CHICAGO (CBS) — The head of the city’s largest police union retired from the Chicago Police Department on Tuesday, a day after taking the hot seat at a disciplinary hearing that could have resulted in his firing.
Chicago Fraternal Order of Police President John Catanzara filed his retirement papers Tuesday morning at Chicago Police Headquarters. He has said he will remain in his position as president of the Chicago FOP, the union representing rank-and-file CPD officers. The union’s constitution does include a provision for the union’s board to keep him as president even if he is no longer employed by CPD.
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Catanzara, who has repeatedly clashed with Mayor Lori Lightfoot, also has said he will be running for mayor in 2023. He announced his plan to retire Monday, at the end of the first of three days of evidentiary hearings on disciplinary charges before the Chicago Police Board. Catanzara called the hearing a “charade.”
“We already knew what the outcome was going to be. There was never a possibility on God’s green Earth that I was ever going to give this mayor the ability to utter the words, ‘I fired him.’ It wasn’t going to happen, period,” Catanzara said Monday evening.
The Police Board said it has set a status hearing for Catanzara’s disciplinary case for Tuesday morning. If Catanzara retires from the Chicago Police Department, the hearings will not continue – as the Police Board no longer has jurisdiction for disciplinary action once an officer resigns from the force.
Catanzara wrote ‘Finally!!! Let’s go Brandon” in the remarks section of his retirement paperwork. The message “Let’s go Brandon” is a popular phrase in right-wing circles, as a stand-in for swearing at President Joe Biden. The line has become conservative code for something far more vulgar: “F— Joe Biden.” It started at an October 2 NASCAR race at the Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama. Brandon Brown, a 28-year-old driver, had won his first Xfinity Series and was being interviewed by an NBC Sports reporter. The crowd behind him was chanting something at first difficult to make out. The reporter suggested they were chanting “Let’s go, Brandon” to cheer the driver. But it became increasingly clear they were saying: “F— Joe Biden.” When the president visited a construction site in Elk Grove Village last month to promote his vaccinate-or-test mandate, protesters deployed both three-word phrases.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot issued a statement on Catanzara’s decision to retire amid the disciplinary hearing against him.
“Not a surprise, that a man of hate—as John Catanzara has demonstrated over and over that he is—would run away from accountability. The evidence of his guilt was overwhelming as set forth in the hearing and he clearly sought to avoid the eventual reckoning by resigning, under investigation, and then divesting the Police Board of jurisdiction
“Our police department must be populated by officers who work hard every day to embrace their oath to serve and protect, work to form meaningful relationships with community members, and embrace constitutional policing as the only path forward. And the Department needs leadership at all levels who live these values every day.
“We cannot move beyond the very difficult circumstances that we have all endured these last 20 months unless we reject hate in all its forms, and stand united around our common values as a city that is always stronger when we work together as neighbors.”
As CBS 2 Investigator Megan Hickey reported, Catanzara was facing the prospect of being fired, accused of violating 11 CPD rules. The disciplinary charges against him include insubordination, incompetency, disobedience, participating in partisan political activities, and making a false report.
Attorneys representing the Police Department focused Monday on Catanzara’s “offensive” public social media posts between 2016 and 2018. They also focused on allegations that he made two false police reports.
Back in July 2018, then-police Supt. Eddie Johnson surprised many residents when he walked arm-in-arm with the Rev. Michael Pfleger and the Rev. Jesse Jackson during an anti-violence march in July 2018 that shut down the Dan Ryan Expressway.
Charging documents show Catanzara generated an incident report – using someone else’s beat number – to accuse Johnson of trespassing. He then made another report in November 2018 against another top CPD official for obstructing justice when he canceled the first report, charging documents say.
On Monday, Catanzara defended making both of those reports – considering himself a “whistleblower.”
He was also presented with his own public social media posts – the basis for more than a dozen charges. Charging documents call the posts “disrespectful,” “obscene,” “biased against Muslims,” and even “threatening.”
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Records show the posts include statements suggesting killing people and suggesting officers stop chasing offenders.
In one post Catanzara referred to Muslims, saying, “Savages they all deserve a bullet.”
Catanzara was asked questions Monday about each post – which he says were made as a private citizen and not in his position as a Chicago Police officer.
He blamed “Facebook trolls” for provoking him, and said he felt compelled to defend himself and his fellow officers.
The Police Board does not allow any recordings of these hearings. But Catanzara did address the start of the termination hearing in a public video on Friday.
“The Mayor has decided she wanted a circus. She’s made it very clear that I am not going to win this case; that I will not wear a uniform again,” Catanzara said. “I guess we shall see if the member of the Police Board will do the right thing or if they will do what they’re told.”
Monday was the first of three days’ worth of hearings on these charges. The nine-member Police Board isn’t expected to come to a decision until early next year.
Catanzara has been suspended multiple times since joining the department in 1995. According to the Invisible Institute, a public website that contains all police misconduct records, Catanzara was disciplined at least eight times for misconduct between 2003 and 2013:
- He was once suspended for 30 days following an investigation into allegations of domestic abuse in 2003.
- He was reprimanded following an investigation into an allegation of excessive force in 2003.
- He was suspended for six days following an investigation into allegations of conduct unbecoming an officer by associating with a felon while off-duty in 2003.
- He was suspended for 20 days following an investigation into allegations of conduct unbecoming by associating with a felon while off-duty in 2004.
- He was suspended for 10 days for insubordination in 2005.
- He was suspended for 15 days following an investigation into an allegation of a personnel violation at an Old Town tavern in 2007.
- He was suspended for 20 days after the Chicago Police Board found him guilty of violating department rules by working as a private security guard while on medical leave for a back injury in 2008. Supt. Garry McCarthy had sought to fire him.
- He was suspended for 10 days following an investigation into miscellaneous personnel violations in 2013.
According to the Chicago Tribune, then-Police Supt. Jody Weis sought to fire Catanzara in 2008, accusing him of failing to follow orders to complete a psychological exam, but the Chicago Police Board cleared Catanzara of wrongdoing.
On Wednesday, a group of 38 aldermen introduced a resolution urging Catanzara to resign over his comments about the storming of the U.S. Capitol earlier this month, or for the FOP board to force him out. In an interview on the day of the Capitol riot, Catanzara falsely claimed there was no violence from those who stormed the building.
Catanzara later apologized for what he called “a lapse in judgment,” after he defended the rioters in an interview with WBEZ public radio.
In that interview, Catanzara said he understood the motives behind the storming of the Capitol, which led to at least five deaths, including a U.S. Capitol Police officer who died a day after Catanzara falsely claimed “There’s no, obviously, violence in this crowd.”
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Catanzara was elected to lead the Fraternal Order of Police while under investigation in 2020, and had been stripped of his police powers over the report he filed against Johnson.