First, Los Angeles Police Department officers flouted rules requiring them to mask up in public. Now, thousands are refusing to take a mandated Covid vaccine. With an October 20th deadline looming to get jabbed or lose their jobs, cops in L.A. are going to extreme lengths to justify their intransigence — from claiming dubious medical and religious exemptions to filing lawsuits in federal court claiming that “forced injection” violates their constitutional rights or is inferior to “natural immunity.”
Nearly 40 percent of LAPD officers have not gotten a shot, according to the department. “We are almost at a standstill,” says William Briggs, president of the Los Angeles Police Commission, the city’s civilian oversight board. “Officers are refusing to be vaccinated; they are taking a hard line.”
The Los Angeles Police Department is the nation’s third-largest, and Covid has spread widely among the force. Since the start of the pandemic, more than one in four cops have contracted the virus — 2,586 out of 9,482 sworn officers through October 4th, per data provided by LAPD to Rolling Stone. The Delta variant has recently run rampant. From June 1st to September 1st, 249 officers tested positive for Covid; Central Station near Skid Row became a “hot spot,” with more than two dozen cases in a single week of August. A total of 11 LAPD employees have now died from Covid.
Yet resistance to vaccination has held strong among LAPD officers, even in the face of exhortations from Police Chief Michel Moore, who touts the vaccine as a “lifeline” for officers that’s going to “protect them, their families [and] the public in which we serve.”
Seeking to curb infections, Los Angeles has imposed a mandate that city workers get vaccinated by October 20th, as a condition of their ongoing employment. But many officers still aren’t budging. According to city data, 2,651 LAPD employees have notified the city of their plans to claim a religious exemption to the mandate, with another 368 planning to request a medical exemption. (No major world religion has called on its followers to avoid Covid vaccines.) Briggs notes that almost all officers had to show proof of vaccination for things like chickenpox to join the force, and calls these exemption demands “specious.”
A half-dozen LAPD officers have also sued the city in federal court (see case embedded below) alleging that the city mandate violates their constitutional rights. The suit also insists that cops who’ve already contracted, and recovered, from Covid should not be required to comply with the mandate because “the vaccines are inferior to natural immunity.” (Science does not support this assertion. Antibody levels in vaccinated individuals can be 100 times greater than in those who’ve recovered from Covid infection.)
Kevin Snider is a lead attorney on the case and also chief counsel at the Pacific Justice Institute, a right-wing legal nonprofit. He compares his antivaxx clients to “conscientious objectors” in wartime, and City Hall, he asserts, “has not provided a meaningful and proper allowance for officers to request religious accommodation.” Snider says that his clients who’ve recovered from Covid infections fear injury from vaccination. (The CDC recommends vaccination regardless of whether individuals have recovered from Covid.) The lack of a carveout for those with “natural immunity” Snider says, “makes people wonder, is this a political disease?”
Covid infections among police imperil the public as well as the officers themselves. The day-to-day duties of police work bring officers into close contact with people, whether cops are addressing motorists through car windows, administering first aid, or taking suspects into custody.
But the sky-high rates of vaccine refusal among city cops does not surprise Briggs, after the city’s struggles getting officers to comply with mask mandates. “The resistance started there,” Briggs says. He blames “machismo” in the city’s cop culture: “It’s a notion that, ‘Hey, I can face this thing down. I’m brave. I go out on the streets. I carry a gun. I don’t need a mask.’” This warrior mindset is both contrary to science and heedless, Briggs says, of the risks created for the public. “They don’t think about that other component.”
At a recent commission hearing, Briggs called out officers who refused to get vaccinated for violating their sworn commitments: “I personally find it appalling,” he said, “that the personnel of a department, charged with public safety, would willfully, intentionally and brazenly endanger the lives of those who they have taken an oath to protect.”
L.A.’s vaccine mandate has set in motion a high-stakes game of chicken. Despite often vociferous opposition to vaccine mandates, the vast majority of employees in other fields — whether in health care or the NBA — have chosen to comply, rather than lose a paycheck. But police, through their unions, wield extraordinary civic power. Between the dangers of the pandemic and public outcry over police brutality, police departments are also short staffed: Los Angeles is down 500 officers from a year ago. If hundreds or even thousands of cops were to walk off the job in protest of the mandate, it could significantly disrupt an essential public service, creating headaches for elected officials.
Los Angeles may be ground zero in the clash pitting anti-vaxx cops against local governments, but the storyline is hardly unique to Hollywood: From the Chicago PD, to Massachusetts state troopers, to the Portland Police Bureau, law enforcement officers are fighting vaccination mandates, even though the virus is the leading cause of mortality among police in 2021, with 207 deaths to date, according to statistics kept by the watchdog Officer Down Memorial Page. That compares to just 44 police deaths from gunfire over the same period. Covid was also the top cop killer in 2020, at 245 deaths.
