Chicago police union head to retire from PD amid disciplinary hearing

FOP President John Catanzara called the proceedings "a farce"

By Alice Yin and Annie Sweeney
Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — The controversial head of Chicago’s largest police union said Monday he will retire from the Chicago Police Department — an announcement that came just after he took the stand in a disciplinary hearing that could have ended with his firing.

John Catanzara, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7, was unapologetic during his testimony over his history of offensive social media posts and later said he felt the outcome of the proceedings against him was predetermined.

Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7 President John Catanzara speaks to reporters as he walks out of a Chicago Police Board hearing in the Loop, Monday, Nov. 15, 2021, in Chicago. Catanzara said Monday he'll retire from the force amid a disciplinary hearing that could have ended with his firing.
Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7 President John Catanzara speaks to reporters as he walks out of a Chicago Police Board hearing in the Loop, Monday, Nov. 15, 2021, in Chicago. Catanzara said Monday he'll retire from the force amid a disciplinary hearing that could have ended with his firing. (Ashlee Rezin/Chicago Sun-Times via AP)

“It was pretty evident very early on that this cake was already baked,” Catanzara said, “I am going to be at HR first thing in the morning, and I am going to be retiring. I will no longer be a Chicago police officer. ... No one will be able to touch me, not you, not this police board.”

“This has all been a farce from the get-go,” he added, later saying: “There was never a possibility under God’s green earth that I was ever going to give this mayor the ability to utter the words, ‘I fired him.’”

Catanzara said he went through the first day of the hearing because he wanted to get his claims on record that his former commander, Ronald Pontecore, was “obstructing justice” when he canceled a police report Cantanzara filed against former Superintendent Eddie Johnson.

Catanzara spent a good deal of Monday unapologetically answering questions from attorneys over his past conduct and social media postings, at one point saying: “I don’t deny that the language used would be categorized as crass or vulgar to many people, but if that was a fireable offense, our mayor would be fired.”

When pressed on specific comments by attorneys for the city, Catanzara refused to back down from his remarks, insisting he was either joking or stating facts.

For example, when asked about a Facebook post in November 2016 in which he wrote “Its (sic) seriously time to kill these m-----f------,” after the shooting of a Wayne State University police officer and a suspect who was still at large, Catanzara said he was referring to the death penalty.

“I was hoping when they catch him, they kill him because I’m sick of police officers being killed,” Catanzara said to Jim Lydon, the attorney for the city. “How about you?”

When confronted with another post in which he told a Facebook user to “keep listening for that knock on the door,” Catanzara said he was talking about legal action.

“I didn’t have to clarify anything,” Catanzara said. “I knew what I meant by it.”

The Chicago Police Board hearing was expected to last three days. At its conclusion, the mayoral-appointed police board was to consider the evidence and decide which of the charges were sustained and, if so, what punishment was appropriate. A determination was not expected until early next year.

Chicago Police Superintendent David Brown filed charges in January to fire Catanzara, citing a long list of alleged infractions that brought discredit to the department and impeded its mission.

The quasi-legal proceeding comes after a year in which Catanzara, an officer since 1995, has continued to make headlines, including for fighting the city’s current COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

At the hearing, attorneys for the city painted him as just that — an attention-seeking officer willing to use profane and insulting language on social media and even file bogus case reports, without proper investigation, against the highest ranking department members, including then-Superintendent Johnson for his participation in a 2018 peace march on the Dan Ryan Expressway.

“This case is about an officer, John Catanzara, who violated the rules of conduct in efforts to bring attention to himself and in the process thumbed his nose at superior officers and department directors along the way,” Lydon said. “The words and images John Catanzara uses will mostly speak for themselves.”

But Tim Grace, Catanzara’s attorney, cast his client as an officer who for years has been willing to speak out about wrongs and challenge his commanders, all in an effort to hold them accountable and make the department better.

Grace also asserted that Catanzara, while perhaps a “nonconformist,” was engaging in the kind of truth-telling that the current mandated police reform in Chicago demands.

“We will challenge you to find anybody who is more compassionate or cares more about the individual officers, the citizens of our city and the institution of the Chicago Police Department,” Grace said, likening the his client to a Paul Revere figure sending a warning about his department superiors.

As for Catanzara’s comments on Facebook, Grace acknowledged they were “vulgar,” but also argued that speech not be curtailed.

“More speech is always better speech,” Grace said. “Either you believe in free speech or you don’t.”

Catanzara, who was briefly under a restraining order last month forbidding him to publicly encourage union members to defy city vaccine mandate rules, said at one point in the hearing: “I am sitting in this chair as the spokesperson for thousands of officers who elected me. ... I’m just the one taking the bullets and I’m OK with that.”

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 related to the inflammatory statements and to the filing of the false police reports.

The public showdown is a long time coming for an officer who has largely escaped serious punishment despite a lengthy history of complaints.

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, though he faces no discipline for those statements. Nonetheless, there have been widespread calls for his resignation or firing — not to mention a rebuke from national FOP leadership.

The dismissal action against Catanzara stem, in part from a Civilian Office of Police Accountability investigation that probed Catanzara’s social media postings, concluding that the speech had discredited the Police Department and proved he could not serve impartially.

“Officer Catanzara’s statements have the potential to create problems in maintaining the discipline and harmony in the Department,” said the June 2020 report.

The false police reports were subject of a separate investigation by the department’s Bureau of Internal Affairs, which alleged that Catanzara, who’s been relieved of his police powers, filed a false report against Johnson in 2018 accusing him of breaking the law by participating in and allowing an anti-violence march on the Dan Ryan Expressway.

Catanzara then filed a second report against his former commander, Pontecore, after he ordered his staff to delete the Johnson report from the Police Department’s computer system.

Catanzara has said he filed the police report against Johnson because he didn’t have much faith that filing a complaint against him for a disciplinary infraction would do much good.

During one moment of questioning Monday, Catanzara himself seemed to signal he understood the totality of the disciplinary charges he faces.

When Lydon brought up that he was still a Chicago police officer when he made a certain social media post, Catanzara responded, “I technically still am until this show’s over.”

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