Allegation: CPD lawyers block notification of cops who arrested teen with COVID-19

A few days after a 16-year-old alleged armed robbery and gun offender arrived at Cook County’s Juvenile Temporary Detention Center last week, the teen began feeling sick. He tested positive for COVID-19 the next day. And the next afternoon, Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans publicly announced the boy’s illness.

But authorities never informed any of the Chicago cops who came into contact with the teen about his COVID-19 infection because lawyers were concerned about the boy’s medical privacy rights, according to two city sources with knowledge of the situation. More than 20 police officers reportedly had varying degrees of contact with the juvenile before he was handed over to the detention center.

The alleged failure to provide timely notification of potential exposure to officers is the latest in a string of embarrassing reports about the police department’s handling of the COVID-19 outbreak:

Now, the department is accused of intentionally failing to inform officers of potential coronavirus exposure due to a mistaken interpretation of privacy laws that specifically do not apply to law enforcement agencies and which explicitly allow for the release of information to control disease outbreaks.

Here is what we have learned from two sources.

Teen arrested

A little before 5 p.m. on Mar. 30, a man reported being robbed at gunpoint on the 1300 block of West Chicago. Police searched the area for people who matched the offender’s description and soon arrested a 16-year-old boy nearby. He was carrying a 9-millimeter handgun and, in addition to the robbery that just unfolded, detectives identified him as the person who recently robbed two 7-Eleven stores at gunpoint. 

At the time of the robberies, the teen was already awaiting trial for a series of armed robberies and gun possession in October.

Nearly two dozen cops came into contact with the juvenile from the time he was arrested on Mar. 30 until he arrived at the juvenile detention center hours later.

Falling ill and a revelation

On April 4, the boy told authorities at the JTDC that he wasn’t feeling well. He had a headache and a fever, the chief judge’s office would later report. The next day, Sunday, a COVID-19 test was performed. It came back positive.

News outlets reported the boy’s test results Monday night after Chief Judge Evans issued a press release.

On Tuesday, a cop in the 12th Police District on the Near West Side read one of those media reports and immediately realized that the details released by Evans mirrored the circumstances of the teenage robbery suspect’s arrest. The cop started making phone calls.

The officer’s suspicions were confirmed by a JTDC staff member, according to sources. And the detention staffer had more news: Their office did tell the police department about the boy’s test results, but CPD lawyers advised against notifying officers due to privacy concerns.

When CWBChicago contacted a top executive of the police department about the sources’ allegations this week, he promised to “do some digging.” But he never reported back and he did not respond to multiple follow-up requests for information and confirmation. A spokesperson for Mayor Lori Lightfoot who was alerted to the allegations did not comment.

Intake procedures

The office of Chief Judge Timothy Evans, who oversees the JTDC, did not respond to a request for information about the situation.

But a spokesperson for the Cook County Sheriff’s Office, which operates the county’s adult jail, did tell us about their COVID-19 procedures. The sheriff’s office is not involved in the juvenile’s case.

Like the JTDC, incoming jail detainees are housed separately from the general population for 14 days to ensure they do not bring the virus into main facilities, the spokesperson said.

“If a person is asymptomatic at intake and later develops symptoms… we will contact the arresting agency and inform them that one of their arrestees tested positive or is symptomatic,” a sheriff’s office spokesperson said Thursday afternoon. “To date, we have not experienced this type of situation.”

“Privacy”

The police department lawyers who allegedly advised against notifying potentially-infected officers of the teen’s COVID-19 status appear to have misinterpreted a 1996 federal law called HIPAA, which limits the disclosure of an individual’s medical records by healthcare entities.

But HIPAA does not apply to law enforcement agencies because they are not healthcare entities, according to the federal Dept. of Health and Human Services (PDF). 

Even if the teen’s medical treatment in the detention center were covered, the law explicitly allows providers to release medical information to authorities to stop the spread of disease.

“We’ve got a pandemic here and our own lawyers are standing in the way,” one source for this report said.

As of Friday evening, 237 CPD employees have tested positive for COVID-19, the department said. Four of the sickened officers have recovered and are back on the job. Two officers have died from the disease.

The police department did not respond to questions about the potentially-exposed officers’ health, their current job status, and related issues.

Health update

The 16-year-old “is doing well in recovery,” Chief Judge Evans said in a press release Wednesday evening. “Nine other residents who were identified as having contact with the [infected teen] were tested for COVID-19, and all test results were negative.”

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CWBChicago was created in 2013 by five residents of Wrigleyville and Boystown who had grown disheartened with inaccurate information that was being provided at local Community Policing (CAPS) meetings. Our coverage area has expanded since then to cover Lincoln Park, River North, The Loop, Uptown, and other North Side Areas. But our mission remains unchanged: To provide original public safety reporting with better context and greater detail than mainstream media outlets. Our editorial email address is news@cwbchicago.com