Illinois law enforcement officials on Friday said they’re closely watching the widening controversy over Chicago police officers being required to report their vaccine status to the city.
The requirement, which started Friday, has become a flashpoint in a larger debate about vaccination requirements by employers. It also comes as Chicago grapples with a sharp increase in violent crime and carjackings.
Macon County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Kris Thompson said the situation is troubling.
“I feel sad and sorry for the people of Chicago,” said Thompson, whose department does not have a requirement. “They’re the ones who are going to suffer if half the officers are sent home. I don’t see how you can police a city that size with half the force.”
David Amerson, a staff attorney at the Illinois Police Benevolent and Protective Association, said their job as a union is not to have opinions on the efficacy of vaccines, but to demand that their members’ rights are protected and that they have an opportunity to appeal on certain issues.
He said while Chicago police officers are not allowed to strike or engage in any kind of work stoppage, there have been ongoing issues of low recruitment rates and retention issues in departments across the state — a manpower issue that would worsen if officers are sent home for not disclosing their vaccination status.
“Right now in Decatur, Springfield and all over downstate – for a variety of reasons – I think you’d be hard pressed to find a police department that is fully staffed right now,” Amerson said. “In fact, it’s become a crisis point with staffing in a lot of places and response times are through the roof.”
Earlier in the week, John Catanzara, president of the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police, urged officers to defy the city’s COVID-19 vaccination reporting rules. The city has about 12,000 sworn officers. On Thursday, police leaders altered plans.
“Nobody is going to be turned away,” said Chicago Police Department spokesman Tom Ahern. “Officers will be working their normal shifts this weekend (and) they won’t be turned away or sent home ... Officers will continue coming to work until they are told otherwise (and) that they are no longer on pay status."
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said officers who are expected to work over the weekend must show up, and that those who don’t report their vaccination status will be moved to no-pay status. But she also said such a move won’t happen this weekend because confirming compliance will take a few days. She has filed a complaint in court against Catanzara, accusing him of “engaging in, supporting and encouraging work stoppage or strike."
'Waiting to see'
In McLean County, neither of the Twin Cities require coronavirus vaccinations for police officers. But Bloomington and Normal officials said they are waiting for more direction from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration regarding a federal mandate requiring vaccinations or weekly virus testing for employers with 100 or more workers.
“We are waiting to see what those final rules are and how that applies to us,” said Normal City Manager Pam Reece. “We would certainly comply with whatever those federal rules are; we just don’t know the details yet.”
Reece added that the town “will comply with whatever regulations we are mandated to comply with as an employer.” Gov. J.B. Pritzker's latest executive order requiring health care providers to be vaccinated, for example, included the town’s firefighters, who are classified as EMS professionals.
Between 65% and 70% of the town’s firefighters are vaccinated, Reece said.
Normal Mayor Chris Koos said that while the town hasn’t issued any mandates for vaccinations, “we strongly, strongly recommend everyone get a vaccination. There is so much misinformation going around about COVID vaccinations. If people want to get their lives back from pre-pandemic, a big step in that is vaccinations across the board.
Normal Police Chief Rick Bleichner echoed Koos’ recommendation for getting the vaccine.
“We encourage employees to take up those choices for consultation with their physician and pick the best choice for them,” he said.
He added that COVID cases within the department have not been a problem in recent months. For now, he said, they’ll wait for guidance when it comes to any mandates.
“If it’s a mandate, we’ll look at that and take it into consideration with our administration team and the town’s administration team and just make the best decision we could for compliance and the safety of our employees,” Bleichner said.
Bloomington Mayor Mboka Mwilambwe did not respond to requests for comment, but city spokeswoman Katherine Murphy in an email said: “While we anticipate formal requirements coming down from OSHA that may apply to our police department, those are not in place yet. The city does monitor our internal COVID-19 cases and those are currently very low.”
McLean County police Sgt. Chris Renken said his department does not require staff to disclose their vaccination status, but added, “you know, obviously things can change rather quickly.”
Renken said he wasn’t sure if the department is keeping track of which staff members are vaccinated: “At one point there was a query about that, but that was early on, and I don’t have (updated) information.”
Shawn Roselieb, executive director for the Illinois Fraternal Order of Police Labor Council, said they’re seeing employer mandates in some places, “but it’s a select few.”
“If there is an employer that’s mandating a vaccine,” he said, “we’re filing a demand to bargain because it’s an issue we feel we can bargain over.”
Roselieb said they’re trying to encourage employers to work with employees to allow for exemptions, such as for religious, medical or conscientious reasons. He likened the bargaining claim to other things they’ve negotiated, including whether the employer pays for testing and if they allow for on-duty testing.
In Coles County, John Hedges, president of Police Benevolent and Protective Association No. 35, said the Mattoon police officers union has decided not to give a statement on anything relating to COVID-19 and vaccines. Mattoon and Charleston police officials did not respond to questions about policies.
'We will continue to follow those rules'
In Carbondale, all city employees including police officers -- represented by the Fraternal Order of Police -- are required to be fully vaccinated as a condition of employment. City Manager Gary Williams said city administrators continue to talk with the union about the mandates and he is not concerned about any sort of union walkout.
“We've met with the police union twice in the past several weeks explaining our position on requiring vaccinations. Throughout the pandemic we've taken extraordinary measures to ensure that our employees, in particular first responders, are provided the tools that they need to ensure their safety. Getting vaccinated is one additional step that will protect our workforce and the public,” Williams said.
However, he added if officers choose not to be vaccinated, there would be an impact on public safety.
“FOP members are prohibited from walkouts, however it's each members' individual choice to resign if they don’t want to comply with the policy. Obviously, if we were to lose officers there will be an impact on our ability to respond to calls,” he said.
Back in Macon County, Decatur Mayor Julie Moore-Wolfe also pushes for vaccines, though they are not required within city departments.
“I strongly encourage everyone to get a vaccine because its efficacy has been proven to be very effective in fighting COVID-19 and the variants,” she said. “People will talk about breakthrough cases, but what it shows is that even if you’ve been vaccinated and you contract COVID-19 that you have a better chance of not being hospitalized and certainly not dying from this virus.”
Moore-Wolfe said the city has no plans in place for a vaccination mandate on city employees, but said she believes if they did, there would be people opposed to the decision.
Referencing the situation in Chicago, Moore-Wolfe said it’s a big problem if a city loses a large portion of its police force, and she hopes that if officers in Decatur were faced with a similar situation, they would not do something drastic.
If the city did decide to require vaccines among its employees, Moore-Wolfe said they would reopen contract negotiations and have conversations with police union members to figure out what requirements and penalties would need to be placed.
“We have followed the recommendation and the rules imposed by the state and the federal government and we will continue to follow those rules,” Moore-Wolfe said.
Brendan Denison, Sierra Henry and Lyndsay Jones of The Pantagraph in Bloomington; Mateusz Janik and Valerie Wells of the Decatur Herald & Review; Rob Stroud of the Mattoon-Charleston Journal Gazette/Times-Courier; Les O'Dell of The Southern in Carbondale; and the Associated Press contributed to this story.