Police leaders discuss mandating COVID vaccinations
"Without mandating the vaccine when it becomes available, we will not be able to provide the service to our community."
This article is reprinted with permission from PERF's Daily COVID-19 Reports
By Police Executive Research Forum
In a PERF survey published yesterday, only 3% of respondents told PERF that they would require officers to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
For this report, PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler spoke with law enforcement executives from three agencies that said they are planning to mandate the vaccine: the San Marino (California) Police Department; the Salisbury (North Carolina) Police Department and the Dane County (Wisconsin) Sheriff’s Office.
San Marino, California Chief John Incontro
We’re a small city of about 14,000 people, primarily ethnically Chinese and Taiwanese, just outside the city of Los Angeles. We are authorized for 30 officers, and we currently have 28, along with about 12 civilians.
Over the past month or so, case numbers in Southern California have skyrocketed. I currently have six of my roughly 40 people out to quarantine for 14 days because of contacts. It’s important for us to have adequate resources to provide the right policing to this community. Without mandating the vaccine when it becomes available, we will not be able to provide the service to our community and would have to rely on outside agencies to assist us. But almost all the agencies in this area have been hit pretty hard by COVID.
In discussions with our city manager and HR director, we’ve made the decision that we’re going to mandate it. However, based on discussions with city attorneys, there will be a medical exemption and a religious exemption. And if someone still does not want to take the vaccine, they’ll be accommodated in such a way that they’ll probably be working out of a separate room and have to wear masks all the time. We hope that doesn’t happen. In a very informal survey, most of our personnel say they want to take the vaccine.
We have a union, and I’m fortunate to have a good relationship with the union. We’ve had some preliminary conversations, and for the most part, because our personnel has seen the COVID devastation in this area, they’re mostly in favor of vaccination. And they appreciate that we’ll work out accommodations for the small number of people who may not be in favor of taking it.
Right now I think I have two people who are not as interested in taking it as everybody else is. We started these conversations early when there was still just talk about trying to find the vaccine, to try to stay ahead of the curve.
Within Los Angeles County, discussions are ongoing as far as who will get the vaccine when. California has placed first responders in Tier 2, except for active EMS paramedic personnel, who are in Tier 1. I’m currently the president of the Los Angeles County Police Chiefs Association, and we have one of our members serving on a county committee on distribution and prioritization of the vaccine. Decisions haven’t been made beyond those two tiers.
Another part of that committee, as well as another committee that’s forming with just fire and police personnel within the county, is focused on prioritization within our own departments. With law enforcement, I think it will start with detention and patrol personnel, then work its way to folks like myself, who have limited community contact.
I think it’s going to be really important for chiefs, HR, city managers and mayors to be first in line to receive the vaccine and encourage its use. I think our leadership is going to set the tone for the communities we serve by showing that our personnel believes this is safe and we want them to be safe. We’re very fortunate to be in one of the first groups receiving the vaccine.
Salisbury, North Carolina Chief Jerry Stokes
We’re a city of 33,600 people within a county of about 140,000. We’re 39% African-American and 10% Hispanic, so a fairly diverse city. A lot of the county’s COVID cases are concentrated in our city. The state has labeled us a “red” county, meaning a lot of community spread has started to occur here recently.
We have a Veterans Affairs hospital and quite a few related congregate care facilities. Many of our cases, and particularly our deaths, have been in nursing homes and congregate care facilities. Our Hispanic population in particular has suffered a disproportionate rate of COVID-related issues.
We have a fairly significant gun crime issue. I tried to do platooning with my detectives, but we had back-to-back homicides, and it just wasn’t workable to have half the detectives out with major cases going on. And we had a concentration of cases within our detective division that took half of them out. I also know that I have to sustain the patrol function as best I can, and I currently have a patrol staffing shortage.
So those things led me to say that I need to make sure that people are healthy and able to come to work. And I can’t be contributing to the spread of this virus in the community, particularly among the particularly vulnerable populations in the congregate care facilities. I don’t want to risk being any part of that spread.
Those were my guiding principles for why I wanted to mandate it. To make that decision, I worked with my city attorney. His guidance was that the EEOC’s most recent update was from March 2020 and discussed things like the flu shot, but that came before a COVID vaccine had been developed. He felt sure that the EEOC was going to say that it would be okay for us to mandate it, as long as we’re compliant with ADA Title VII on religious accommodations.
We are certainly going to accommodate any reasonable request. I’m hearing that pregnant women should follow their doctor’s guidance. I have an officer who is pregnant right now, and I’ve told officers that if they’re pregnant or think they might be pregnant, they should talk to their doctor. If the doctor says not to take it, I’m absolutely not going to require them to take it.
If I have someone intently dig their heels in, I can treat it as a disciplinary matter or provide them with a very strict mandate about wearing PPE and what contact they should have with fellow officers and members of the public. I’m leaning toward being fairly strict if that occurs.
In North Carolina, we are not allowed to have unions for law enforcement or any public employees, so I don’t have that issue to deal with here. But there’s a bit of pushback and some concerns. I’m a member of the state chiefs’ association, and most chiefs who polled their officers had 30%-35% say they would take the vaccine. That’s pretty low, given how many people they come in contact with and how potentially deadly this virus is.
Captain Dave Dohnal, Dane County Sheriff’s Office, Wisconsin
We have approximately 460 sworn and another 150 non-sworn members.
Over the past five weeks, our different divisions have been doing their annual in-service, and the question of whether it’ll be mandated has come up. We’ve been telling everybody that our plan is to mandate it. We’ve been getting some questions from the union about whether we can do this. We’ve reached out to our risk management and department counsel, and they’re doing some more research into it. So our plan is to mandate it, but we’re still waiting to hear back before making any final conclusions.
Our discussion with our staff has been that we mandate TB testing, especially for those working at the jail, and this is along the same lines. We would have exceptions for any health-related issues, religious concerns, or other potential concerns, such as pregnancy.
Early on, we mandated that everyone take a COVID test to find out where our numbers were. We used scheduling software to help coordinate that and make sure everyone was covered. The plan moving forward is to do the same for the vaccine.
In Dane County, we’re using a drive-through testing facility, and we envision distributing the vaccine at the same location.
The union requested to sit down and discuss this, but we haven’t met with them yet. Part of that is that we’re waiting to hear from risk management and our counsel. It may not be beneficial to meet with them before we know all the facts on our end.
We know some major hospitals in the area have the vaccine but are not mandating it, so we’re hearing the union may object if it is mandated for them but not for frontline workers in the hospital.
When we’ve discussed it during our in-service sessions, a few people have had concerns, but most people haven’t given negative feedback about taking it.
Sheriff Mahoney has been in contact with the Brown County sheriff, up in the Green Bay area, who has been working with an epidemiologist on these issues.