When the coronavirus vaccines were first rolled out, the national Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) went to the federal government, pleading for law enforcement officers to have “expedited access” to the shots. Police, the group wrote, needed the vaccine “to keep them, and the public with whom they interact, safe from infection.”
But to the group’s surprise, officers did not rush to get the shot. And months later, with the vaccine widely available across the country, scores remain unvaccinated.
“We worked very hard, along with others, to ensure that police officers had early availability on a premise that they’d all want it,” said James Pasco, FOP executive director.
Nearly a quarter of Americans age 18 and older remain unvaccinated, according to a Washington Post analysis of federal data, frustrating officials and fueling bitter debates. Yet the continued resistance among the first responders included in those tens of millions is particularly troubling and creates a different kind of threat, experts say.
Due to the nature of their jobs, first responders regularly have close contact with the public, which increases their risk of contracting and spreading the coronavirus among themselves, their families and the people they are sworn to protect, experts in public health and policing said.
“They’re going to get infected, because they have more contact with people than most,” said Vincent Racaniello, a professor of microbiology and immunology at Columbia University. “It doesn’t work any other way.”
The resistance to vaccination is surprising, some said, given how the virus has battered law enforcement’s ranks since the beginning of the pandemic, and continued to do so as the delta variant has taken hold.
COVID was the leading cause of line-of-duty deaths last year, killing at least 182 officers, according to the National Law Enforcement Memorial Fund, which tracks such deaths. That’s nearly double the number killed by gun violence and vehicle crashes combined. At least 133 officers have died of COVID so far this year, according to the organization.
But despite the toll the pandemic has taken, tensions over vaccinations have only increased as unions and individual officers and firefighters have railed against mandates, filing lawsuits and threatening to quit if the shots are required.
When Chicago Democratic Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced that all city employees would have to be vaccinated by Oct. 15, the head of the city’s largest police union compared it to the Holocaust.
“We’re in America, G——n it. We don’t want to be forced to do anything. Period,” FOP President John Catanzara told the Chicago Sun-Times. “This ain’t Nazi f—ing Germany, [where they say], ‘Step into the f—ing showers. The pills won’t hurt you.'” he said.
Catanzara later posted a video apologizing for the comments, which were condemned by the mayor and Jewish leaders.
The Los Angeles County Health Department identified hundreds of coronavirus outbreaks at police and fire agencies across the county, according to records obtained by the Los Angeles Times. The outbreaks accounted for more than 2,500 cases – more than half of which were in the Los Angeles Police Department and Los Angeles Fire Department, the paper reported. The fire department said recently that more than half its sworn members have been fully vaccinated, while police chief Michel Moore reported this week that more than 60 percent of his agency’s 12,000 employees – sworn officers and civilians – were fully vaccinated.
Yet employees of both departments have been fierce critics of vaccine requirements and have filed lawsuits in response to a mandate that all municipal employees be vaccinated by Oct. 5, unless they have a medical or religious exemption. Thousands of police employees have indicated they will seek such exemptions.
While there has been much national debate over vaccine mandates in the workplace, experts say first responders are a special case because of the unique position they hold in American life.
Officers wield significant authority, and many of the public’s interactions with police are initiated by officers or by 911 calls summoning them, with people having no choice about whether to engage.
“Somebody gets stopped at a traffic light for a traffic violation, window goes down, officer leans toward the person . . . if they go to a house where there’s been a complaint, they go into the house,” said Jack Greene, professor emeritus of criminology and criminal justice at Northeastern University. “They’re always going into public spaces.”
When police knock on someone’s door, “more often than not, people accede to that request,” said Greene, who has consulted for police departments. “And if they don’t, the door might get broken down. It really boggles the imagination” that any first responder could respond to a call and potentially expose someone else to the virus, he said.
“At the risk of sounding a little bit snide, maybe we should take protect and serve off the sides of patrol cars and put down show up and infect,” he said.
Experts were split about the reasons behind so many officers remaining resistant to vaccination. Some point to the same misinformation and fear impacting the decisions of other Americans.
“Police officers are no different than other people in their community,” said Pasco of the FOP. He said his initial surprise that police did not flock to the vaccine in larger numbers faded as he saw how fractured the general public was on the topic.
“I’m better informed today as to the depths of divisions on this issue than I was when vaccines first became available,” Pasco said. “The country has not embraced vaccines to the degree that most people anticipated.”
In a recent policy statement, Pasco’s group reiterated its support for vaccinations and said “whether or not to accept the vaccine is a personal decision” up to individual members.
Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, who frequently speaks to police chiefs, said it appeared to be “predominantly younger officers who do not want to get vaccinated.”
Wexler called the trend “puzzling,” saying he couldn’t explain it.
Charleston police Lt. Robert Gamard reported that some of his department’s officers have said they were still “meaning to do it,” while others remain adamantly opposed. There is no vaccine mandate, he said, but the department has been pushing information to its officers and is exploring making vaccinations available during roll call.
