CPD officers on the scene Credit: Sun-Times Media

Chicago Police Department employees submitted thousands of exemption requests for the COVID-19 vaccine, accounting for the vast majority of such requests filed by city employees, according to documents obtained by the Reader.

More than 40 percent of Chicago Police Department (CPD) employees applied for an exemption. Only 9 percent of CPD members’ exemption requests were approved, but they represented more than half of all city workers who got approvals. 

As of last month, the vast majority of city employees, including police, were fully vaccinated.

All city employees, contractors, and vendors must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19, unless they have arranged individual exemptions with the city’s Department of Human Resources (DHR). In March, Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced that unvaccinated city employees without an approved waiver would face disciplinary action “up to and including termination.” 

However, city employees can apply for a vaccine exemption on medical or religious grounds if they demonstrate a life-threatening medical condition or “sincerely held” religious belief barring them from vaccination against the coronavirus. Unvaccinated employees who are granted an exemption are required to take a COVID test twice a week.

By the end of March, the city had received 6,202 religious exemption requests and 406 medical exemption requests. The CPD is disproportionately represented in the application pool: police represented 81 percent of the city’s total vaccine exemption requests and 57 percent of all approved exemptions.

Within the police department, 42.5 percent of employees filed for religious and medical exemptions. 

City workers at other agencies also applied for exemptions, but at far lower numbers. The Fire Department and Department of Transportation (which does not include Chicago Transit Authority employees) were next in line, with 9 to 10 percent of of employees applying for waivers, respectively.

As of April 11, 89 percent of city employees were vaccinated. According to records the Reader reviewed, 82 percent of CPD employees were fully vaccinated and 9 percent had an approved exemption as of last month.

At least 15 police department employees and 20 fire department employees have been suspended for refusing to comply with the vaccine mandate.

Editor’s note 5/9/22: this graph has been updated after posting.

The mandate drew strong opposition from traditionally conservative, vaccine-skeptical contingents of the city. The Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7 (FOP), which represents CPD employees, and the City of Chicago sued each other over the requirement in October. For a period in October, FOP president John Catanzara was legally barred from encouraging police union members to defy the vaccine mandate, which he erroneously compared to “Nazi Germany” at one point.

To apply for an exemption to the vaccine, city employees must send all requests to DHR for review on a “case-by-case” basis. If an application is approved, DHR consults with the employee’s department to confirm there won’t be “operational, health or safety concerns with approving this exemption.” It also asks if the employee will need to follow additional safety measures beyond the twice-weekly testing and masking requirements.

According to both applications, employees who have “engaged in misusing, abusing, and/or engaging in fraudulent activity in requesting, certifying, or taking” an exemption could be terminated. Once a decision has been made, there is no appeals process for denials. By the end of March, 813 applications (12 percent) were pending review. Most came from the police department. 

Exemptions on religious grounds are more numerous than those for severe medical conditions. Medical exemptions require a medical professional’s note attesting to a “documented life-threatening allergic reaction” or other condition rendering vaccination unsafe. The city cites the CDC’s list of health conditions that could be aggravated by the COVID-19 vaccine and prohibits information about “genetic tests, genetic services, or the manifestation of disease or disorder in the patient’s family members.” 

Religious exemptions require a “sincerely held” religious belief—a measurement left undefined by DHR—and a signature from a religious or spiritual leader. The form asks, among other questions, when a person began practicing the religion and if their beliefs prohibit other vaccines and medications. 

Nationally, vaccine mandates have created divisions within religious institutions, with many religious leaders—including Pope Francis—saying there’s no scriptural argument against vaccines. Others rail against their tenuous association with abortion.

A common objection has been the perceived use of aborted fetal cells in the research, testing, and production of the COVID-19 vaccines. According to public health officials in Los Angeles County, the Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson vaccines do use fetal cell lines from the 1960s and 1970s during some stage in the process, but there are no fetal cells in the vaccines themselves, and vaccination does not require or increase the incidence of abortions. 

Among the documents obtained by the Reader is a form the city requires people who object on these grounds to complete, which “[validates] your understanding of the ubiquity of fetal cell use in the testing and development of common medicines and consumer products.”

The form clarifies the role of historical fetal cell lines in both the COVID-19 vaccines and common medicines, such as Tylenol, Tums, aspirin and ivermectin. By signing the form, the employee attests that, consistent with their beliefs, they do not use any of the 28 medicines listed.

On March 11, 12 aldermen, led by 15th Ward Alderman Raymond Lopez—who has since announced a run for mayor—alleged that approvals for exemption requests were “lopsided” across departments.

According to data reviewed by the Reader, DHR denied 66 percent of religious exemption requests from police, compared to 31 percent of the same requests from all other departments. 

Mayor Lightfoot denied that the process was unfair, and wrote in a statement that the FOP had created an unauthorized “conscientious objection” exemption form that police officers sent to DHR by the thousands. 

The form, which is still available on the FOP website, stated, “I do not believe that health and disease should be controlled by vaccination, or, furthermore, that governments should coerce citizens into receiving medical interventions.” 

All employees whose “conscientious objection” forms were denied were given a chance to resubmit the correct exemption forms, Lightfoot said at the time. The mayor’s office did not return answers to the Reader’s questions by press time. 

This trend of police officers using loopholes is consistent with other cities that require vaccinations for government employees. An investigation by The City found that New York Police Department employees filed a high number of religious exemption applications. In Boston, unions that represent police and firefighters also filed lawsuits challenging the vaccine mandates.

The Reader also sent public information requests to the City Colleges of Chicago, Chicago Transit Authority, Chicago Housing Authority, Chicago Public Schools, and the Chicago Park District. All five agencies have implemented vaccination requirements for employees, some with exemption processes separate from the city.

Chicago Public Schools (CPS) has approved 194 medical exemptions and 1,404 religious exemptions for its workforce of about 40,000. Principals, teachers, special education classroom assistants, lunchroom attendants, social workers and nurses are represented amongst unvaccinated employees with approved exemptions. As of April 2022, 90.1 percent of CPS employees had received at least two shots.

The Chicago Park District reported 80 approved medical and religious exemptions, but denied the Reader’s request for the original application forms (with identifying information redacted) on the grounds that it is private information.

By the end of March, the city had received 6,202 religious exemption requests, 60 percent of which were denied. As of last month, 29 percent were approved, and 11 percent were still pending.