Comment: Cops who don’t vaccinate betray their oath to protect

Policing is dangerous work, and covid-19 has killed far more officers in the last two years than firearms.

By Patrick Skinner / Special To The Washington Post

I am a fully vaccinated police officer who recently caught a breakthrough case of covid-19. And I’ve never felt so lucky. Covid was by far the leading cause of death for police officers nationwide in 2020; killing six times as many officers as the second-most-common cause, shootings; and it is on track to be the top killer again in 2021.

After missing a week with the illness, I went back to work here in my hometown of Savannah, Ga. My left eye was bloodshot because I’d coughed so much, and I still had trouble catching my breath. But vaccination limited my sickness to a truly miserable week and not a lasting stay in the hospital, or worse. A neighbor a block away died of covid the same week. He became one of the 750,000 Americans who got sick and never again could catch their breath.

The Monday I returned to work, a vocal number of New York Police Department officers, along with firefighters and other civil servants, closed down part of the Brooklyn Bridge as they protested the city’s mandate that all city employees get at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine or apply for a religious or medical exemption by 5 p.m. on Oct. 29. Some carried signs that said “We Will Not Comply.” This bizarre protest followed hyped warnings by police unions that thousands of officers would reject the vaccine mandate and that this mandate, not covid, would create a public safety issue when the officers walked off the job.

In Los Angeles this past Monday, police officers — including at least one reportedly in uniform — were among the thousands of people protesting the Dec. 18 vaccination deadline for city workers. Los Angeles Police Department officials say only 75 percent of the LAPD’s 12,000 workers have been vaccinated. Hundreds of officers haven’t disclosed their vaccination status, and many others are seeking exemptions. An LAPD officer who founded the group Roll Call 4 Freedom said he turned in his badge and gun recently because he refuses to get vaccinated. The NYPD and LAPD are far from alone. Officers in Chicago and other cities are also protesting mandates.

These protests and warnings are not sound and fury signifying nothing, even if they haven’t resulted in mass resignations. They are something bizarre and sinister. The revolt is an anti-policing campaign by police.

Police officers are sworn to promote and protect the public good. Public health is a big part of the public good. Vaccinations are basic public health measures that have been accepted for 100 years; they are by far the best defense against covid and therefore essential to public health. Why do so many police officers seem to believe that this is a “personal choice” and that being an officer doesn’t come with increased responsibility to the public, whom we took an oath to protect?

It can’t be that they fear the “risk” of vaccination. Being a local cop in America means there is always some risk, especially from ubiquitous guns. Traffic accidents are also a leading risk to police officers. We can’t pick and choose what risks we will accept in this job, but we can seek to mitigate them. Cops wear ballistic vests to reduce the risks from guns; we wear brightly colored vests to reduce the risks while working traffic accidents. Given that covid-19 is by far the greatest risk right now for police, it is bewildering that officers would not only refuse a vaccine administered to literally billions of people, but do so proudly and make it yet another part of the “us vs. them” dynamic that is a cancer on American policing. I’m not saying police must be selfless; I’m just saying we must not be selfish.

Police are rejecting vaccines or vaccine mandates for a variety of reasons, but there is a common thread to the high-profile actions and statements by police unions: that officers should not be held to the same rules that apply to all other government employees – or the public at large. