Chicago’s police union will elect a president Friday amid a massive shake-up in the leaders who will control the city’s policing future.
Fraternal Order of Police Chicago Lodge 7 members will choose between President John Catanzara Jr. and Detective Robert Bartlett for a three-year term.
Elected in 2020, former CPD officer and firebrand Catanzara helped secure a long-awaited raise for officers during his first term. But as a loud and often confrontational union figurehead who traded verbal jabs with Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Catanzara has faced criticism for souring relationships with city leaders and making controversial statements.
Bartlett, a 24-year veteran, is running on a platform of rebuilding the FOP’s government relationships and public image while improving transparency. He has accused Catanzara of spending union dues frivolously and failing to secure sufficient raises for officers.
Both men have criticized Lightfoot and outgoing Superintendent David Brown, alleging the leaders have failed to support officers. The two candidates have described reform policies resulting from the U.S. Department of Justice’s consent decree, such as rules limiting foot and vehicle chases, as overly restrictive.
The election winner will represent the union alongside a new mayor, a new police superintendent and a new Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability. The April 4 mayoral runoff election, featuring Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson and former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas — candidates with sharply contrasting views on policing — will largely determine who fills each role.
While the differences between the candidates vying for City Hall are stark, the two campaigning for FOP president may not be so different, said Craig Futterman, a police accountability expert and law professor at the University of Chicago.
“I don’t think this election matters,” Futterman said. “While they may have very different personalities and styles — and they do — ultimately, both of them seek to continue to represent the same interests that FOP has championed for years.
Although Futterman said neither candidate would change the reform-resistant, “old boys culture” that he said dominates the union, he does expect Bartlett to unseat Catanzara because he said many members are frustrated with the incumbent’s penchant for controversial off-the-cuff remarks that might hinder the union’s success.
Catanzara, a staunch Donald Trump supporter, regularly appeared at City Council meetings in a Trump jersey, downplayed the Jan. 6 riots the day after they occurred, and contended on a radio show “there’s no, obviously, violence in this crowd.”
In February 2021, nearly 80 community groups called for his ouster over allegations he made racist remarks in a series of social media posts. Months later, he compared a vaccine mandate on city workers to the Holocaust in a Sun-Times interview.
James Viola, who chairs the Italian American Police Association of Illinois’ Political Action Committee, said it would be difficult to predict the outcome of the election, but said some FOP members, Viola among them, think Catanzara’s punch-heavy style has harmed police and the union.
“His overall demeanor and his comments are degrading not only for the group, but it also diminishes the image of the police in general,” he said, adding that he expects Bartlett would repair relationships with city officials and bring the union “back to the center where it belongs.”
Viola criticized the union agreement Catanzara and the FOP passed with the city in September 2021. The contract included some accountability measures and granted officers 20% raises over eight years, 10.5% of it retroactive to 2017, when the last FOP contract expired. Police would get another 9.5% in raises into 2025.
The raises come out to around 2% per year, Viola said.
“Policemen in general are losing ground financially,” he added.
Neither Catanzara nor Bartlett responded to repeated calls, texts and emails from the Tribune, but both have publicly described their vision for the union.
Catanzara acknowledged his strong-armed style in his January “State of Our Union” report in the lodge’s monthly magazine. He has a political “hit list” of aldermen who called for his resignation and a “Bring it on” mindset unafraid of confrontation, he noted.
The union increased dues to become more involved in elected politics and helped run a record eight officers for City Council seats, he said. Two of the eight officer made runoffs in the 10th and 11th wards. In the elected civilian police oversight elections, eight of the 19 candidates endorsed by FOP won seats.
“This giant is waking up,” Catanzara wrote to union members. “We are going to dictate what happens and the direction this city goes. Not just for law enforcement’s sake, but for the sake of all the citizens.”
The FOP president pinned a rash of officer suicides on police being “beat … into the ground.” He argued minority members now feel supported by the union under his leadership and described himself as willing to fight.
“I think as time has progressed, people have realized I’m not who they thought I was,” he wrote to members, who include retired police and around 10,000 patrol officers, detectives and others.
Catanzara proclaimed himself a “give no (expletives), say it like it is” kind of guy around the time of his election, a description he clung to as president. His term has been marked by regular controversy.
In November 2021, Catanzara officially retired from CPD. He had faced dozens of department rule violations connected to 18 allegations of inflammatory statements and the filing of false police reports.
Records obtained by the Tribune show he had at least 35 complaints against him through mid-2017, many for personnel violations. He was suspended several times in his 25-year career, and past superintendents twice tried to fire him.
Meanwhile, Bartlett’s campaign is rooted in offering a different political style. His campaign said Bartlett aims to reestablish relationships with city and state governments and change the public perception of rank-and-file members.
Bartlett has accused Catanzara of spending union dues frivolously, including thousands in travel expenses and on a food truck used for member events. Bartlett, who previously worked within the FOP in legal defense, promises to “fight to win, not just for show,” alongside his slate of candidates, his campaign website says.
On his website. he promises to secure FOP members a 3% cost of living adjustments, double time pay for mandatory overtime and “real mental health resources” for officers.
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Similar to Catanzara, he has also shared opposition to some of the police reform measures mandated by the consent decree. Bartlett’s website says he is fighting “to prove (the Civilian Office of Police Accountability) cannot legally investigate officer-involved shootings” as part of a broader push against the accountability department.
Policing experts and activists across the city have long opposed Catanzara, who also stands against many police reforms. Ed Yohnka, spokesperson for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, called the FOP’s push to become more involved in elected politics an overreach and described Catanzara as an impediment to reform.
“It felt like this was a guy who was more interested in his Facebook and Twitter followers than he was in really building a kind of city that we all want to live in, where every neighborhood in every community feels safe and feels as though they trust the police,” he said.
Anthony Driver Jr., interim president of the community commission, criticized Catanzara for his descriptions of marginalized communities that he said cause “a lot of harm and disgrace” to Chicago police.
“I think he makes a lot of foolish and racist comments that have no place in our policing infrastructure,” he said.
Chicago Tribune’s Jeremy Gorner contributed.