“We’re going to keep trying,” said Gamard, who oversees training for the force.
David J. Thomas, a professor at Florida Gulf Coast University and a retired police officer, described policing as “very conservative in nature.” He noted that in the past, officers have resisted other measures meant to protect them, such as body armor, and are hesitant to adapt to changes.
Officers have the “belief that it’s just not going to happen to them,” he said. Thomas said one police chief told him, “We’ve done everything we can to get them vaccinated, and they won’t listen.”
Thomas said he also believed some officers were vaccinated but not admitting it, comparing it to the work he does with law enforcement on mental health issues. Some officers are hesitant to admit they need help, fearful of seeming weak, and admitting they are vaccinated might be similar, he said.
But as the delta variant-fueled virus surge continues to sweep the country, the prospect of significant numbers of first responders falling ill raises other issues.
“I’m going to use a term the Pentagon would use: It’s a matter of force readiness,” said Sandra C. Quinn, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Health. “Will they have a healthy workforce that’s vital for protecting public safety and well being?”
Miami police chief Art Acevedo said he found officers’ resistance to vaccination “very surprising” and “disappointing.”
Acevedo has been an outspoken advocate for vaccinations, and when he signaled support for a mandate last month, local and national police groups lashed out. Pasco called it “management by tantrum,” while the local police union’s president in a letter called the chief’s comments “flat out demoralizing.”
After the pushback, Acevedo, who was chief in Houston before becoming the Miami department’s leader in April, was undeterred, saying unions arguing against mandates were practicing “labor leadership by hypocrisy” after demanding more protective equipment for officers early in the pandemic.
“We need to do everything we can to keep each other alive,” Acevedo said in an interview. “And the one thing when it comes to COVID that we know, that the data shows, that’ll help you stay alive . . . is being vaccinated.”
However, Charlotte-Mecklenburg police chief Johnny Jennings said while he believes in vaccination, he does not support a mandate. Jennings said he preferred to “continue to educate and get cooperation from people to go and voluntarily get vaccinated.”
He noted that the pandemic has “been devastating” for police.
“We don’t have the luxury of putting . . . Plexiglass between us and the people we come in contact with,” Jennings said. He said police “have to be responsible to protect ourselves.”
Yolian Y. Ortiz, a spokeswoman for the FOP lodge representing officers in Charlotte, similarly backed vaccinations while pushing against any requirement.
“We are asking everybody to get vaccinated,” she said. “But we believe it’s a personal choice and should not be mandated.”
Officers, she said, are going through the same thought process as others who have not gotten the shots.
“You want your employees to be able to exercise that personal choice, like religion or your freedom of speech. You don’t want that to be infringed upon,” Ortiz said.
Some departments have been able to obtain high compliance without mandates. Ian Adams, a former police officer in Utah who is a doctoral candidate at the University of Utah, studied police vaccination rates in Salt Lake City and found that most of the department’s officers were vaccinated in a matter of days. Adams said the department’s leadership helped fuel the outcome. (A spokesman for the department said the police chief was not available for an interview.)
“My question for people talking about mandates, is there an alternative to consider? It requires a lot of leadership and hard work and transparency, but none of that’s impossible,” said Adams, who also is also executive director of the Utah State Fraternal Order of Police. “And I think that’s what this case demonstrated.”
Exactly how many officers nationwide are vaccinated is unknown. There are more than 15,000 local police departments in the United States, each with its own policies, and no government agency tracking the information.
The Washington Post requested vaccination rates and policies from dozens of police, fire and city officials. Several said they did not keep track of vaccination rates or had incomplete statistics, while some departments reported numbers suggesting thousands of their employees remained unvaccinated.
Police officials in Atlanta, Austin, Dallas and San Antonio — cities that are home to some of the country’s largest departments — said they have not kept records of vaccinations among their forces, nor were mandates in place. In Chicago, home to the country’s second-largest local police force, officials have not kept track of how many officers are vaccinated although a mandate for city employees goes into effect later this month.
Of the major departments that are keeping track, Las Vegas officials said more than half of that city’s force was fully vaccinated. The department also said that vaccinations are required for newly-hired police employees.
There is no mandate for New York City police, the country’s largest local department, which said about 62% of its workforce – which includes 36,000 officers as well as 19,000 civilian personnel – were vaccinated as of Sept. 23. By comparison, 74% of adults in New York are fully vaccinated, according to city data.
Data reported by fire departments also varied. In Austin, vaccinations are not mandated, but fire officials said that four in five personnel were vaccinated. Both New York and Los Angeles departments reported that more than half of employees were vaccinated.
In Denver, a vaccine mandate covering government workers – including police, fire and sheriff’s department employees – went into effect at the end of September, and those who refuse risk losing their jobs.
Even without mandates, experts said, first responders have an obligation to get vaccinated to protect the public.
They are in “very public facing positions, and they really have a responsibility to keep the public safe,” said Racaniello, the Columbia professor.