The decision to mandate law enforcement officer vaccination is obvious from a public health perspective, but it’s proving a political challenge nearly everywhere. In Chicago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot is clashing with the local Fraternal Organization of Police union about a looming vaccination mandate. In late August, the head of the union, John Catanzara, ranted against a mandate, comparing it to Hitler’s Germany: “We’re in America, Goddamn it. We don’t want to be forced to do anything. Period,” he told the Chicago Sun Times. “This ain’t Nazi fucking Germany — ‘Step into the fucking showers. The pills won’t hurt you.’ What the fuck?” (Catanzara later apologized in a YouTube video, saying: “In no way was I trying to tie forced vaccinations to the atrocities of the Holocaust.” He did not respond to an interview request.)
Chicago will require city employees to reveal their vaccination status by the middle of October, with a vaccine mandate likely by the end of the year. Lightfoot drew a line in the sand at a press conference last week, insisting of the city’s police force: ”They will be vaccinated.”
San Diego has mandated vaccines for all city employees by December 1st. But this summer a self-described 16-year veteran of the San Diego Police Department was caught recruiting anti-vaxx and anti-mask cops in an online forum of the San Diego Police Officers Association. “Myself and another God fearing Patriot on this Department [sic] are building up a coalition of cops who will stand up for our God given freedoms,” the officer wrote. “From this point forward we will never take the vaccine, be tested or wear another face diaper around our heads without our free will to make that choice.” The author challenged his fellow officers not to quit. “Our coalition is growing by the day and if the Department and City are willing to fire 100-500 cops then so be it. It’s time to stand up and bring the fight to them.”
The manifesto was signed with the Q-Anon salute WWG1WGA (Where we go one, we go all.) SDPD acknowledged the post had come from one of its officers and said it would review the incident as a “personnel matter.” The NAACP of San Diego called for an FBI investigation. “We sincerely hope that there are not actually 100-500 officers who feel this way,” the chapter said in a statement, “but even one is too many.”
Other major cities have skirted the mandate conflict. In New York City, home to the nation’s largest police force — about half of which is unvaccinated — the city bowed to legal threats from the Police Benevolent Association which said it would sue to block a vaccine mandate, “to defend our members’ right to make such personal medical decisions.” The city has offered a weekly Covid testing regime as an alternative for cops who won’t take a jab.
In Portland, Oregon, the city has taken a get-vaccinated-or-get-fired mandate for all city employees — apart from police. Cops were initially included in the city requirement, but the police union warned that many officers opposed the vaccine “so deeply that some will leave the profession before accepting a mandate.” A week later, city leaders exempted cops, after state health authorities suggested that the mandate might not be enforceable. (The city today does not keep track of police vaccination status.)
Juan Chavez is a top civil rights lawyer in Portland who frequently battles the city over police accountability. He blames city leaders for “caving” on the vaccine issue — as it has done repeatedly when “the police bureau has threatened to either mass-quit or make a stink about things.” Chavez calls out the hypocrisy of a police bureau that “talks out of both sides of its mouth” touting a commitment to public safety, on one hand, while threatening, “Screw you guys we’re going home” when it doesn’t get its way, on the other. “Both of those attitudes can’t be true,” Chavez says. In truth, he argues, “they are more concerned about themselves than they are the community. And so they don’t act in the public’s interest.”
Law enforcement unions are waging an effective PR battle, insisting vaccine mandates will prompt an exodus of seasoned personnel who would rather hand in their badge than get a small dose of medicine. Speaking for its unvaccinated members, the San Francisco Deputy Sheriffs’ Association warned that a mandate will prompt many deputies to “retire early or seek employment elsewhere,” warning “this will affect public safety.” But such fears may be overblown, as a key example from New England is showing.
In Massachusetts, the Republican Governor Charlie Baker mandated that public employees and state contractors get vaccinated by October 17th. After losing a court challenge of the requirement, the State Police Association of Massachusetts, the union that represents state troopers, issued a press release claiming “dozens of troopers have already submitted their resignation paperwork.” The claim spawned banner headlines, but the story now looks like fake news. As of last week, only one officer has actually separated from the force over the mandate, and that was a retirement, according to the Boston Globe. (The state police would not comment for this story.)
Back in Los Angeles, commission president Briggs insists talks are in progress to try to defuse the anti-vaxx timebomb that’s ticking for the force. “The city is in current negotiations with the unions for what are acceptable excuses under the exemptions,” Briggs says. “And what are the consequences of refusal to receive the vaccine.”