Marco DiFranco, a longtime undercover officer with the Chicago Police Department, died of COVID-19 early Thursday, officials said.
His death from complications of the coronavirus is the first in the department, which has seen more than 60 confirmed cases of COVID-19.
“His sacrifice underscores the threats that are faced by public safety employees who are not, by nature of their profession, allowed to shelter in place, shelter at home,” interim Chicago Police Supt. Charlie Beck said at a City Hall news conference, where was joined by the Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Kevin Graham, president of the Fraternal Order of Police.
The 50-year-old officer, a married father of two children, was on the department since 1998 and assigned to the Narcotics Division based in the Homan Square facility. Over his career, DiFranco earned more than 150 department awards, Beck said, including the Superintendent’s Honorable Mention and a special commendation.
Officer Steve Laureto has worked with DiFranco’s brother Sal — also a Chicago police officer in narcotics. Marco DiFranco was Sal’s older brother and the reason Sal got into policing.
“He showed Sal how to treat people with respect,” Laureto said. “People in the inner city look at police as the bad guys, but if you give them respect they will give you respect back.”
Marco DiFranco was known as a “grinder,” a hardworking cop, and a “lunch-pail guy” who’d rib other officers for spending too much on fast food. His parents were from Sicily and he visited when he was younger, Laureto said.
“He liked Italian sports cars and he was a big fan of Mario Andretti,” the famous Italian-born driver.
Former Narcotics Cmdr. Jim O’Grady spotted Marco DiFranco’s talent and pulled him out of the Austin District to become an undercover cop.
“He had the ability to buy [drugs] consistently for over a decade,” Laureto said. “The burnout rate is incredible. But he was still doing it.”
DiFranco was creative in how he dressed and he “told guys you have to stick to your story and you have to become this character. To me, it’s the most dangerous job and hardest skill,” Laureto said.
Beck said DiFranco is survived by his wife and two children, ages 7 and 10. HIs family, as well as his brother, are in quarantine, Beck said.
It was not immediately clear if DiFranco’s family would receive line-of-duty death benefits.
“We’re looking at all circumstances,” Beck said. “It’s way too early to do that at this point.”
DiFranco had a pre-existing condition, cystic fibrosis, a hereditary disease that affects the lungs, Laureto said.
Laureto said DiFranco’s brother was concerned about him going to work, but he didn’t receive clearance from the department to go on medical leave so he kept working.
Ald. Nick Sposato (38th), whose Northwest Side ward is home to scores of Chicago police officers, said the officer’s death should be considered a line-of-duty death with the honors and benefits that includes.
DiFranco is the second city employee to die from the virus, Lightfoot said. On Wednesday, the mayor announced the first death of a city employee but offered no details.
She said she spoke with DiFranco’s widow and offered her condolences.
Dr. Allison Arwady, who also was at the news conference, said she knows of no other first responder in Illinois who has died of COVID-19.
DiFranco was hospitalized this past weekend. Laureto said DiFranco started feeling sick more than a week ago.
Because he worked undercover, DiFranco had minimal public contact, Beck said. Lightfoot said he was in a one-officer car.
Graham said the police union is “truly devastated” and urged officers feeling depressed to reach out to the employee-assistance program.
John Catanzara, who finished first in the first round of a recent election for president of the Fraternal Order of Police, said he fears the death could be the first of many in the ranks of the Chicago Police Department.
“The fact that we were not prepared in any way, shape or form for this is kind of ridiculous. Even if the officer did have pre-existing conditions, if we had proper masks, proper sanitizers, there could have been precautions taken much sooner for people with those conditions so they weren’t so directly exposed to this stuff,” he said.
Lightfoot said the notion that the police department was unprepared “flies in the face of the reality.” She called Catanzara someone who is “uninformed” and “unconnected” to what is going on with the crisis.
“The Chicago Police Department from the beginning of this crisis was one of the first to receive thousands of pieces of equipment,” she said.