Controversial Chicago police union leader, facing possible dismissal, says he will quit the department and run for mayor

Catanzara later told the Chicago Sun-Times he plans to stay on as head of the union that represents over 17,000 current and former rank-and-file officers.

SHARE Controversial Chicago police union leader, facing possible dismissal, says he will quit the department and run for mayor
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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 evening, Nov. 15, 2021.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Facing possible dismissal from the Chicago Police Department, the controversial head of the city’s largest police union abruptly announced Monday that he plans to retire and run for mayor.

John Catanzara, a veteran patrol officer elected in May 2020 as president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7, made the announcement during the first day of testimony in disciplinary proceedings.

Catanzara stands accused of a string of departmental rule violations, including making a series of obscene and inflammatory social media posts and generating false reports against superior officers, most notably former Supt. Eddie Johnson.

During Monday’s hearing at the headquarters of the Chicago Police Board, city lawyers depicted him as an insubordinate officer who has “thumbed his nose” at directives and police leaders.

But Catanzara’s attorneys presented him as a “classic whistleblower” whose complaints about high-ranking officers have fallen on deaf ears. While they conceded that his social media posts were at times “vulgar” and “unsettling,” his lawyers insisted his words were “protected First Amendment speech.”

The fiery union leader, who has most recently clashed with Mayor Lori Lightfoot over her vaccine mandate, faced hours of cross-examination, and his lawyers announced that he had planned to present his own closing arguments.

But toward the end of the hearing, Catanzara’s attorneys told Lauren Freeman, the hearing officer overseeing the case, that his client wanted to provide a statement. Catanzara then announced that he planned to file paperwork Tuesday morning to retire.

“This has all been a farce from the get-go,” he said of the disciplinary case. “The decision’s already been made.”

The hearing was then suspended as both sides met with Freeman. She later announced that a conference call would be held at 11 a.m. Tuesday to determine what happens next.

As he left Monday evening, Catanzara said he was serious about retiring and plans to run for mayor.

“I’m running against the mayor to change this damn city and the direction it’s on,” he told reporters. “Because she is literally not steering it into an iceberg, she is literally telling them full steam ahead. So something’s gotta change and apparently nobody else seems too concerned about it, so we’ll see where we go from here.”

Catanzara previously teased a mayoral campaign in a YouTube video last month, flashing a poster that signaled his intention to run in 2023.

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John Catanzara displayed an apparent campaign poster in a YouTube video on Oct. 15, 2021.

A mayoral spokesman didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Catanzara later told the Sun-Times he plans to stay on as head of the union that represents over 17,000 current and former rank-and-file officers. The union’s bylaws allow for elected positions to be held by retired cops who are collecting their pensions.

He and his attorney, Tim Grace, added that his pension was never at risk. The only thing that could jeopardizethat would be a felony conviction, Grace said.

The flurry of developments happened after Catanzara spent a good portion of the hearing defending a series of damning Facebook posts that city attorneys said “clearly reflect poorly upon the [police] department.”

In one post, Catanzara appeared to promote violence against Muslims as he commented on a video that showed a woman being stoned to death. “Savages they all deserve a bullet,” he wrote in January 2017.

Another post, which was published in December 2017 and showed him wearing his police uniform and posing in front of a department vehicle, included a political message slamming then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel and promoting then-President Donald Trump.

“Rahm Free City 2019 Make Chicago Great Again DRAIN THE CITY HALL SWAMP #MAGA,” wrote Catanzara, a staunch Trump supporter who faced calls for his resignation earlier this year when he defended the mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

On Monday, he said he regrets posting that message because he wishes Emanuel was still in power.

But much of the hearing focused on allegations stemming from Catanzara’s decision to file police reports in 2018 naming Johnson and his commander in the Chicago Lawn District at the time, Ronald Pontecore.

The report targeting Johnson, which was filed that July and also named the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the Rev. Michael Pfleger, accused them all of trespassingon state land earlier that month when they participated in a peaceful protest that shut down the Dan Ryan Expressway.

During questioning, Catanzara said he made the report after seeing news reports about the march and hearing chatter from Illinois State Police troopers about what happened. He also acknowledged that he used a desk sergeant’s code to file the report while he was off-duty.

Pontecore later testified that Catanzara failed to thoroughly investigate or notify ISP before making the report, adding that Catanzara improperly listed himself as the complainant.

Now the commander of the Albany Park District, Pontecore said the report was revised at his direction after it was brought to his attention.

That move prompted Catanzara to file another report that November that accused Pontecore of obstructing justice. That report was also made with a code reserved for a desk sergeant, a position Pontecore noted that Catanzara has never held.

Throughout the hearing, Catanzara framed himself as a good cop who has tried unsuccessfully to stand up against high-level misconduct. Before announcing his intention to retire, he took a final shot at the brass.

“I pretty much had it in my head that I wanted it on the record that Cmdr. Pontecore and others committed felonies,” he said. “And I got what I came for.”

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