A standoff in Chicago, where the head of the city’s largest police union is urging officers to challenge a vaccine warrant, is the latest battle line drawn in a nationwide battle over Covid-19 strikes.
Chicago, a city of nearly three million people, has seen more than 1,600 sexual assaults, nearly 3,000 shootings and 649 murders this year, up 14% from last year.
Even as violent crimes have escalated, however, thousands of the city’s police force may not show up for work.
Officials are considering resisting a mayor’s warrant requiring all civil servants to report their vaccine status. City employees must now show proof of vaccination or undergo biweekly testing unless approved for a religious or medical exemption. By the end of this year, all employees must be vaccinated.
So far, nearly a third of the nearly 13,000 members of the Chicago Police Department have refused to register their vaccination status, putting them on track for firing.
Twenty-one have been officially removed from active duty so far, but some officials have warned that the warrant could leave the Chicago police force dangerously exhausted.
On Thursday night, at a CNN town hall, President Joe Biden said US rescuers defying vaccine mandates should be fired.
Chicago is not alone in facing this problem. U.S. police departments have been thwarted in their efforts to get officers to get vaccinated against Covid-19 – now the leading cause of police death in the U.S., according to Officer Down Memorial Page, an organization non-profit that tracks deceased police officers.
In the decade before the Covid-19 pandemic, an average of 166 US police officers on duty have died each year, according to the non-profit organization. Last year 374 agents died, 245 of them from Covid-19, more than any other cause combined.
“This virus is no different from the shots we take as cops,” Chicago Police Superintendent David Brown said Tuesday. “I’ll do everything I can and say everything I need to get the agents to do everything possible to save their lives.”
Yet vaccination rates among officers have generally lagged behind the general public.
“It’s hard to understand,” said Art Acevedo, who was chief of police in Miami, Houston, and Austin, of the vaccine’s hesitation among police. “You would think we would be closer to 100% vaccination.”
Acevedo said he urged reluctant officers to use their training and “look at the data”.
“Every living president on either side of the aisle has been vaccinated,” he said. “In my work, we call it a clue.”
Acevedo attributed the resistance to a distrust of the government. Others have expressed irritation at what they see as over-governance, as well as skepticism about vaccine safety.
In Chicago, the head of the city’s largest police union, John Catanzara, called on its approximately 11,000 members to challenge the city’s obligation to report their vaccination status.
“It’s the city’s clear attempt to force officers to ‘Chicken Little, the sky is falling’ in compliance,” he said last week. “Don’t fall for it. Keep the line.”
Mr. Catanzara, who did not respond to the BBC’s request for comment, compared the mandate to “Nazi Germany” and suggested that the vaccine requirements are an illegal violation of privacy.
A judge last week accepted the city’s request for a temporary order to prevent Catanzara from making public comments that encourage members of its union to resist the order. However, he continued to post videos on the union’s public YouTube channel, in apparent defiance of order.
According to Catanzara, as many as 50% of Chicago’s 13,000 agents would take unpaid leave rather than report their vaccination status, threatening to bring a public safety crisis to America’s third largest city.
Police resistance to vaccine warrants has been observed in at least a handful of other cities in the United States.
Los Angeles Sheriff Alex Villaneuva, who oversees the country’s largest sheriff’s department, said he will not apply the county’s vaccination requirements to his staff. Mike Solan, chairman of the Seattle Police Base Union, described the city’s mandate against Covid-19 as a “political betrayal” and said this week that up to 350 of its officers could be unemployed.
And in Massachusetts, the state police union is suing the governor over vaccine requirements.
In Chicago, some say the gap between police and politicians has been widened by the mayor, Lori Lightfoot, a Democrat whose 2019 campaign was enlivened by promises to reform the city’s forces.
The police feel “denigrated” by the city authorities, said Raymond Lopez, a representative of the city council. “There is a general feeling that our officers are not appreciated in the city they seek to serve and protect. Morale is low in the ranks.”
Ms. Lightfoot – who was criticized this month for breaking mask rules when she was photographed face-to-face at a Chicago basketball game – has kept her vaccination mandate firm.
He accused Catanzara of trying to “induce an insurrection”.
And he dismissed concerns about the widespread police shortage, insisting that so far there has been no interruption of the force.
When asked about risk at a press conference, he said on Monday: “I don’t deal with many hypotheses.”
The number of policemen who continued to say “no” after having had the opportunity to comply with the reporting obligation “is very small,” he said.
However, other city officials fear the warrant could trigger a public security crisis.
Last week, two city council representatives, Marty Quinn and Matt O’Shea, wrote a letter to Ms. Lightfoot asking for the mandate to be postponed, citing “a dwindling police force and increasing incidents of crime and violence.”
Mr Quinn, who is vaccinated, told the BBC that a potential police shortage is his constituents’ main concern.
“Since last week, my phones have been burning with what’s going on,” he said. “What I hear loud and clear is that we need to make sure that every single officer capable of being at work is at work.”
Even before the mandate, Chicagoans were left with a reduced police force due, in part, to record levels of retirements and budget cuts that eliminated 614 vacancies in the department this year.
“We can’t afford to lose any more police,” said Mr. Quinn.
“It’s not about the warrant, it’s not about Mayor Lightfoot and John Catanzara. It’s about public safety.”
The need for the police is now at odds with another need for public safety: vaccinated frontline workers.
Their resistance to vaccine mandates reflects a broader American trend, chief Acevedo said. “Police officers don’t grow up in petri dishes, they come from society.”
But as vaccine battles have erupted between the professions, police officers and other frontline workers pose a particular threat.
“The problem here is when you have interactions with police officers, it’s unpredictable,” said Dr. Abraar Karan, an infectious disease expert at Stanford University. Like a doctor, paramedic or nurse, police officers must interact with “everyone”, including the elderly and the immunocompromised, all of whom could be put at risk.
Indeed, for some, an encounter with an unvaccinated officer or other first responder could be deadly.
“Not having police, especially in high-crime areas, will be a huge cost to citizens,” he said. “But we know vaccines are safe … I think the risk to others is something we need to consider more seriously.”
Additional reporting of Anamaria Silic
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- Anti-vaccination movement
- United States
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