For months, Mayor Lori Lightfoot has been caught between a rock and a hard place as thousands of Chicago Police officers refused to get vaccinated against COVID-19 in defiance of her order, which was upheld by court rulings and a final decision by an arbitrator.
Lightfoot refused to roll back the mandate, even as conservative members of the Chicago City Council ratcheted up the pressure on the mayor by warning she would have blood on her hands if the requirement took cops off Chicago’s streets as murders and carjackings soared to record levels.
After the final deadline for members of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7 to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 passed on Wednesday, data released by the mayor’s office disclosed that Lightfoot — while ramping up her re-election bid — agreed to exempt at least 1,439 officers from the COVID-19 vaccine mandate.
The decision to exempt at least 11.5% of the Chicago Police Department from her vaccine mandate will mean Lightfoot will not have to ask Chicagoans for a second term in office while moving to fire thousands of Chicago Police officers at a time when polls repeatedly show public safety is voters’ biggest concern.
Lightfoot’s office declined to respond to questions about WTTW’s analysis on Thursday, citing staff absences because of the upcoming Passover and Easter holidays.
Despite the massive number of vaccine exemptions granted to members of the Chicago Police Department by Lightfoot, 681 members of the department who have not been vaccinated and have not received an exemption are at risk of being disciplined and ultimately terminated, according to data released by the mayor’s office. That amounts to more than 5.5% of the department.
However, officials are still weighing 571 exemption requests from Chicago Police officers. If those exemptions are granted, nearly 16% of the Chicago Police Department would not be vaccinated against COVID-19. Exemptions can only be granted for religious or medical reasons under state law.
Officials granted nearly double the number of exemptions to members of the Chicago Police Department than to members of any other city department, according to data provided by the mayor’s office.
By comparison, officials granted vaccine exemptions to 6.6% of the Chicago Fire Department’s employees, to 5.6% of the members of the Department of Streets and Sanitation and 5% of the Department of Water Management.
In all, 21% of the Chicago Police Department has not been vaccinated against COVID-19, eight months after Lightfoot issued the mandate. When an arbitrator ruled in February that members of the Chicago Police Department must get the vaccine, 24% of members had not been vaccinated.
Lightfoot said at the time of that ruling she believed the decision would prompt officers to get vaccinated in large numbers, heading off a confrontation. That hope was in vain, according to the data released by her office.
An additional 3,250 vaccine exemption requests submitted by members of the Chicago Police Department were rejected by city officials, according to data provided by city officials.
In all, more than 5,900 of the city’s 30,200 employees requested an exemption from Lightfoot’s vaccine. Nearly 79% of those requests came from Chicago Police Department members, according to data released by the mayor's office.
Nearly 2,300 vaccine exemptions were granted by city officials — more than 63% to members of the Chicago Police Department, according to data released by the mayor’s office.
Officials declined to tell WTTW News how many exemptions were granted for medical reasons and how many were granted for religious reasons. Cardinal Blase Cupich has instructed pastors in the Archdiocese of Chicago not to grant religious exemptions to the vaccine, saying that is not supported by church teachings or law.
Just 15 members are not being paid because they are defying the vaccine mandate. Lightfoot has been criticized by Fraternal Order of Police President John Catanzara for “slow walking” the implementation of the vaccine mandate.
Lightfoot has said each employee will be disciplined individually, and said mass firings will not take place.
Chicago Police officers can only be terminated on the recommendation of Chicago Police Supt. David Brown and a vote of the Chicago Police Board.