerful But Polarizing Figure

Catanzara remains a powerful part of CPD and a highly-regarded figure for many Chicago residents. Though he is currently stripped of his police powers pending an investigation of a misleading police report filed in 2018, he retains his role as the President of the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) Lodge 7, the police union in Chicago representing the rank-and-file, which serves to protect the rights and welfare of Chicago law enforcement, with the president serving as an advocate for these rights and a leader and example. For this reason, concerns have been raised based on his many infractions and controversies over whether Catanzara is truly fit to represent the rank-and-file of the FOP. However, many citizens that support Catanzara appear to respect him for precisely these reasons: he is seen as a “rabble-rouser” who speaks freely and is not afraid to challenge the status quo. 

Catanzara ultimately apologized in a Facebook post for his comments on the Jan. 6 violence, calling it “a lapse in judgement” and apologizing for having “brought negative attention to [his] Lodge, the FOP family, and law enforcement in general.” He described his comments as “poorly worded,” but also defended himself, saying that had he known at the time the level of violence, he would not have commented the way that he did. CBS Chicago called this comment into question, given that much of the violence, including the injury of several police officers and a woman shot and killed by the police, was public knowledge by the time of his remarks. The FOP itself condemned the actions of the riots and appeared to condemn Catanzara’s words, calling them a “gross mischaracterization” of the event. However, Catanzara again received no formal reprimand for his comments.

That, however, has not stopped Chicago politicians from criticizing Catanzara’s take on the event and his views as a public figure. Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx remarked that Catanzara has been “proudly unapologetic about his repugnant views,” and that he “meant what he said yesterday. He just regrets being held accountable.” Foxx questioned the sincerity of his apology and called for his resignation. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot also criticized his comments, tweeting, “This wasn’t ‘frustration.’ It was a violent insurrection. The comments made by John Catanzara, Chicago FOP President, either demonstrate clear delusion or reckless disrespect for the rule of law—or both.”

A Conflict Of Interest

Lightfoot’s comments echo much of the rhetoric surrounding Catanzara’s actions: his comments are incompatible with his role in law enforcement, a profession that is supposed to maintain order and safety. This is not an isolated incident: the U.S. Department of Justice has described the prevalence of discriminatory views among CPD officers and the Department’s failure to respond appropriately to allegations of officer misconduct. This seems to call into question Catanzara’s suitability for heading the police union, while also demonstrating that discrimination and controversial views do not stop with him, but rather pervade the entire CPD.

Karen Sheley, director of the police practices project for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, describes this issue, saying that Catanzara  “embodies the most stark problems in the (police) department—the red flags of an unaddressed, long disciplinary history and outspoken resistance to reform.” Like Sheley, many are concerned about a widespread accountability issue in police departments, particularly in CPD. The Department has faced many other instances of discriminatory actions and the use of racial slurs; while these behaviors are against CPD’s human resources policy, they are not explicitly prohibited in their Standards of Conduct. Given this lack of formal condemnation of these actions, officers are often let off with almost no formal punishment. 

Catanzara’s Future With CPD

Lack of reform and punitive action can allow an officer with dozens of allegations and complaints, such as Catanzara, to continue in a leadership role, serving as a figurehead of CPD, despite comments that incite controversy and even violence. Catanzara  once wrote on Facebook that “the police dept. didn’t and CAN’T fire me.” Illinois’s Feb. 22 Criminal Justice and Police Reforms bill, which includes the banning of chokeholds and an effort towards body cameras for officers, aims to increase police accountability in the future for recorded instances of police misconduct. However, it is unclear whether this bill will increase accountability in what law enforcement says, as is the case with many of Catanzara’s past controversies.

Catanzara is looked to by many as an effector of change, and he has a responsibility to uphold the best interests of the people of Chicago given his position. However, Catanzara’s actions demonstrate a major flaw in the system: how can someone who has made so many missteps and created so many public controversies remain a leader and influential figure? As calls for police accountability increase, polarizing figures like Catanzara will likely see growing challenges to their power.

The image featured in this article is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. No changes were made to the original image, which was taken by Daniel Schwen and can be found here.

Molly Morrow


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