COVID-19 has taken a heavy toll on police, but suburban departments avoid vaccine mandates
By Charles Keeshan and Susan Sarkauskas
Law enforcement professionals and their supporters gathered Thursday night on the National Mall in Washington for a candlelight vigil honoring the officers whose names have been added to the National Law Enforcement Memorial since 2020.
The names included 93 officers shot to death in the line of duty. Another 29 were victims of vehicular assault. And 15 died from illnesses linked to their service after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
But more than any other cause -- more than all other causes combined -- is COVID-19.
The coronavirus has claimed the lives of 473 police officers since the pandemic began last year, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page, which tracks officer deaths nationwide. All other causes combined for 256 deaths.
Despite the tragic toll, police officers are getting vaccinated at lower rates than the general public, and their unions in several major cities -- including Chicago -- are fighting hard against vaccine requirements.
Earlier this week, Chicago Fraternal Order of Police President John Catanzara released a video urging his members not to comply with a mandate that they report their vaccination status. Refusal could mean the officers are sent home without pay. And that, Catanzara warned, might leave the force at "50% or less" its regular staffing this weekend.
As Chicago city hall and the police union continued their staredown Thursday, we checked in with suburban police departments to see if they were facing similar conflict. The short answer? No, because the suburbs we asked aren't imposing vaccine requirements.
"We are not requiring (Palatine Police Department) employees to be vaccinated because we are under no mandate to require it," Palatine Chief David Daigle said.
It was the same refrain elsewhere. Police departments and sheriff's offices from Lake County to Bloomingdale to St. Charles are leaving the vaccine decision up to individual officers.
"St. Charles follows all state and federal guidelines," St. Charles Deputy Chief Chuck Pierce told us. And since there aren't any requiring police officers to get shots, the department does not mandate them -- or even ask if they have had a shot, he said.
Lake County sheriff's Lt. Christopher Covelli said the office is encouraging vaccination and has provided numerous opportunities for employees to get the shot, but it is not requiring it.
"We have encouraged those in doubt to work with their primary care physician and make an informed decision," he said. "We continue to collaborate with the Illinois Sheriff's Association, National Sheriff's Association, Illinois Chiefs of Police Association and others to determine the best course of action on mandated versus non-mandated vaccinations for our staff. Additionally, we are having conversations with the eight unions representing various groups of employees within the office." Several departments, including those in Bloomingdale and Buffalo Grove, are keeping lists of who have been immunized.
"So far we have had no problems," Bloomingdale Public Safety Director Frank Giammarese said.
As for a requirement, Giammarese said it's been discussed but "the unions that we deal with have concerns."
It's also being discussed in Elgin, city Communications Manager Molly Gillespie said.
"The city has been conducting meetings with its collective bargaining units to reach consensus on a vaccination policy consistent with recognized law," she said.
Speaking of unions, we requested interviews with Keith George, president of the Metropolitan Alliance of Police, and Chris Southwood, president of the Illinois Fraternal Order of Police. Neither got back to us.
We did reach Ed Wojcicki, executive director of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police. He told us that he's seen no interest in mandates from the association's members, and the association is not taking a stance either way.
"We're very neutral on that. (We're) leaving it up to local decision," he said.
Stopping the revolving door
The Lake County sheriff's office is launching a new initiative called the Community Bridge Program to help former jail inmates transition back to life on the outside.
The program will connect inmates preparing for release with re-entry specialists who will begin working with them on goal-setting, employment, resume building, connecting with housing services, enrolling in health insurance programs and more.
Once inmates re-enter the community, the specialists will keep in touch to ensure the former detainees are meeting their goals and steer them back on path if they veer.
"We have learned the first 30 days after being released from custody is a very crucial time period for inmates," Sheriff John D. Idleburg said earlier this week in an announcement of the program. "We want inmates to have the tools available to be successful members of society and have purpose when they are released from custody, rather than the jail having a revolving door."
"We are very excited about this program and the potential it has to reduce recidivism in our community," he added.
• Daily Herald staff writer Elena Ferrarin contributed to this report. Have a question, tip or comment? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.