'Eye-opening moment': City leaders, police departments push back over impending COVID vaccine mandates

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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 citywide vaccine mandate. The deadline for city employees to report their vaccination status was last Friday. As of Tuesday, a third of Chicago Police Department sworn and civilian members still had not reported their vaccination status through an online portal, Police Superintendent David Brown said.

Brown previously 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.

Some employees were stripped of their pay, given a direct order to report their vaccination status, and then decided to do so following the deadline, Brown said. Twenty-one officers refused to report their status and were sent home without pay, he said.

“This is about officer safety,” he said, adding: “This virus is no different than the gunfire we take as cops.”

Brown said it was wrong for officers “sworn to protect people” to bring COVID-19 into civilians’ homes. “It would go against our oath to take this virus into their homes,” he added.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot accused the Chicago police union of spreading misinformation and doubt about the vaccination reporting process, which asks for vaccination status and allows for a temporary window of regular coronavirus testing at the officer'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 nonintrusive 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."

Brown said some officers were “misinformed” about the vaccine and the city’s policy.

“Officers should be able to rely on their union leadership for accurate information, and many have been misinformed,” he said.

Brown said he anticipated "several more days" of sitting down with officers to encourage them to report their vaccination status.

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Meanwhile, Chicago Police Union President John Catanzara urged members not to report their 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 came to a head Monday as Oregon and Washington's state employees faced losing their jobs early Tuesday if they didn't comply with state 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 nonpatrol officers to respond to emergency calls because of a shortage of patrol officers.

Solan told The Associated Press he expects another “mass exodus” of Seattle police offers as the vaccine mandate takes effect.

The Washington State Patrol said that 127 employees, including 67 troopers, left the agency on Tuesday due to the COVID-19 vaccination mandate.

Fact check: No staff or students quit Illinois school amid vaccine protest

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 after the death of George Floyd and other Black Americans at the hands of law enforcement, along with 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 noted that 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."

Though studies have shown that COVID-19 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.

At least 10 vaccine mandate challenges have been filed in state and federal court since September.

Several members of the Washington State Patrol sued Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, accusing him of overstepping his legal authority and violating their rights with his vaccine mandate. A judge ruled Monday that Inslee acted legally.

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More: School policing falls hardest on Black students and those with disabilities, study shows

A federal judge denied a last-minute bid by dozens of Oregon state employees, health care providers, and school staff to temporarily stop the state’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate the same night it came into effect.

Los Angeles Police Department employees filed a federal lawsuit in September challenging the mandate that all city workers must be vaccinated. A judge has yet to rule on the case, but Los Angeles’ vaccine mandate deadline is Wednesday.

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.

A Suffolk University/USA TODAY network poll conducted in late September and early October found that more than 61% of Los Angeles residents thought Los Angeles police officers who don’t qualify for a waiver should be vaccinated against COVID-19 or lose their jobs.

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

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Police COVID vaccine mandates are facing pushback from police unions

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