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Up to half of Chicago police officers could be put on unpaid leave over vaccine dispute

<i>Getty Images</i><br/>Up to half of Chicago's rank-and-file police officers could be placed on unpaid leave starting Friday because of a dispute between their union and Mayor Lori Lightfoot over a city requirement for officers to disclose their vaccine status.
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Up to half of Chicago's rank-and-file police officers could be placed on unpaid leave starting Friday because of a dispute between their union and Mayor Lori Lightfoot over a city requirement for officers to disclose their vaccine status.

By Peter Nickeas, CNN

Up to half of Chicago’s rank-and-file police officers could be placed on unpaid leave because of a dispute between their union and Mayor Lori Lightfoot over a city requirement for officers to disclose their vaccine status.

The dispute in Chicago is emblematic of tension across the country between unions and employers as cities and businesses seek to enforce vaccine mandates. At least 228 officers have died of Covid-19 this year, compared to 245 last year, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page. Covid is the leading cause of death for officers despite them being among the first groups having access to the vaccine at the end of last year.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Friday said police union president John Catanzara was trying to “induce an insurrection” by telling officers to ignore a deadline to report vaccine status. The mayor said the law department filed a complaint against the union, saying that Catanzara was “encouraging a work stoppage or strike.”

On Friday evening, a Cook County Circuit judge ruled Catanzara should not make public statements that encourage members to reject or refuse to comply with the city’s vaccination policy.

“I think that the City has alleged a public interest in precluding Mr. Catanzara from making further comments encouraging his members to refuse to comply with the City’s policies so for that reason, I’ll enter a temporary restraining order requiring that Mr. Catanzara be precluded from making additional public comments,” Judge Cecilia A. Horan said. “Mr. Catanzara, you can talk to your friends, you can talk to your family, but I am talking about the YouTube things, and the various media things.”

The judge noted that Catanzara would be precluded from making additional public comments until an October 25 hearing.

Catanzara “has never engaged in, supported, or encouraged a work stoppage,” according to a statement released Friday by the union. On Thursday, the union filed a lawsuit in Cook County Circuit Court, alleging the city failed “to comply with the collective bargaining agreement’s status quo.”

Negotiations over the Chicago Police Department’s Covid-19 policy were underway when the city “implemented their unilateral changes” to the policy while “there were several collective bargaining issues that remained unresolved on the bargaining table,” the lawsuit stated.

Catanzara posted on social media Friday evening and, while refraining from discussing Chicago’s vaccine policy specifically, he said, “enough is enough.”

“I will not be able to speak anymore on the policy in any way, shape or form, and either way,” he said in a message posted to YouTube. “With that being said, everybody has to do what is in their hearts and minds — whatever that is. But I will just leave you with this: policy starts at the top in this City, and it has proven time and time again. The top of this City’s policy needs to change. With that being said, ‘enough is enough.'”

In a message to officers in Chicago this week, Catanzara framed the issue as an employment dispute between the city and the officers.

“I’ve made my status very clear as far as the vaccine, but I do not believe the city has the authority to mandate that to anybody, let alone that information about your medical history and change the terms of employment so to speak on the fly,” said Catanzara, president of the local Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) lodge. Earlier this month, the former president of the union died of Covid. He served as president from 2014 until 2017.

Officers in Chicago had a deadline of midnight Thursday to disclose their vaccine status to the city or be placed on unpaid leave, Catanzara said. Lightfoot said the city would take the weekend to check with officers who haven’t complied before putting them on unpaid leave, and that she didn’t think that would happen Saturday or Sunday. Lightfoot said officers should report for duty until they’re told by supervisors that they’ve been placed on leave.

“If we suspect the numbers are true and we get a large number of our members who 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% or less for this weekend coming up,” Catanzara said. “That is not because of the FOP, that is 100% because of the mayor’s unwillingness to budge from her hard line. So whatever happens because of the manpower issue, that falls at the mayor’s doorstep.”

Catanzara said the FOP would be seeking a temporary restraining order against the city that would stop it from enforcing the mandate. The union representing police officers, as well as separate unions for sergeants, lieutenants and captains, have filed an unfair labor practice charge against the city.

“The charging parties are not fundamentally opposed to the need for pandemic safety protocols, but sincerely believe that they need to be bargained by the City of Chicago with its respective labor unions, and that has not taken place in this case,” the unions wrote in support of their charge.

Eric Carter, first deputy superintendent of police, asked officers to fulfill “their mission and duty as professional police officers. It is also our expectation that all officers will comply with the City’s Covid-19 mandate.”

“Members of this department who refuse to comply with the requirements may be subject to disciplinary action, up to and including separation,” Carter said.

Police said the department will be fully staffed going into the weekend.

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Carma Hassan, Adrienne Broaddus, and Omar Jimenez contributed to this report.

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