Rookie Chicago cop Julius Givens’ open letter of protest to his union boss isn’t your typical act of defiance. It’s not intensely confrontational, quotes a poet laureate and invokes the name of Sir Robert Peel, a British prime minister from the 19th century.
Then comes the punch of the 13th paragraph: “I request, effective immediately or the earliest possible date to terminate my membership, all relations, and communication with the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7. If I require any legal representation with regards to my duties as a police officer I will provide those services independent of Lodge 7 moving forward.”
Givens, 30, would be the only active officer in the city without union representation if he follows through with his intentions, laid out in an article published this past week at medium.com. Givens, who is Black, said he hopes his action will spur a conversation about what the next generation of policing should look like in Chicago.
Chicago police Officer Julius Givens on July 2, 2020. Givens has informed the police union that he would like to terminate his membership. (Terrence Antonio James / Chicago Tribune)
“I spoke with 22 (Black) officers that have 10-plus years on the job,” Givens told the Tribune. “And the first thing that they told me was, no, the FOP doesn’t represent me and they don’t stand for what I stand for, they aren’t who I am. And that was across the board.
“The FOP has not been welcoming to folks like me,” he said. “They haven’t been very welcoming to folks like myself, being a Black man, a Black police officer. In its current form, in its current environment, that’s not even something I’m willing to participate in.”
Lodge 7 has no Black officers in leadership posts. The union endorsed Donald Trump in 2016, and the new union chief received a congratulatory tweet from the president, who has been accused of dividing the country by race.
Givens said he finally decided to write the letter after hearing FOP President John Catanzara talk about the protests that followed the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. Some police officers across the country had chosen to kneel with protesters, something that Catanzara was clearly against.
“Any member of Lodge 7 who is going to take a knee and basically side with protesters while they’re in uniform will subject themselves to discipline in the lodge up to and including expulsion from Lodge 7,” Catanzara said during a WGN Radio interview with Bob Sirott on June 10.
A 25-year veteran of the force, Catanzara has been a controversial figure because of his outspoken views, sometimes targeting public officials and posting online comments that critics have called insensitive.
“John,” Givens wrote. “I am bewildered that given your position as the leader of one of the most powerful unions in the United States, that you would respond in such a manner. To hear the cry of the people we serve and ignore it is a crime against humanity.”
Catanzara said he spoke with Givens after the letter was posted. “It’s his choice to go whichever way he wishes,” he emailed. “This seems like part of a bigger plan, which is fine.”
He added that he stands by his comment in the interview. “My stance on kneeling officers has not changed and will not change.”
Givens’ letter is a rare public critique from a Black Chicago officer about the relationship between minority communities and police — a work in progress since the fallout from the Laquan McDonald slaying. Chicago’s Black officers have lacked a strong social justice voice since the days of the old Afro-American Patrolmen’s League.
The league was born in the fiery late 1960s following Mayor Richard J. Daley’s infamous “shoot-to-kill” order during the riots. Officers Renault Robinson and Edward “Buzz” Palmer founded the upstart group of Black cops to challenge hiring and promotions practices while also pushing for better community relations.
The group filed numerous lawsuits against the department, one leading a federal judge to institute a quota system for hiring. But league members said the gains came at a price as supervisors threatened their jobs and gave them bad assignments.
The number of socially active cops dwindled as league-aligned Black officers retired and few young officers stepped forward. Where Black cops had a strong voice of dissent during the 1970s and 1980s, today they largely have remained silent on social topics that impact them and their communities.
One veteran officer said Black cops still fear retaliation. “There is no Black representation within the department,” said Richard Wooten, a retired 23-year police veteran who praised Givens for taking a stand.
“There’s no meeting of the minds for African American officers where they come together and fight for one another within the department,” he said. “We are literally at the mercy of the department because we don’t have that ‘come together’ scenario.”
Yet most Black officers face a “double-edged sword” while patrolling communities, Wooten said. “There are going to be a mixture of officers who don’t accept Black officers as equal,” he said. “We’re not totally accepted in our communities because of the disruption that the bad officers have been displaying through the nation. They see all officers as the same.”
Givens, who doesn’t know Wooten, shared his sentiment. “That’s true because you wear the same uniform (as bad officers),” he said, before sharing an anecdote.
A Black man recently yelled, “You’re on the wrong side of the fence,” while Givens was at a stoplight. “And my response is, you’ve got it twisted. If you want any productive change ... not only do you need me on the inside, you need folks who look and act like me on the inside too.”
Dressed in a crisp blue suit jacket, Givens looks more ready for a conference call than roll call. This fall, he plans to start classes at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy. He has an eye on moving up the police ranks and has entertained turning his attention toward union leadership — “if I continue to have a job,” he joked.
Raised along with five siblings by a single mom, his family struggled and moved frequently around St. Louis. Still, Givens graduated from a private Catholic high school in an affluent suburb there.
While attending the University of Missouri, he began working as a volunteer firefighter with hopes of coming to Chicago as a first responder. After moving here in 2013, he spent six months delivering Potbelly sandwiches by bicycle while living with two roommates in a studio apartment, according to a 2017 Tribune business article on how millennials struggled to cope following the 2008 recession.
But his fortunes improved when he took a corporate job in the medical products industry. By the time he learned he’d passed the police exam, he had started his own nonprofit organization that worked with high school students.
Givens, who will be a full-fledged officer by November, acknowledged that he could have left the union in anonymity but that was not the goal. He hoped to cause a stir, something Catanzara took issue with.
“Officer Givens seems to be on his own agenda,” the union chief said in an email. “He has made broad assumptions about the union and me specifically when he has no direct involvement with lodge business.”
Wooten, who served as an advisory member of Civilian Office of Police Accountability and a police accountability task force, also criticized Catanzara’s comments, saying they run counter to the current movement to reform policing. “In this particular day and time, either the FOP is going to be with the movement or against it and the movement says Black lives also matter.”
Wooten hopes Givens fans a flame that will attract other Black officers who are unsatisfied with their union representation and that they will speak out without fear of being disciplined or ostracized.
Givens said he still has to meet with FOP leadership and sign the paperwork terminating his union membership. Where a nonunion officer goes from there is unknown. “Things are still unfolding — the letter was just (published) on Monday. We’re going to see how this unfolds.
“You don’t walk into the lion’s den and don’t expect to get scratched,” he added. “I’m sure there will be some backlash. ... It’ll come out in many diverse ways, but it’s not going to make everyone happy and that’s OK.”