Annie Sweeney, Alice Yin and Jeremy Gorner
CHICAGO — The controversial head of Chicago’s largest police union faces firing this week, four years after officials launched an investigation into allegations he posted inflammatory statements on social media, including some advocating violence, while serving as a Chicago police officer.
Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7 President John Catanzara, whom rank- and-file officers elected as their union head while he was under investigation, faces dozens of Police Department rule violations connected to 18 allegations at the hearing slated to begin Monday morning at the Chicago Police Board.
The public showdown is a long time coming for an officer who has largely escaped serious punishment despite a lengthy history of complaints filed against him since he became a Chicago cop in 1995.
Since the public announcement of the findings a year ago, Catanzara has continued to make controversial remarks, including his initial sympathetic comment about the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. There has been a widespread and steady drumbeat of calls for his resignation or firing — not to mention a rebuke from national FOP leadership.
More recently, he has embarked on a bitter and angry battle with the city of Chicago over mandatory vaccines for city workers, a fight also being waged by several other police union leaders in major cities.
Catanzara is among a contentious class of policing union leaders who have become increasingly combative, butting heads with mayors on reform and taking to social media to air grievances.
The comments that led to discipline charges against Catanzara include political statements he made while in uniform, references to Muslims as “savages” and other statements that were sexual in nature. In addition to the social media allegations, a department investigation concluded that Catanzara filed two false police reports against two top police officials, including former Superintendent Eddie Johnson, whom he accused of trespassing during a planned anti-violence march.
In documents released to the Chicago Tribune late Friday in an open records request, more details of the Johnson report were made public. Along with Johnson, Catanzara also named the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the Rev. Michael Pfleger as offenders because they were with Johnson at the march.
Catanzara’s attorney, in an interview last week, raised his client’s First Amendment rights.
The question in a discipline hearing, however, is whether Catanzara’s speech and actions violated numerous Police Department rules that guide its policing mission, including that officers are fair and unbiased.
In the end, the Civilian Office of Police Accountability found that Catanzara’s speech proved he had discredited the department and could not serve impartially. It recommended his firing in a 29-page summary report that also cited his “continued insistence that his behavior was justified.” It noted the diversity of both the city of Chicago and the department in explaining its decision.
“Officer Catanzara’s statements have the potential to create problems in maintaining the discipline and harmony in the Department,” said the June 2020 report. “… Officer Catanzara can not be trusted to support the Department’s mission.”
Pressure for reform
The charges against Catanzara, with the recommended firing, were filed earlier this year by Chicago police Superintendent David Brown after two lengthy investigations, one by the Civilian Office of Police Accountability and a second by the department’s Bureau of Internal Affairs.
Catanzara is expected to testify at the quasi-legal administrative proceeding overseen by a hearing officer, with attorneys for the city representing the department.
A final decision by the nine-member Police Board is not expected until early next year.
The potential firing of Catanzara is an unusual example of a police union leader facing severe consequences for taking what experts say are increasingly combative public stances in the wake of sharp, sustained criticism and pressure for the profession of policing to reform and change.
Earlier this month, Edward Mullins, the former president of a New York City police union, retired from the department the same day officials announced he’d been found guilty of two disciplinary charges, including violating social media rules when he posted tweets targeting the mayor’s daughter, The New York Times reported.
One expert said the two cases could signal more scrutiny for police union leaders who have traditionally been “untouchable.”
“I think we are probably likely to see a wave of accountability,” said Kirk Burkhalter, a former New York City Police Department detective and law professor at New York Law School. “It will be interesting to see how this plays out.”
A litany of social media clashes
The allegations against Catanzara date back to November 2016 when he allegedly made a statement on Facebook related to the shooting of a Wayne State University police officer and a suspect who was still at large.
“Wtf,” the post read, according to the charging documents. “Its (sic) seriously time to kill these m—–f——.”
What followed over the next two years, according to the charges, was a litany of other statements and clashes on social media, which all formed the basis of the move to fire him.
In one of his most denounced allegations, he reacted to a video of a woman being stoned with this comment:
“Savages They all deserve a bullet. This is the reason MANY Americans are very leary (sic) of a large segment of Muslim’s (sic) especially those who support Sharia law. … This is the life many want to bring to this country.”
When Catanzara, who gave a statement in September 2018 for the investigation, was asked by an investigator if he was referring to “all Muslims,” this was his response, according to a transcript provided to the Tribune through an open records request:
“No. The Sharia law savages that think it’s okay to stone somebody to death for getting raped. It’s a pretty archaic way of thinking,”
Sharia is a set of principles in Islam that has a diverse range of interpretations, some stricter than others, but no schools of Islam call for punishing someone for being raped, said Asifa Quraishi-Landes, head of Muslim Advocates, a civil rights organization.
Catanzara in December 2017 posted a photo of himself in uniform in front of a Chicago police squad car with an American flag with the caption: “Rahm Free City 2019 Make Chicago Great Again DRAIN THE CITY HALL SWAMP #MAGA.” In the charges, the city argues that the posting of the image violated a rule that prohibits officers from engaging in partisan political campaign or activity.
