700 Chicago officers are refusing the city’s vaccine mandate without consequence

chicago cops
Chicago police working a protest in June of 2020. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
chicago cops
Chicago police working a protest in June of 2020. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

700 Chicago officers are refusing the city’s vaccine mandate without consequence

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Wednesday is the deadline for Chicago police officers to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19, but according to the Chicago Police Department, more than 700 officers are out of compliance.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot promised that police officers who defied her vaccine mandate would be held accountable by being placed on no-pay status, essentially a suspension without pay, saying in March that while the city would avoid mass firings “the rules are the rules and the police have to follow them.”

However, figures provided by the Chicago Police Department show almost no officers have faced consequences for refusing to get vaccinated.

According to the department, 2,110 officers are still not vaccinated against COVID-19. A department spokesman said more than 65% of the unvaccinated officers have had a medical or religious exemption approved by the city. That leaves more than 700 cops directly violating the order. But police spokesman Tom Ahern said only 15 officers were on no-pay status for defying the vaccine.

The ongoing fight to get police officers vaccinated has put Lightfoot and police Superintendent David Brown in a difficult position. Lightfoot has said that officers getting the vaccine for the good of themselves, their families and the people of Chicago is an issue of police legitimacy, and her administration has fiercely defended the mandate in court; at the same time city leaders have been reluctant to take officers off the street in the middle of a surge in gun violence.

The city of Chicago first announced a COVID-19 vaccine requirement for all city workers last year, with a deadline of Jan. 1. That deadline was pushed back for police officers after the officers’ unions challenged the mandate in court.

In February an arbitrator upheld the city’s vaccine mandate, ruling that officers would have to get their first shot of a COVID-19 vaccine by March 13 and the second shot by April 13. Chicago Fraternal Order of Police President John Catanzara called the arbitrator’s decision “nonsense,” while Lightfoot said she expected the decision would prompt more officers to choose to get vaccinated.

At the time the number of unvaccinated cops was at more than 2,800, since then the number has fallen to 2,110, a significant reduction but not the sea change promised by Lightfoot and Brown.

In a video addressed to his members on Monday, Catanzara said the arbitrator had issued a “supplemental ruling” that gives the city power to levy additional punishment against officers for insubordination if they refuse to get vaccinated, on top of the no pay status. The punishments ranged from a simple reprimand to a four day suspension for officers who spend more than a month in no pay status, according to Catanzara.

Catanzara also said the union had been assured by city officials that they were not planning to take disciplinary action against any officers who were in no-pay status for fewer than 90 days.

Of the ongoing fight over the vaccines, Catanzara said, “this just needs to stop. And the city could put a stop to it tomorrow.”

Ahern did not answer whether the department has taken additional action against officers defying the mandate, and when asked whether CPD was planning to put more cops on no-pay status said only that “CPD will continue to follow its procedures for COVID Next Steps.”

Patrick Smith is a reporter on WBEZ’s Criminal Justice Desk. Follow him @pksmid. Email him at psmith@wbez.org.