Analysis: Here’s how Chicago’s most powerful police union preserves tradition of problematic leadership

The illustration above was inspired by a scene from a 2019 protest in which Chicago FOP President John Catanzara waved the pro-police “thin blue line” flag outside the George W. Dunne Cook County office building in Chicago and other protest scenes from 2020 amid a resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. (Illustration by Veronica Martinez for Injustice Watch)

Rank-and-file Chicago police officers elected John Catanzara to head the city’s chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police in early May 2020 — just weeks before George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer sparked a national conversation around racism and police brutality. In his first year of office, the new police union president’s many critics say he has repeatedly positioned himself and the union in opposition to efforts to reform the police or address systemic racism.

Catanzara quickly rebuked cops who knelt in solidarity with Black Lives Matter protesters, mocking their actions as “ridiculous” and threatening to expel them from the union. In January, he defended the mob of largely white Trump supporters and white supremacists who stormed the U.S. Capitol, saying they are “entitled to voice their frustration.” He apologized later for the fact that his comments brought “negative attention to our Lodge.

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Timeline: Chicago FOP presidents’ turbulent relationship with race and police reform

Injustice Watch reviewed the tenures of past FOP presidents elected by Chicago police, from the civil rights movement to the Black Lives Matter era. We found a history of police union leaders making inflammatory statements, antagonizing racial justice and police reforms, and shielding allegedly brutal cops from accountability.

And then in the spring, Catanzara said the cop who killed 13-year-old Adam Toledo was “heroic” and described the killing of 22-year-old Anthony Alvarez, shot in the back by another Chicago cop, as “a 100% good shooting.”

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A growing chorus — including dozens of community groups, Chicago city councilmembers, and state lawmakers — have demanded that Catanzara either resign or be fired. The police department, too, has attempted to remove Catanzara.

In February, Police Supt. David Brown suspended Catanzara and filed charges with the Chicago Police Board alleging that he violated nearly a dozen department rules. Some of the charges stem from inflammatory social media posts, including a 2017 Facebook post in which Catanzara referred to Muslims as “savages” who “all deserve a bullet.”

He made the comments in reference to a video of a woman being stoned, also adding that “this is the life many want to bring to this country,” though he later claimed in another post that his comments were not specifically targeting Muslims.

Still, Catanzara’s words are not surprising within the history of the FOP.

(Illustration by Veronica Martinez for Injustice Watch)

Injustice Watch reviewed the tenures of each of the eight past FOP presidents elected by Chicago police and found a pattern of leadership defined by inflammatory public statements, resistance to accountability, and antagonism to racial justice and police reforms. Police union leaders also tend to stand by police officers who have killed civilians, from Fred Hampton and LaTanya Haggerty to Laquan McDonald and Toledo.

Illinois FOP President Chris Southwood said by defending officers’ actions in violent encounters, Catanzara, like his predecessors, is doing exactly what rank-and-file cops elected him to do.

“That’s his job as the president of Chicago Lodge 7,” Southwood said, “to stand up for his membership, especially in situations where they’re being portrayed as doing something wrong or terrible.”

“All I did was follow the lead of previous presidents”

Veronica Martinez for Injustice Watch

The defining issues of Dean Angelo Sr.’s three-year tenure as FOP president was the police killing of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald and the subsequent calls for reform. Angelo staunchly opposed the demands emanating from a wave of protests, blaming the “anti-police movement” for cratering member morale and jeopardizing public safety. Nonetheless, Angelo was voted out of office in 2017 by members who found him too accommodating. (Illustration by Veronica Martinez for Injustice Watch)

Our research spanned six decades, from the civil rights movement to the Black Lives Matter era. We reviewed dozens of news clips, FOP newsletters, academic studies, and interviewed experts who shed light on FOP presidents’ problematic history. Retired Chicago Police Department Sgt. Shawn Kennedy, the information officer for the National Association of Black Law Enforcement Officers, said the problem has deep roots.

“When you look at modern-day policing, you have to look at the foundation in which law enforcement was built upon,” Kennedy said. “It was built upon systemic racism and white supremacy, so when you look at police unions, they are there to maintain the status quo.”

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Many Black officers don’t feel represented by Chicago Lodge 7, Kennedy said. In addition to actions such as endorsing Donald Trump as president, the union has previously backed hiring policies that have helped prevent Black officers from joining the force and uphold a majority white union membership.

Dean Angelo Sr., the sixth president of the FOP, said many officers don’t feel represented because they don’t realize everything that is done by the union to secure their livelihood.

“The purpose of your job as the head of a union is to protect the greater number of membership,” Angelo said. “I’m not saying they didn’t experience racism, but I don’t know that it was 25 or 30 years of systemic racism that they faced. I tend to look at that with questionable eyes.”