Tim Grace, Catanzara’s attorney, when asked for comment on the case, pointed to his client’s First Amendment rights.
“The First Amendment is not about allowing speech that you agree with, the First Amendment is about allowing speech period,” Grace said. “And we should not invoke First Amendment … limitations based on whether or not we agree with the speech, and that is what this is about.”
The COPA summary report, though, noted that the government has broader powers to regulate the speech of those it employs, citing court rulings. The summary report detailed a balancing test that was done with each allegation to consider this.
Ed Yohnka, a spokesman with the Illinois chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the First Amendment does not protect Catanzara from being fired because his employment as an officer is not a right.
“There are jobs that come with a higher level of scrutiny,” Yohnka said. “A person who carries a badge and a gun definitely has a higher scrutiny than someone again who is just posting memes on Facebook from their uncle.”
The charges Catanzara faces also include those from an Internal Affairs investigation into his filing of two false police reports. According to Internal Affairs Division documents, Catanzara filed his report against former superintendent Johnson, Pfleger and Jackson, in part, after hearing Illinois state troopers he “plays softball with” complain about Johnson. He also stated he believed the anti-violence march was a political event.
Department officials, when interviewed, however, confirmed that then-Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner had approved the march and that it was on the department schedule for the day.
For this, Brown, Chicago’s current police superintendent, also found Catanzara to be insubordinate as well as incompetent and inattentive to his duties.
While these investigations were pending and he was relieved of his police powers, Catanzara rose to the top of the FOP, winning a runoff election in a contentious 2020 race. He earned close to 55% of the vote from current and retired officers.
Catanzara, by this time, had amassed dozens of other complaints. According to documents obtained by the Tribune, he faced at least 35 complaints, many for personnel violations. He’s been suspended several times in his career, and past police superintendents have tried twice to fire him.
His current disciplinary situation became public in December 2020 when the Chicago Police Board announced that Brown had recommended a one-year suspension for Catanzara. COPA officials disagreed and pushed for his firing.
Brown was eventually overruled and in January 2021, he filed the formal documents to fire Catanzara with the Police Board.
But even before Brown announced his decision, Catanzara was under fire again, this time for making comments to a local radio station that were sympathetic to a mob of supporters of former President Donald Trump who stormed the U.S. Capitol building on Jan. 6.
Calls for Catanzara’s removal continued, with nearly 80 organizations issuing a letter demanding his firing. Catanzara responded by saying anyone concerned about his tenure as FOP president should focus on the escalating violence in Chicago, and he has shown no signs of leaving the FOP.
This year, he secured a contract for the FOP, the first since 2017, that granted rank-and-file officers a total of 20% in raises along with some accountability measures. It was a rare bright spot in his relationship with Mayor Lori Lightfoot.
Battle with city leadership
Since Catanzara assumed the FOP’s top post, he has repeatedly butted heads with city leadership, including Lightfoot. But no flashpoint between Catanzara and the mayor has been greater than their ongoing battle over her COVID-19 vaccination policy.
The feud has escalated to the point of dueling lawsuits from both sides as they condemned each other in news conferences and social media videos. Recently, Lightfoot has brushed off Catanzara as “racist,” while he described her as a “dictator.”
Under Lightfoot’s directive, all city employees had to report their vaccination status by Oct. 15 and must get fully vaccinated by the end of the year. In the meantime, unvaccinated workers can get regular COVID-19 testing. Catanzara has put out YouTube videos encouraging officers to disobey the city, predicting that such a mass defiance would deplete the police force by 50%.
That has not materialized. And should Catanzara be fired for misconduct, he could lose credibility as the face of opposition against Lightfoot’s vaccination mandate. His directions for FOP members to disobey the city and brace for consequences could be less persuasive coming from someone who lost his job for doing just that.
But if Catanzara were allowed to keep his badge and gun as a working cop, that would send a message that Chicago police do not care about the safety and dignity of Muslims, said Eric Naing, spokesman for Muslim Advocates, one of the chief organizations behind a 78-group letter calling for Catanzara’s firing.
Naing said it would be just as concerning if Catanzara gets fired yet stays on as union president.
“Frankly, he endorsed violence against Muslims,” Naing said. “Having someone leading the Chicago police union who also has said these horrible things and has basically endorsed hate against this community, that would be very destructive to the relations between the community and the police.”
Catanzara’s potential ouster as a Chicago police officer could also martyr him to supporters in the FOP who see him as an outspoken foe of the Lightfoot administration. And the power to prevent Catanzara from continuing his tenure or seeking election again rests with the union, those familiar with the process said. It would likely demand an internal move, such as charges brought by a member that Catanzara is no longer in good standing, to remove him, they said.
“Does the city of Chicago have enough dissident FOP members that would say, ‘Let’s get him out of here?’” labor attorney John Toomey said. “I think it’s really kind of just the other way around right now. I think he’s kind of revered for his stand against the mayor and all this COVID business.”
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