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A year and a half after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Fruitland, Maryland, Police Chief Brian Swafford says the COVID-19 vaccination rate within his department is far behind where he’d like it to be. And he’s having a helluva time convincing officers to get the potentially life-saving shot, especially when politics come into play.
“Some people that voted for Trump are the ones now saying, ‘Oh I'm not getting it,’” said Swafford, whose department of 20 officers is 60 percent vaccinated. “Well Donald Trump got this vaccine, and so it's the same vaccine that you're gonna get under President Biden. So because your guy didn't win now, it's a hoax? Come on.”
“If their decision is based on politics and not their health, I’d like to change their mind,” he added. “I wish I could get them to step back and look at it a different way, but they’re just not going to.”
Since the start of the global pandemic, more police officers have died of COVID than all other causes combined in the line of duty. Just by the nature of their work, having to interact with the public on a near-daily basis, exposure to the virus is almost a certainty.
But despite the mounting death count, law enforcement officers in the country are simply not getting vaccinated. Their reluctance—whether over politics, retaliation for growing criticism toward their profession, or distrust for something as new as the COVID-19 vaccine—is putting themselves, and the communities they’re supposed to serve, at risk. And their bosses are running out of ways to convince them otherwise.
“In the profession as a whole, you generally find a lot of skepticism inside law enforcement,” Atlanta Police Chief Rodney Bryant told VICE News. “Police officers are just overly cautious about things they don’t understand. They don’t move quickly into place without a lot of detail and a lot of information. That apprehension is shared throughout the profession.”
Earlier this month, the Fraternal Order of Police, a prominent police union representing 356,000 members of law enforcement across the nation, reported that 537 of its members died after contracting the virus. The Officer Down Memorial Page reported that 340 U.S. police officers died of COVID-19 between 2020 and August 2021.
“I wish I could get them to step back and look at it a different way, but they’re just not going to.”
The NYPD counts as many as 58 COVID-19 deaths among its ranks, according to the New York Post. Los Angeles has lost as many as 10 officers since the start of the pandemic, according to the LA Times. Miami Police Department Chief Art Acevedo told local reporters that his department lost four officers this month alone to the respiratory disease. News outlet Police 1, which tracked officer deaths reported by the media reported Texas saw a whopping 57 COVID-related deaths.
But these numbers haven’t done much to convince a large portion of the country’s law enforcement officers that they should get the vaccine. In New York City, for example, just 47 percent of the NYPD’s 50,000 employees have received at least one dose of the vaccine as of July 2021, according to data released by the mayor's office. That’s far below the city’s 75 percent rate among adults who are at least partially vaccinated.
And just 33 percent of the city’s 10,000 Department of Corrections employees have been vaccinated, according to the same data.
Over on the West Coast, just 52 percent of the Los Angeles Police Department’s nearly 10,000 employees have been at least partially vaccinated as of June 2021, according to data obtained by the Guardian earlier this month. This is far behind the 72 percent of city residents over the age of 12 with at least one dose of the vaccine.
And California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation fared even worse: The state’s 35 prisons reported that just 40 percent of its correctional officers have been fully vaccinated, compared to 54% of the state’s population.
The Chicago Police Department, the nation’s third largest local law enforcement agency, reported just 27 percent of its officers were at least partially vaccinated, according to NPR. Meanwhile, 70 percent of adults in the city have received at least one dose of the vaccine as of August.
The hesitation isn’t exclusive to bigger police departments either. Dr. David Thomas, a retired police officer and justice studies professor at Florida Gulf Coast University, told VICE News that several of his former colleagues in Florida, where the deadlier and more contagious Delta variant of COVID-19 has proliferated, are also struggling to convince their subordinates to get vaccinated.
“I had brunch with the undersheriff and two chiefs who said they’ve stopped trying to tell their officers to get vaccinated because it was like beating their head against a wall,” Thomas said. “The profession is very hard headed. It is a profession where historically someone has to die before there is change. It’s scary, but it’s true.”
In Maryland, Swafford has heard the same.
“Locally, the chiefs and sheriffs that I know, they've gotten the vaccine, and but they're stuck in the same boat when it comes to their officers,” he said.
The pandemic’s overlap with the nation’s reckoning with the role cops play in society haven’t helped matters either. As the political interests of those who rejected taking precautionary measures against the spread of the virus merged with those who shared unconditional support of law enforcement in the face of scrutiny, many career cops took notice and aligned themselves accordingly.
“It’s been a pretty tough time for law enforcement. A lot of officers don’t feel as proud walking out the door in the uniform as they used to. They don’t feel as safe. They don’t feel as appreciated. They’re working harder because of their reduced numbers.” said Professor Warren Eller, an emergency response expert who teaches at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. “The stock for the profession of policing has dropped precipitously in the last decade or so, and in some dimensions for good reason.”
He says some of the resistance is possibly a show of retaliation.
“When you’re angry and someone holds you back, you tend to get even angrier,” Eller said. “A little bit of that is going on. The more and more we push people to tell them what they have to do, the more and more they're not doing it just to prove that they don't have to do it.”
But not all departments are seeing lagging numbers. The Atlanta Police Department currently has 60 percent of its officers vaccinated, compared to 48 percent of people who have received the vaccine in Fulton County. Chief Bryant says the high number of officers who took the shot has given the department some advantages.
“It has given us the ability to meet more frequently and freely and given us the freedom that we didn’t have if we weren’t vaccinated,” the 33-year law enforcement veteran told VICE News. “It gives us the ability to encounter citizens in person and that’s most of what our job requires: personal contact with individuals.”
Some police organizations have also taken it upon themselves to help try and achieve similar results elsewhere. The National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE) for example, which Bryant is a member of, has been encouraging officers to get the vaccine as soon as it became available. Their “Civic, Advocacy, Roundtables, Engagement, Safety” initiative (CARES), started in April 2020 as a collection of virtual discussions about improving policing during the pandemic and is now focused entirely on vaccine distribution events among officers and the public they serve. Local NOBLE chapters even held town hall meetings with Black doctors to dispel the myths regarding the vaccine in our community and the importance of getting vaccinated.
A spokesperson for the organization told VICE News they are currently working on bringing these local efforts to their national platform in some capacity.
But while some cities and towns have high-ranking officers leading the charge against low vaccine rates, others are relying on mandates to achieve the same kind of results. In Denver, where just 43 percent of officers are vaccinated, the city’s Police Protective Association said it's prepared to terminate officers who don’t get the shot. In New York City, Mayor Bill De Blasio said all city employees, including police officers, will have to be vaccinated by Sept. 13 or face consequences.
The mandates have already created a tense standoff between police unions and their local leaders. In cities as big as San Francisco and as small as the Van Buren Township west of Detroit, police unions are saying recent mandates will lead to officers quitting in droves. Some groups, like Massachusetts’ Correction Officers Federated Union, say they’re ready to take legal action.
Swafford said he’s closely monitoring how different law enforcement groups are responding to local mandates as he believes it will have national ramifications.
“I’d be curious to see how the courts weigh in on the mandate,” he added. “I mean I can’t imagine it not making it to the Supreme Court, so I hope they’re already thinking about it.”
Bryant on the other hand said that when all is said and done, officers will ultimately heed to the requirements of the job.
“Once you start seeing momentum in the profession, we tend to eventually get there,” he said. “It’s like technology and training. We may be slow to catch on, but once it’s ingrained in the profession, it becomes the norm.”