This holiday season is a difficult reminder for Liz Huerta. “It’s starting to bring up all these emotions again,” she told the Tribune.
Eleven months ago, her husband, José “Joey” Huerta, a Chicago Police officer for more than 20 years, died due to acute respiratory failure, pneumonia and COVID-19.
It wasn’t until last week that Huerta and two other Chicago Police officers were granted line-of-duty death designations after they each suffered fatal complications from COVID-19.
“It was hard. It was hard explaining to my kids why mom doesn’t have any answers. So when we did get the news, my kids and I were happy he’s being honored the way he is now, finally,” Liz Huerta said.
A Chicago Police Department spokesman confirmed Tuesday that the deaths of Huerta and fellow officers James Svec and Joseph Tripoli have been determined to be in the line of duty, but would not elaborate on what contributed to the delay in that designation. At least four other officers’ deaths from COVID-19 were considered on duty, and their names were added to the department’s Memorial Wall last fall.
The designation gives an officer’s family access to special financial benefits. Recipients receive the deceased officer’s annual salary for a year and, pending approval of the City Council, the spouse and any children under 26 get health care benefits.
From there, the officer’s family would be eligible to receive the officer’s pension, pending approval from the city’s police pension fund. The death benefits come from city, state and federal sources, a CPD spokesman said. A spokesperson with the city’s budget office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on what their families might be entitled to.
Officer Huerta was the family’s main breadwinner. His death took a tremendous financial toll, his wife said. She had been working part-time when he died, and was removed from his insurance plan three months after he passed. She was able to move from part time to full time at her current job and get her own insurance. Family, friends, and strangers also contributed more than $60,000 to a GoFundMe to help the family.
“They tell me insurance will kick in again, but no one has actually sat down or explained what benefits or what comes with him being designated line of duty,” Huerta said.
Svec started working for the police department in March 2001 and died Dec. 8, 2021, at age 59. Tripoli worked for CPD from July of 1994 until his death at age 53 on Jan. 3 this year. And Jose Huerta joined the force in February of 2000 until two days before Christmas last year. Huerta was 50 when he died.
Huerta’s family and the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police fought to have his death classified as in the line of duty. “Joey was an honorable police officer. He didn’t do anything wrong while on the job. He did everything he was supposed to do and then some,” his brother, Ben Huerta, told the Tribune last year. “Politicizing whether or not COVID was the cause of (his death) … is just wrong. They should honor him as a police officer, full honors.”
Local FOP President John Catanzara announced the classification for the three officers in a recent video, saying it was “pathetic that it took almost a year” and they “should have been all along.”
Catanzara said the classification would not have happened without the push from the police union, and that it “made it very clear to the city’s negotiating team our intent to provide counsel legal for those three families to sue the city and embarrass them into doing the right thing if we had to.”
A CPD spokesman did not comment on whether the union’s push influenced the classification.
Huerta said while the city had “never been in contact with me as to why it took so long,” Catanzara is “the one that’s been letting me know what’s been happening.” Catanzara also arranged for bagpipes at Huerta’s funeral and “as much of a sendoff as any police officer would have” who died in the line of duty.
COVID-19-related fatalities were the leading cause of officer line of duty deaths in 2020 and 2021, according to National Law Enforcement Memorial and Museum.
FOP leadership and Mayor Lori Lightfoot engaged in a months-long battle over Lightfoot’s vaccine mandate for city workers. In the end, according to a WTTW analysis, the city exempted more than 1,750 members of the department from the mandate, and did not fire any officers for failing to comply. That amounted to approximately 14% of the force.
Joey Huerta “missed birthdays, softball tournaments,” and other family events while serving in the department, his wife said. “Just to know that he has this honor and my kids can hold their heads up and say my dad was a proud police officer and they know the city has finally done the right thing, we’re all proud of that.”