Pa. LE leaders encourage vaccines as COVID becomes top killer of police

"We've got to do something about it to make sure that people here don't die," said Sheriff Bill Mullen


By Megan Guza
The Tribune-Review, Greensburg

GREENSBURG, Pa. — More than gunfire, stabbings, ambushes, vehicle crashes and even heart attacks, covid-19 has become the No. 1 killer of police in the United States.

The virus has killed hundreds of officers over the past two years, according to national organizations that track line-of-duty deaths. The nonprofit Officer Down Memorial Page put the number at about 500. The national Fraternal Order of Police, using its own tracking methods, has counted more than 760 such deaths.

Law enforcement officers were among the first groups of people eligible to get the vaccine this year. About 10 months later, some officers remain hesitant or skeptical — or both.

Nationally, some departments are facing vaccine mandates, prompting some officers to quit or retire. Others, as in Allegheny County and Chicago, are fighting back against mandates.

"I can tell you the vast majority of our officers have been vaccinated," said Greensburg police Capt. Shawn Denning, noting that vaccinations are not mandatory for the department.

Denning declined to say how many officers have been vaccinated.

In Pittsburgh, about 61% of the roughly 900 sworn police officers are vaccinated, officials said. That percentage is the lowest among the city's four public safety departments: 75% of firefighters are vaccinated, 94% of EMS personnel and 81% of Animal Care and Control employees.

Two Pittsburgh police officers died from covid in less than a month, according to the department. Officer Brian Rowland died Sept. 26 at St. Clair Hospital, just days after he was hospitalized. Less than two weeks later, Sgt. Richard Howe was hospitalized. He died at St. Clair Hospital on Oct. 21.

[RELATED: COVID-19: Law enforcement deaths]

As of Friday, 10 police personnel were not working because of covid, with nine in isolation and one hospitalized, a spokeswoman said.

Police Chief Scott Schubert declined to comment.

Some departments have declined to offer the specifics that Pittsburgh officials have:

—Pennsylvania State Police leaders are encouraging officers to get vaccinated, but a spokeswoman said the agency does not keep track of members who are vaccinated.

—Irwin police and municipal leaders said they don't know how many borough officers are vaccinated, and Lt. Mike Thomas said that there is not a discussion about vaccinations in the department. The department does not mandate that officers are vaccinated.

—North Huntingdon officials said they do not require a vaccine, either, and do not require that officers report whether they received a shot.

—Messages left with the Allegheny Valley Regional Police Department, which covers Cheswick and Springdale Township, went unreturned. But Springdale Township Commissioner Anthony Rozzano said he is not aware of any vaccine requirement for the department.

—Harmar police Chief Jason Domaratz said the department does not mandate vaccines but that police brass are keeping track of who is vaccinated. He noted that a "majority" of his officers are vaccinated but did not provide an exact number.

To mandate or not?

Allegheny County Sheriff Bill Mullen announced in early October that vaccines would be required of his employees by Dec. 1. About 79% of employees have been vaccinated so far.

"We've got to do something about it to make sure that people here don't die," he said.

Some employees have been pleased with the requirement, but he said others "don't like it at all."

Mullen said misinformation about the vaccine — for instance, that it is causing thousands of deaths — is contributing to resistance.

Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, an independent Washington-based think tank, said he has heard reasons for resistance that run the gamut: Some young officers just don't think they're susceptible to the virus, others buy into misinformation, and others say, "I don't like being told what to do."

Westmoreland County Sheriff Jim Albert is not mandating that his deputies get vaccinated, but he said, "I highly recommend it."

A vaccination clinic he organized earlier this year drew about 50 of his 90 employees. His office still needed to shut down for a week in the spring after 10 office employees became infected.

"I'm sure more employees in addition to the 50 that were vaccinated at the clinic have since gotten their shots, but I have no idea how many," Albert said.

He said that in the weeks since Mullen's announcement, he's had several calls from "people currently working in" Mullen's office asking about his vaccination plans.

