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Judge Orders Police Union Leader To Stop Encouraging Cops To Defy City’s Vaccine Mandate

The city and its largest police union have filed dueling lawsuits over Chicago's vaccine mandate.

A Chicago Police officer stands outside Chicago Police Department Headquarters on Aug. 13, 2021.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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CHICAGO — A judge has ordered the president of Chicago’s largest police union to stop making statements encouraging officers to defy the city’s vaccine mandate.

The restraining order came Friday evening, just a day after the city sued the police union and its president, John Catanzara, alleging they were “encouraging a work stoppage or strike” by suggesting offices not report their COVID-19 vaccination status as they are required to.

The police union has filed a countersuit against the city, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Supt. David Brown, alleging they didn’t properly negotiate over the mandate.

At the heart of the suit are disagreements between the city and police union over Chicago’s requirement that all city workers, including police officers, report their COVID-19 vaccination status by 11:59 p.m. Friday — though workers technically don’t need to be vaccinated yet.

Catanzara shared a video Tuesday where he urged officers to defy the mandate. Those who don’t report in will be placed on a no-pay status, officials have said.

Catanzara suggested the standoff could lead to half of officers being taken off the streets.

That amounts to an attempt to encourage employees to stop working or strike, leading to the Law Department filing a complaint against the union and Catanzara, Lightfoot said in a Friday morning news release.

“As Chicago’s mayor, I cannot and will not stand idly by while the rhetoric of conspiracy theorists threatens the health and safety of Chicago’s residents and first responders,” Lightfoot said in a statement. “President Catanzara has time and again deliberately misled our police officers by lying about the requirements of the policy and falsely claiming that there will be no repercussions if officers are insubordinate and refuse to follow a City and Department directive or order.

“… By doing so, and by predicting that 50 percent or more officers will violate their oaths and not report for duty, Catanzara is encouraging an unlawful strike and work stoppage which carries the potential to undermine public safety and expose our residents to irreparable harm, particularly during an ongoing pandemic.”

In comparison, the police union’s dueling lawsuit alleges city officials did not appropriately negotiate over the mandate, sending out information about the vaccination policy without discussing those terms with the union.

Those changes “have eroded the morale of the officers” and constitute a breach of the union’s collective bargaining agreement, according to the union’s lawsuit.

Lightfoot said Friday morning she expected a judge to hold a hearing in her lawsuit during the day, though she was not certain that would happen.

Still, the mayor has dismissed Catanzara’s prediction of staffing issues, saying on Thursday that officials “don’t expect” his estimation to be an issue this weekend.

Lightfoot said Thursday workers who don’t report in their vaccination status will be contacted over the course of several days, as the city wants to give them “the benefit of the doubt.” If they did violate the city’s rules, they’ll be placed on no-pay status — but they shouldn’t stop working until a supervisor tells them to do so, Lightfoot said.

Workers who do stop working prematurely risk losing their jobs, officials said.

“We fully expect that members [of the Police Department] will show up and, unless they’re told to go home, they need to report for duty,” Lightfoot said. “I hope that members are not led over the cliff without a parachute by anyone who tells them they can just ignore legal, proper direction.”

Lightfoot and Catanzara have frequently clashed, but their battle over the vaccine mandate has been particularly fraught with tension.

Lightfoot announced the mandate in August, and the Fraternal Order of Police immediately voiced opposition to the measure. Other COVID-19 safety measures — like requiring officers to wear masks — have also met resistance in the Police Department.

Shortly after the mandate was announced, Catanzara compared it to tactics used by Nazi Germany.

“We’re in America, Godd–n it. We don’t want to be forced to do anything. Period. This ain’t Nazi f—ing Germany, [where they say], ‘Step into the f—ing showers. The pills won’t hurt you.’ What the f—k?” Catanzara told the Sun-Times.

Catanzara later apologized for his comments, which were criticized by the Anti-Defamation League and other groups. Afterward, 44 aldermen voted to generally condemn statements that compare Nazi tactics, like the use of poisonous gas chambers to murder people, to COVID-19 safety measures, like wearing a mask.

This week, Catanzara posted a video where he urged officers to reject the mandate and not report their status. His comments were released the same day a former police union boss died from COVID-19.

Catanzara said he does not think the city should be able to require workers to get vaccinated, nor does he think officers should trust the city with their private health information.

The union president said he expects the standoff over the mandate could lead to about half of officers not working. That comes as Chicago is struggling with murders, shootings and other violent crime.

“If we suspect the numbers are true and we get a large number of our members to stand firm on their beliefs that this is an overreach and they’re not going to supply the information in the portal or submit to testing, then it’s safe to say the city of Chicago will have a police force at 50 percent or less for this weekend coming up,” Catanzara said in the video. “That is not because of the FOP; that is 100 percent because of the mayor’s unwillingness to budge from her hard line.”

Catanzara suggested that any violence that happens as a result of having fewer officers on the streets would be the result of Lightfoot’s actions.

But Lightfoot fired back Friday, saying Catanzara has “ruined his career” and “been sanctioned over and over and over again” for breaking rules.

“I do not want to see young officers who are doing heroic work follow his lead,” she said. “He’s yesterday’s news. I want these officers to think about themselves, their families and their careers.”

First Deputy Supt. Eric Carter said officers who don’t comply with the mandate can face discipline “up to and including separation,” or firing.

“For the department to get through this pandemic, we must do it together,” Carter said at Thursday’s news conference with Lightfoot. “Our job as professionals is to provide safety to the residents of Chicago, who we serve and protect.”

Four Chicago police officers have died from COVID-19, and thousands have had the virus. Dean Angelo, a former president of the police union, died Tuesday from COVID-19.

The information that people must submit to the online form is “very basic” and “not intrusive,” Lightfoot said.

Officers who don’t want to follow the mandate can leave the department, Lightfoot said. She said she is concerned officers refusing to get vaccinated will hurt efforts to rebuild trust between the department and everyday residents, as residents “have a right to expect that those officers are not gonna get them sick” when they interact.

“It’s an honor to be a Chicago police officer. And anyone who says, ‘We get to do what we want, when we want it. We get to have the kind of policing that we want when we want it,’ that is the kind of policing that has happened in our city for far too long,” and it’s why residents don’t trust police, Lightfoot said. “We’re not having that anymore. It is a new day in the city of Chicago.”

After Friday, all city workers who are not fully vaccinated must agree to twice-weekly testing through Dec. 31, at which point they are required to be fully vaccinated or they can face discipline. Workers can also apply for exemptions.

The requirement is meant to protect workers and members of the public with whom they interact.

“The health of our city workers directly impacts the health of everyone they interact with,” Lightfoot said. the mandate is about ensuring a safe workplace, “but fundamentally, it’s about saving lives.”

Everyone 12 and older is eligible to get vaccinated in Chicago.

COVID-19 vaccinations are free and do not require insurance. Anyone can call the city’s coronavirus hotline at 312-746-4835 to get more information on how and where to get vaccinated in their community.

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