In this Nov. 24, 2015 file photo, Dean Angelo Sr., then-Fraternal Order of Police Lodge #7 president, talks to reporters after a bond hearing for Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke on murder charges in the killing of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, in Chicago. Angelo, a third-generation officer and the father of another, remained an unyielding defender of the rank-and-file after the release of dashcam video showing Van Dyke shooting McDonald 16 times. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast, File)

Since the FOP opened its Chicago lodge in 1963, only white men have served as the labor organization’s president. While demographics alone do not determine how police unions function, or their impact, Craig Futterman, a longtime police critic and director of the Civil Rights and Police Accountability Project at the University of Chicago, argues that white police leadership has largely wielded its power in ways that uphold white supremacy and police impunity.

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“There is no enlightened history of police unions and police union leadership,” Futterman said. You have a long history of an overtly racist police union and overtly racist union leadership that has been protected, served racist interests within the police force, [and] has not represented officers of color and particularly Black officers,” Futterman said.

He and other experts said the presidents’ leadership exemplifies the ways that police unions function as truth-denying bodies that perpetuate violence and act as barriers to police reform, racial reconciliation, and justice.

“The problem with police unions is that it all seems to be very narrow-minded thinking about the best way to protect police, which is essentially to close ranks, not share information, to deny systemic problems,” said Kim Ricardo, a law professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s law school who has represented plaintiffs in police brutality cases and published scholarly writing focused on reparations law and social movements.

Our timeline of Chicago FOP Lodge 7’s past presidents, which you can read here, takes a deeper look at their tenures, focusing on their words and leadership during tenuous times and examining how their actions have strained the relationship between police and Chicago communities, specifically overpoliced Black neighborhoods that have suffered the brunt of state violence and police misconduct.

Chicago’s first police union president started his tenure during the height of the civil rights movement. As organizers like Martin Luther King Jr. put the spotlight on the vicious segregation and police brutality in northern cities, including Chicago, Joseph J. LeFevour aggressively defended officer misconduct and attacked prominent movement leaders. After nine years as president, LeFevour ended his term in 1972. He died in 1984. (Illustration by Veronica Martinez for Injustice Watch)

The first president of the FOP, Joseph Lefevour, accused Martin Luther King Jr. of inciting violence in the city. When King’s assassination sparked riots in Chicago’s Black communities, Lefevour applauded then-Mayor Richard M. Daley’s shoot-to-kill order to police responding to the chaos.

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In the post-civil rights era, the second and longest-tenured FOP president, John Dineen, opposed efforts to diversify the police department. He was one of several union leaders over the years to express support for disgraced former police Cmdr. Jon Burge. And their support has continued, despite mounting evidence that Burge tortured scores of mostly Black men from the early 1970s to the early 1990s.

After former police officer Jason Van Dyke shot and killed McDonald in 2014, Angelo remained one of Van Dyke’s most vocal supporters, even offering him a job as a janitor at the lodge after he was suspended from the force.

“All I did was follow the lead of previous presidents, where we brought in people that were found in circumstances that were headlines and that did not put the officers in the best light,” Angelo said. “Did it turn off the community? The community was already turned off.”

Angelo is the only past FOP president interviewed for this story. Injustice Watch reached out to all living FOP presidents by phone, email, and certified mail.

In a response sent by mail to Injustice Watch, Kevin Graham, FOP president from 2017 to 2020, wrote, “The fraternal order of police works hard for its members and the public. It is essential that workers are treated fairly by their employers.”

Other past presidents either did not respond to requests, were unreachable, or had passed away.

A political playbook

FOP presidents wield considerable power as the leaders of a labor organization that elected officials have to reckon with from city hall in Chicago to Illinois’ statehouse in Springfield. The union represents a formidable political bloc that includes current and retired cops, their families, and others who support police or align with FOP stances.

Peter Pihos, an assistant history professor at the Western Washington University with research in policing, race, and politics in Chicago, said police union leaders’ largest political impact is in helping to push a law-and-order approach to public safety. This makes it harder for politicians to address the root causes of crime in social, economic, and political systems for fear of being called “soft on crime.”

“They really set the marker for others to also use this kind of often dehumanizing, very racist language and frameworks,” Pihos said.

The FOP has a history of endorsing and financially backing political candidates who will protect their membership while opposing those who run on criminal justice reform platforms. The union helped get former State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez elected in 2008 and 2012 before Kim Foxx defeated her in a landslide victory in 2016. Alvarez’s critics alleged she was beholden to police and lenient toward cops accused of wrongdoing. She infamously waited more than a year to charge Van Dyke after he shot McDonald 16 times.

The union also has a history of negotiating contracts that organizers and police accountability experts say make it harder to hold cops accountable, and lobbying lawmakers about policies that govern how the city handles police misconduct complaints, investigations, and records.

“Any type of policy, procedure, [or] law that’s going to strengthen the accountability and transparency of police officers, the unions are going to fight it,” Kennedy said.

However, Angelo said politicians are to blame for the relationship between the police and communities because they choose police department leaders, vote on contracts, and create policy. “Laws are put into place and officers follow it. … You have inexperienced people with no knowledge of the job dictating how the job should be done,” he said.

New deals, same old FOP?