Mullen's mandate seems to fall outside of the norm. Most departments facing vaccine mandates were given the ultimatum by elected officials.

The union representing the Allegheny County Police Department filed a lawsuit earlier this month fighting a mandate from county Executive Rich Fitzgerald requiring all executive branch employees to be vaccinated by Dec. 1. The lawsuit claims the requirement infringes on the officers' "bodily autonomy with no public health justification."

Pittsburgh Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich said police leaders are in a difficult position. He alluded to departments in other states that face potentially firing scores of officers if they don't comply with mandates.

"Is it more of a danger (for officers to go out) without the vaccine, or is it more of a danger firing 40% in the force?" he said.

Leechburg police Chief Jason Schaeffer said making a covid vaccine requirement for officers to keep their jobs would likely cause havoc.

"I think you'd see a lot of grievances filed with the local Fraternal Order of Police along with lawsuits," he said. "There will also be officers who are close to retiring leaving and people jumping to departments that don't require vaccinations."

He said it already is difficult to attract police candidates because of low starting pay offered by many municipal departments. A mandate could exacerbate that problem, he said.

Schaeffer, whose department has three full-time officers, said the decision to get vaccinated should be a personal choice.

"We still live in a free country," he said. "I don't believe you should be forced to do anything if you aren't harming anybody else."

'Don't wait any longer'

National groups such as the Officer Down Memorial Page are advocating for officers to get vaccinated.

Last year, 378 officers nationwide died in the line of duty, and of those 248 — about 65% — were attributable to covid-19, according to the group. That's more than all other causes combined. The virus helped drive a 148% increase in line-of-duty deaths last year.

"Covid is the #1 killer of (law-enforcement officers)," reads the banner at the top of the group's homepage. "Getting vaccinated is just as important as wearing your vest and your seat belt. Don't wait any longer, please consult your doctor to see if vaccination is right for you."

With two months left in the year, police covid deaths in 2021 have already eclipsed 2020's numbers: of 386 line of duty deaths this year, 250 have been covid-related.

The Fraternal Order of Police said although covid-19 is "without a doubt a public health crisis, it is also a public safety crisis."

Wexler said cops who do not get vaccinated are playing Russian roulette.

"They are risking their lives, they are risking their partners' lives and they are risking the communities' lives," he said.

He said department and union leaders need to find a way to work out the issue.

"What do we have to do, what do both sides have to do, to make this happen — tonight, tomorrow, as soon as possible?" Wexler said.

If 500 police officers had been gunned down in the streets over the past nearly two years, he said, "there would be more outrage than there is about them dying of covid."

Scene elsewhere

Leaders in police departments and unions across the country are encouraging their rank and file to resist vaccination mandates.

In Chicago, a vaccine mandate by Mayor Lori Lightfoot has sparked a battle between city and police leaders, though Chicago firefighters and other city employees are also fighting the mandate. The head of the police union has encouraged officers to actively defy the vaccine requirement. A federal judge was expected to rule on the mandate Friday.

New York City police officers, firefighters, garbage collectors and most other city workers faced a 5 p.m. Friday deadline to show proof they received at least one dose of a covid vaccine. Workers who don't face being placed on unpaid leave beginning Monday.

In Massachusetts, all state employees — including state troopers — were told to be vaccinated by Oct. 17. As of that date, about 96% of the 42,000 state employees were vaccinated, according to WBUR, including about 90% of state troopers. Another 200 troopers are still awaiting a ruling on their application for a vaccine waiver.

Faced with a similar mandate in Denver, less than 1% of the city's Department of Public Safety resigned or retired over the requirement, according to The Denver Post. Seven Denver police officers sued the city in late September, calling the mandate an overreach, but a judge dismissed the suit a week later.

The newspaper reported that the resignations and retirements included 15 police officers, seven sheriff's deputies and five firefighters. Disciplinary meetings are scheduled for 34 more public safety employees for failing to comply with the mandate.

(c)2021 The Tribune-Review (Greensburg, Pa.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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