CHICAGO — Despite a rule that went into effect May 1 requiring Chicago Police officers to wear masks and gloves in public to prevent the spread of coronavirus, many officers dealing with the past week’s protests and unrest have been ignoring it.
The reason, according to a lieutenant who has been on the front lines all week, is because he and the officers below him are following the lead of those above them.
The lieutenant, who works in a North Side district but has been working Downtown and on the South Side this week, agreed to talk to Block Club Chicago provided his identity and district not be divulged. In a wide ranging interview, he admitted he’s also failed to have officers under him wear protective equipment like masks and gloves, but added none of the protocols that were being followed a few weeks ago are currently being practiced.
“I admit, I’m a supervisor who should have to require my guys to do it but we’re not going to be the only ones. They don’t want to wear it, they don’t want to be the only ones doing it and none of our bosses are doing it,” the lieutenant said.
He also said the masks impede their job, making it harder to deal with large crowds.
“It’s hard. They don’t see your facial expressions. It’s not the same. Let me put a mask on and yell at you and give you direction and then let me take the mask off and it’s very different.”
The lieutenant said he expects Mayor Lori Lightfoot to make sure the rules are being adhered to by officers now that it’s getting media attention, but added she needs to take some action as well.
On Friday, when asked about officers not wearing masks, the mayor said the department would take action.
“If officers are not wearing the mask and protective gear that we provided, then they have to be disciplined,” Lightfoot said at a Friday press conference.
“It’s for their protection as well as members of the public. And we expect them to abide by the directives that have been issued.”
The lieutenant said he’s seen coronavirus-related safety protections becoming lax.
“Just three weeks ago we were having every police car that would come in from a tour of duty being completely scrubbed down and sanitized in every district and on every watch. We wouldn’t do roll calls inside the stations, they had to be outside or no roll call at all. You had to maintain social distancing six feet apart. All that stuff was a massive priority. We had to wear masks. … We have zero protocol being followed right now.”
This week, because of the unrest, many officers have been told to report to the parking lot of U.S. Cellular Field to begin their shift. From there, they are put on buses and sent out — something the lieutenant feels is unsafe and that the mayor needs to address.
“They pull a bus up and the officers who worked the night before, 60 officers get off the bus, if it’s a double bus, 60 officers get off and get on. If it’s a smaller bus, 30 officers get off, 30 officers get on. It’s not like the squad cars that were being sanitized between use. They just get off and get on.”
A Chicago Police Department spokesman sent Block Club Chicago the personal protective equipment policy language, which said “Effective May 1, 2020, all on-duty personnel are required to wear Department issued surgical masks and gloves except for when members are inside of a police facility or department vehicle.”
The lieutenant said he isn’t sure if a CTA bus would qualify as a department vehicle, but said the fact that PPE isn’t required in department vehicles doesn’t make sense.
“It’s screwy. It’s either dangerous or it’s not dangerous. In a squad car you’re a foot and a half from your partner.
“… They are going to say we know what the protocol is, we have them and are supposed to wear them. I can make them all wear masks but I can’t control that they are going to cram 40 people on a bus with no social distancing.”
On Saturday, police issued an updated statement on personal protective equipment.
“In an effort to further protect our members and the public from the spread of COVID-19, all on-duty personnel are required to wear Department issued surgical masks and gloves. It is strongly recommended that these protective items be worn even when inside of a police facility or department vehicle when 6 feet of social distancing cannot be maintained.
“Given the heightened activity that officers have been responding to in the past week, there may be situations in which officers may not have masks and gloves on.
“The Department remains focused on facilitating the peaceful expression of First Amendment rights and preventing and responding to incidents of violence and property damage when it occurs. Participants in demonstrations are responsible for ensuring proper social distancing for themselves.”
The lieutenant also speculated about what may happen because officers aren’t being safe.
“So, either one of two things is going to happen. In two weeks you’re going to have a massive surge in COVID cases within the police department, and remember we’ve lost three police officers to it. So, we’re either going to have a massive surge in cases and God forbid deaths, or nothing is going to happen and we’re going to wonder ‘What the hell?’”
‘Are we expendable?’
The lieutenant also noted how protesters were told by Chicago Department of Public Health Director Dr. Allison Arwady to self quarantine for 14 days.
“Dr. Arwady keeps saying any people who participated in protests should self-quarantine for 14 days. Ok, so, do you want the entire police department to self-quarantine for 14 days because we are as exposed if not more exposed than them. Are we expendable? Honestly, we couldn’t be more exposed. At the bare minimum, when a bus comes in sterilize the entire bus and only put half the officers on the bus. Get more buses. But that’s never going to happen.”
Along with being aware that three officers have died from COVID-19 over the last few months, the lieutenant said he’s lost some friends outside of the police department to the virus.
Asked why, knowing that coronavirus is deadly, he’s not making the officers under him wear masks, he said he believes his officers are healthy.
“None of them have the underlying issues. The officers I have working for me … I know and I’m not a doctor or anything … but I feel like if you don’t have underlying issues and maybe I’m totally wrong about this, I don’t know.”
The lieutenant also said he would probably start enforcing the rule Saturday when he begins his next shift.
“Yes, we should. I’m just as guilty as anyone. I probably should now that we’re having this conversation. Based on what they are saying we should all self-quarantine but that’s not going to be possible. We’re just going to have to get through it. If this story comes out today they probably are going to make us start wearing them tomorrow. But I have to tell ya, you stand out there for 10, 11, 12 hours, wearing a mask. You wear a mask that long and it’s miserable. Then again, safety first, I get all that.”
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