CHICAGO — Earlier this week, Chicago Police Supt. David Brown laid out the many challenges facing police officers this year.
Aside from dealing with high crime and large-scale protests, he said more than 900 Chicago Police officers have tested positive for coronavirus, and he expects that number to surpass 1,000 by the end of the year.
COVID-19 has hit police departments hard across the country and has been the leading cause of death among officers in 2020 nationwide. This has caused Chicago residents to wonder: If COVID-19 is hitting the department so hard, why aren’t many officers wearing masks despite being required to do so?
Essentially, according to the police union and department leaders, it’s not a top priority.
“I think the average officer is probably less worried about COVID and more worried about the horrendous working conditions and hours that they are being forced to work continuously still,” said Fraternal Order of Police union leader John Catanzara.
The department itself, including civilian employees, has seen 950 cases, including three deaths, Brown said.
“I would guess that it’s a lower number than New York. I don’t think it’s abnormally high,” Catanzara said.
Of the more than 12,000 Chicago Police officers, three have died from coronavirus.
Of New York City’s 36,000 officers, 875 have tested have tested positive and 45 have died as of Sept. 1, according to a NYPD spokeswoman.
Andersonville resident Lisa Pugliese, who delivers supplies to bars and restaurant for her job, said she’s seen police officers all over the city without masks. It’s a double standard, she said.
“Most recently, I was at the corner of Erie and Michigan Avenue with my window down and there were five police officers in uniform, next to me in the median,” she said. “They were congregating, talking, none of them were wearing masks and less than six feet from me with my window open.”
Although the Chicago Police Department’s 16-page directive on COVID-19 doesn’t specifically address when officers are supposed to wear masks, police spokesman Sally Bown confirmed officers have been ordered to wear masks whenever they are outside of their district stations and in public.
“If they are outside of their district office or outside of their vehicle, they are required to wear masks when on duty,” Bown said.
The mask rule went into effect May 1 to prevent the spread of coronavirus, but it has not been enforced.
In June, just days after large protests and looting rocked the city, a lieutenant from a North Side district told Block Club Chicago that many officers were ignoring orders to wear personal protective equipment, saying masks impede their jobs.
“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,” the lieutenant said. “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.”
That same week, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said “if officers are not wearing the mask and protective gear that we provided, then they have to be disciplined.”
Chicago Police did not respond to specific questions on whether any officers have been disciplined for not wearing personal protective equipment.
In an email, Chicago Police Deputy Director of News Affairs Thomas Ahern said “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.”
But, he went on to say, “given the heightened activity that officers have been responding to in the past weeks, there may be situations in which officers may not have masks and gloves on.”
Pugliese said the lack of enforcement puts the public at risk.
“They are supposed to be protecting the citizens and during this pandemic it’s a state and city mandate and you hear it everywhere,” she said. “It’s not a good example if they are supposed to be community leaders and are out in the public every day.”
Ahern said those who encounter officers are responsible for protecting themselves.
“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,” he wrote. “Participants in demonstrations are responsible for ensuring proper social distancing for themselves.”
Catanzara said officers have access to masks and other protective equipment, but are working longer hours and getting less support when it comes to COVID-19 protocols.
Earlier this year, police vehicles were being cleaned and sanitized after every shift by police academy cadets. When the academy reopened in July, however, officers have been on their own to clean the vehicles, he said.
“You’re on your own,” Catanzara said, adding that they’re also lacking backup in neighborhood districts. “They keep taking more people out of patrol to send them downtown to stand on street corners. I think more coppers are upset about that stuff than about COVID at this point. Their lives have been hijacked.”
A police spokesman said districts have been issued thermometers, but temperature screenings are voluntary. The department’s main headquarters, academy and Homan Square locations have a temperature scanning machine.
Pugliese said officers should at least be wearing masks when approaching members of the public.
“If they aren’t adhering to what the city and the state is saying, how should we be trusting anything they are saying as they approach us? It’s a double standard because we’re supposed to wear masks.”
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