CHICAGO — As Chicago is grappling with a second wave of coronavirus and despite department mandates, some Chicago police officers still refuse to wear masks on the job to prevent the spread of the virus.
Through Tuesday, 1,243 of the department’s 12,000 officers have tested positive for coronavirus, said police spokeswoman Sally Bown. That’s an increase of 293 confirmed cases since Oct. 1, when 950 officers had tested positive.
Since the start of the pandemic, three officers have died from the virus.
Weeks ago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot called on the department to punish officers who don’t wear masks. While it’s unclear if any officers have been punished to date, city leaders have launched a new campaign, “I Wear My Mask.”
The campaign is designed to build on the department’s efforts to protect against coronavirus, police officials said. It features signs in police districts to remind officers of the mask requirement and a video that features officers of various ranks urging their fellow officers to wear masks.
Bown said she could not provide information about how many complaints have been made or if any officers have been disciplined.
Some Chicagoans are skeptical the campaign will be enough to create a cultural shift in the department.
Maria, a Hyde Park resident, recently filed a complaint with the Civilian Office of Police Accountability after she saw officers working without masks in the neighborhood.
Maria, who asked that her last name not be published, said she was walking on South Lake Park Avenue near 53rd Street on Saturday when she saw dozens of on-duty officers boarding chartered CTA buses.
“About half of them were not wearing masks. Some were on the buses and some were standing on the sidewalk as I was walking by,” Maria said. “How is that serving and protecting me?”
Although Maria was wearing a mask, having to walk by officers who were not wearing masks made her upset enough to speak up about it.
“I told an officer that this was not right and he told me to call 911,” Maria said. “He did give me his name and badge number, but I wasn’t going to call 911. He offered to notify COPA himself, but instead I filed a complaint online with COPA and am waiting to hear back.”
The Civilian Office of Police Accountability did not return calls and emails about the complaint.
John Catanzara, president of the Fraternal Order of Police union, also declined to comment.
But one North Side lieutenant said people who have called the department with a mask complaint have been given a complaint register number, commonly referred to as CR number, which indicates a disciplinary investigation has been opened.
Lightfoot’s office issued a statement Tuesday, saying discipline for those who ignore the rules is not out of the question.
“Over the past six months, Mayor Lightfoot has been crystal clear to all city employees — including and especially police officers — that masks or face-coverings must be worn at all times when social distancing is not possible so that we can further protect each other from COVID-19 while still providing essential services to our residents,” according to the Mayor’s Office. “Given the recent rise of cases in Illinois, the city has doubled-down on its efforts to ensure officers are wearing masks or face-covering while on duty.”
The department is using “every last resource” to reinforce mask-wearing rules, including department directives, public awareness campaigns, internal messaging, signs at every police district and compliance checks by leadership, the Mayor’s Office said.
“The city will continue to explore every resource and effort available, including possible discipline, to ensure all employees follow mask regulations,” according to the Mayor’s Office.
Police officials said the department implemented an educational campaign in the early days of the pandemic. The department continues to remind members face coverings are required when 6 feet of social distancing cannot be maintained, officials said.
But on the street, the reality is different.
The police lieutenant who spoke with Block Club said he’s reminded officers to mask up, but some officers still aren’t consistently wearing masks.
“Just like anything else, nothing changes on a dime. Officers got extremely used to the rest of the world wearing masks but feel that somehow we are immune and don’t have to,” the lieutenant said. “It’s not that they are being defiant or ‘it’s a hoax’ or anything like that. But while the rest of the world was on quarantine and lockdown and masked up, we weren’t.”
The first mask mandate issued by the Police Department came out May 1, when the stay at home order and the state’s mask mandate had already been in place for weeks.
Another reason some officers haven’t worn masks consistently might be because there’s a feeling of invincibility among officers, the lieutenant said.
“I think April was the last time any officers got super sick and died from it, so that’s a psychological thing. Everybody we know that’s getting it in the department has no symptoms or mild symptoms,” the lieutenant said.
For Maria, that type of attitude among some officers seems like a double standard.
“If the police can get away with it, why can’t we?” she said.
However, one sergeant from a South Side district said people are confusing a state or city mandate with a law and the police have nothing to do with mask rules.
“The police aren’t telling anyone to wear masks,” the sergeant said. In fact, according to him, police are often ignoring 911 calls that have to do with masks.
“People call 911 to complain that people are playing basketball and not wearing masks and I tell my guys not to go there. I’m not sending my guys out to deal with that. It’s not an enforceable law, and it’s not a police issue,” the sergeant said.
The sergeant, who said he’s “not some hardcore Trump supporter … but there needs to be more common sense,” said he tells those under his command to wear masks when they can.
“If it’s a non-confrontational call, I tell them to wear masks, but in my district, people speak a lot of different languages, so we need to see their mouths and they need to see ours to communicate,” the sergeant said. “We also get tested a lot — twice a week.”
Dr. Allison Arwady, Chicago’s top doctor, said Tuesday wearing a mask reduces your risk of contracting coronavirus by 85 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
This story is a part of the Solving for Chicago collaborative effort by newsrooms to cover the workers deemed “essential” during COVID-19 and how the pandemic is reshaping work and employment.
It is a project of the Local Media Foundation with support from the Google News Initiative and the Solutions Journalism Network. The 19 partners span print, digital and broadcasting and include WBEZ, WTTW, the Chicago Reader, the Chicago Defender, La Raza, Shaw Media, Block Club Chicago, Borderless Magazine, the South Side Weekly, Injustice Watch, Austin Weekly News, Wednesday Journal, Forest Park Review, Riverside Brookfield Landmark, Windy City Times, the Hyde Park Herald, Inside Publications, Loop North News and Chicago Music Guide.