Veronica Martinez for Injustice Watch

John Catanzara is the first FOP president to be elected while stripped of police powers, after having them stripped in 2018 for a report he filed against the former police superintendent. Since joining the police department in 1995, Catanzara has racked up at least 35 misconduct complaints and been suspended about half a dozen times. (Illustration by Veronica Martinez for Injustice Watch)

This summer has seen several major developments in city hall that will have a big impact on the FOP and its members. But even though the changes are seen as progress on several fronts, in many respects, the FOP president has sung a familiar tune.

In late July, the Chicago City Council voted to establish civilian oversight of the police department. On the eve of the vote, Catanzara complained during a public safety committee hearing that giving civilians more power to influence policy “is absolutely absurd and dangerous and reckless” and maintained that the city already has enough layers of police oversight.

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The tentative contract agreement between the FOP and the city also includes reforms that could enhance oversight and accountability. In late August, police officers voted in favor of a new eight-year contract with the city affording them a 20% pay hike over eight years. On Tuesday, the city council workforce committee gave the labor deal the green light, setting it up for a Sept. 14 vote before the whole council, in which at least 26 alderpeople must sign off.

During the committee meeting, the city’s legal team walked the council members through 10 key accountability reforms in the draft contract. The agreement would remove the ban on the investigation of anonymous misconduct complaints and allow disciplinary records older than five years to be preserved. It would also eliminate a requirement for people alleging misconduct to submit sworn affidavits and allow CPD to recognize officers who report misconduct.

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Negotiators for the city and the FOP say these changes would bring the contract in line with federally mandated reforms spelled out in Chicago’s 2019 consent decree. But several key reforms pushed by advocates in recent years — including an end to the 24-hour delay that cops are afforded before speaking to investigators following a shooting and a requirement that they disclose any employment outside the police department — didn’t make it into the draft deal.

Ald. Mike Rodriguez (22nd Ward) questioned this omission.

“I am still concerned about a number of items here,” Rodriguez said. “I, for one, think it’s important  — particularly given the sensitive nature of police officers’ work — that they don’t come to work tired.”

The workforce development committee voted unanimously to endorse the deal, which would resolve most of the central issues between the city and the FOP. But the two sides could still continue negotiations over areas in which no agreement has yet been reached.

Ahead of the full city council vote, organizers are urging a careful review of the agreement.

“We need the community to scrutinize line by line,” said April Friendly, mass liberation organizer at The People’s Lobby. “Any little T-crossing, I-dotting, comma-adding inside of the existing system’s contracts is still not really going to save or mitigate harm for our communities.”

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Meanwhile, a contentious debate is brewing around the mayor’s vaccine mandate for city workers, of which Catanzara has been one of the fiercest critics. In late August, after Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced a Covid-19 vaccine mandate for all city employees, Catanzara made comments to the Chicago Sun-Times that critics interpreted as comparing the mandate to the Holocaust. ​

Infectious disease experts interviewed by Injustice Watch said unvaccinated police officers put the public at risk because they’re constantly in contact with people, making them likely to contract the virus and likely to spread it. The city’s Black and Latinx communities, which tend to be the most policed, have suffered disproportionately amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

On Sept. 3, before Labor Day weekend, Catanzara gave members an update in a nearly seven-minute video, of which he spent almost three discussing the pending contract and the FOP’s plans to fight the vaccine mandate. He spent the remaining four minutes opining about a recent incident in which a Black woman found walking her dog on the lakefront after hours was violently accosted by a white police officer. She had allegedly failed to comply with his order to leave the area. The police union president called for the officer, who was put on desk duty pending an investigation, to be reinstated “effective immediately.”

“He didn’t throw her to the ground and arrest her like he would have been entitled to do. … I don’t care how bad it would have looked, he would have been justified in doing that,” Catanzara said.

He continued: “It is the recurring theme in police shooting after police shooting; any police incident across this country, [with] few exceptions, is all about a lack of compliance by the subject the police are encountering to start with.

“If that mindset changes, we will not have incidents like Mike Brown, like Laquan McDonald, you name it; there’s name after name after name, and the reoccurring issue is a lack of compliance.”

As the nation continues to envision solutions to racism and police violence, from reforming to defunding or abolishing police, the FOP and its presidents are likely to remain prominent fixtures in the conversation, for better or for worse.

Sarah Wild, an activist with the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, emphasized that issues with the police union are impossible to separate from broader problems with the department.

“The problem of the police and the issues with community control and abolition become the real issue,” Wild said, noting that organizers are continuing to push for more robust community control of the police, including democratic input into the department’s budget and the FOP’s contract. “The union is an expression of the bigger issue.”

Update: On Sept. 14, a group of community organizers and police accountability advocates held a rally in front of City Hall before the contract vote. They urged council members to reject the agreement, calling for the city to work more accountability measures into the deal before giving it the green light. But the city council ultimately approved the contract, with only eight council members rejecting the deal.

Olivia Louthen and Aviva Waldman contributed reporting and research.

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