Controversial president of Chicago police union officially leaves department — while eyeing Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s job

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CHICAGO — John Catanzara officially retired from the Chicago Police Department on Tuesday, one day after the embattled head of the city’s largest police union dramatically revealed his plans to leave the department in the midst of a disciplinary case and perhaps run for mayor.

Within 24 hours, the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7 President went from the brink of an unceremonious firing to announcing he would likely seek the top political office in Chicago, a move that, if it happens, means the bombastic Catanzara’s opinions on policing and sometimes controversial views on city affairs will likely grow even louder.

His lawyer, Tim Grace, confirmed Catanzara’s departure at a status hearing of the Chicago Police Board on Tuesday, where the union figure faced a hearing for allegations of making numerous inflammatory social media statements as well as naming high-ranking command staff in arrest reports. It effectively ended termination proceedings that were months in the planning, which had started Monday with an unapologetic Catanzara on the stand.

In a Facebook post Tuesday morning, Catanzara, an outspoken supporter of former President Donald Trump, shared a photo of his police retirement form that included the words, “Finally!!! Let’s go Brandon” in the remarks section, a phrase that has become code in right-wing circles as a profane insult to President Joe Biden.

When the first day of an expected three-day hearing ended Monday, Catanzara abruptly announced he was resigning, calling the proceedings a “farce” and disparaging Mayor Lori Lightfoot and other officials. He has pledged to not only remain as head of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7, but seek Lightfoot’s job in 2023.

“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 told reporters Monday evening.

He added that he has no qualms about leading a police union after stepping down as an officer, saying that “the city has to deal with me” as Chicago’s FOP president.

As union president, Catanzara has dedicated more resources toward flexing the FOP’s political muscles than most who have had his seat. In 2020, he boasted about the union giving the maximum donation to Kim Foxx’s opponent in the Cook County state’s attorney’s race, vowing that the FOP would be just as major a player in city elections as the Chicago Teachers Union.

The FOP ended up backing the loser, however, with their endorsed Republican candidate Pat O’Brien conceding hours after polls closed. Foxx was heavily buoyed by a wave of support in Chicago, where her stances on criminal justice reform outweighed O’Brien’s law-and-order message.

Still, after the election ended, Catanzara told the Chicago Tribune that Chicago hadn’t heard the last of the FOP. With his Monday announcement that he could seek the mayor’s office, it appears the police union will be in the political spotlight more than ever.

It would happen at a time when the city is facing record violence, demands from neighborhoods to improve and professionalize policing, and the department is struggling to meet court-ordered reform deadlines to correct years of civil rights abuses.

Most recently, the FOP garnered national attention for being one of several police unions in major cities to defy vaccination mandates. That led to dueling lawsuits between Lightfoot and Catanzara, which are pending, as well as a temporary restraining order curtailing the union president from publicly encouraging members to defy her directive to get the shot or face discipline including dismissal.

Catanzara would be the first major police figure to seek the mayor’s office since former police Superintendent Garry McCarthy’s unsuccessful bid to succeed former Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Kirk Burkhalter, a former New York City police detective and now law professor at New York Law School, said the transition of an elected police union leader to political candidate means the union’s positions could become more commonly perceived as representative of all Chicago police, right down to individual officers responding to calls.

“Civilians hear rhetoric that comes from union officials and they believe they speak for all the rank and file. That is a natural belief,” said Burkhalter, who added that it was not necessarily true because not all unions do regular polling to find out how their members feel on given issues.

The risk of having a union speak for all members is that they will mischaracterize individual officers' feelings on critical points, including reform, he added.

Chicago labor attorney John Toomey said Catanzara’s move to preempt a potential firing is not unusual for employees worried about their next career move — especially if it’s seeking political office.

“If that is really his goal — mayor — this was a shrewd move,” Toomey said. “If he has a political future, this has kind of preserved that. Whereas if he went to the hearing and was found guilty, they’d say, ‘Well, he’s already been branded a loser.’ ”

A potential Lightfoot-Catanzara showdown in 2023 would likely place law enforcement issues front and center in Chicago as crime and police accountability have become a major political focus in American cities. In New York City, Mayor-elect Eric Adams won election this month while focusing on a tough-on-crime platform as an ex-cop, though unlike Catanzara, he also supports some police reform measures and distanced himself from police unions.

The same night in Minneapolis, voters rejected a measure to replace that city’s Police Department, while progressive Michelle Wu won the mayoral race in Boston after calling to reexamine how police funds are allocated.

Catanzara, as a Trump supporter, stands out from other serious mayoral contenders in urban America, where the Republican incumbent resoundingly lost in 2020. Still, Catanzara said last year he wasn’t worried about turning off voters in Chicago.

“That’s OK,” he said at the time when asked about whether his goals for the FOP were too ambitious. “I’ve been told considering that I was going to be sitting in the seat I’m in now would be very ambitious a year ago but here I am. I don’t believe in failure.”

Catanzara, elected by rank-and-file officers as their union head while he was under investigation, faced dozens of CPD rule violations connected to 18 allegations of inflammatory statements and the filing of false police reports. Investigators concluded those allegations had rendered him unable to be impartial in policing and also impeded the mission of the department, leading to the hearing on his firing this week.

The comments in question ranged from posting “Its (sic) seriously time to kill these (expletives)” after the shooting of a Wayne State University police officer, to writing “Savages they all deserve a bullet,” in reference to a video of a woman being stoned overseas, drawing the ire of Muslim and civil rights organizations across the U.S.

The allegedly false police reports were subject of a separate investigation by the department’s bureau of internal affairs, which alleged that Catanzara filed a questionable report against then-Superintendent Eddie 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 allegedly filed a second report against his former commander, Ronald Pontecore, after he ordered his staff to delete the Johnson report from the department’s computer system.

In explaining why he waited until the middle his disciplinary hearing to announce his retirement, Catanzara said he wanted to get his claims that Pontecore was “obstructing justice” on the record. Pontecore has not been accused of wrongdoing by the city.