As COVID-19 vaccine mandate deadlines loom over police departments nationwide, law enforcement leaders and politicians must weigh whether defiant officers can keep their jobs amid an already-depleted police force.
In Chicago, the police union and mayor have publicly feuded over a city-wide vaccine mandate. The deadline for city employees to report their vaccination status was last Friday. Over a third of Chicago police officers didn’t do so, according to city data.
A “very small number” of Chicago police officers declined additional opportunities to report their vaccination status Monday, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said. They were sent home without pay and could face disciplinary action.
Lightfoot accused the union of spreading misinformation and doubt about the reporting process, which asks for vaccination status and allows for a temporary window of regular COVID-19 testing at the employee’s own expense until vaccines can be administered.
“Whatever (they’ve) been told, frankly in many instances they weren’t told the truth, and so there is I think an eye-opening moment for many people that this actually is a pretty straightforward non-intrusive process,” Lightfoot said. “Our young men and women at the police department are smarter than maybe they’ve been given credit for. They’re not going to risk their careers by being insubordinate and having in their jackets the fact that they defied a direct order of their supervisors.”
Chicago Police Superintendent David Brown threatened in a memo to fire officers who don’t comply with the policy, adding that those who retire rather than adhere to the requirements might be putting their retirement benefits at risk.
Meanwhile, Chicago Police Union President John Catanzara urged members not to report their vaccination status. The head of the Baltimore Police union did the same, The Baltimore Sun reported.
“It is understandable that our members have questions about a policy with so little information being provided by the city,” Baltimore Sgt. Mike Mancuso wrote in a letter to union members. “Until the city responds to our right to bargain these issues, or the courts intervene, I suggest you do nothing in regard to revealing your vaccination status as it is outlined in the city’s policy.”
In the Pacific Northwest, tensions are coming to a head as Oregon’s state and Seattle’s city employees are poised to lose their jobs early Tuesday if they don’t comply with vaccine mandates.
Seattle’s police department has lost more than 300 officers over the past year, according to Mike Solan, the union’s president. Last week, Seattle’s police department sent detectives and non-patrol officers to respond to emergency calls due to a shortage of patrol officers.
Solan told The Associated Press he anticipates another “mass exodus” of Seattle police offers as the vaccine mandate comes into effect.
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Police departments nationwide have been experiencing staffing shortages since before vaccine mandates took place. According to a report from the nonprofit National Police Foundation, 86% of law enforcement agencies nationwide reported a staffing shortage in 2020.
A combination of calls to defund the police following the death of George Floyd and other Black Americans at the hands of law enforcement, and the COVID-19 pandemic led to some of the biggest police budget cuts in a decade last year.
COVID-19 is the leading cause of death for American law enforcement officers, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page, a nonprofit tracking police officer deaths. The nation’s top infectious disease physician raised this statistic as he urged police officers to get vaccinated in an interview with Fox News on Sunday.
“I’m not comfortable with telling people what they should do under normal circumstances, but we are not in normal circumstances right now,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
“Think about the implications of not getting vaccinated when you’re in a position where you have a responsible job and you want to protect yourself because you’re needed at your job, whether you’re a police officer or a pilot or any other of those kinds of occupations,” Fauci said.
Though studies have shown that COVID vaccines remain highly effective in preventing severe illness and death, law enforcement officers opposed to vaccine mandates are threatening resignations or are seeking remedy in court.
Several members of the Washington State Patrol sued Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, claiming he overstepped his legal authority and violated their rights with his vaccine mandate. A judge ruled Monday that Inslee acted legally.
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Oregon State Police troopers tried to temporarily pause the vaccine mandate that comes into effect Monday night. A judge rejected the request on Oct. 7.
Los Angeles Police Department employees filed a federal lawsuit in September challenging the mandate that all city workers must be vaccinated against COVID-19. A judge has yet to rule on the case, but Los Angeles’ vaccine mandate deadline is rapidly approaching on Oct. 20.
A similar mandate exists on the county level, but Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva said he won’t force his deputies to be vaccinated.
“I don’t want to be in a position to lose 5, 10% of my workforce overnight,” he told The Associated Press.
New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio said he’s considering “all options” with vaccine mandates for the nation’s largest police department.
Contributing: The Associated Press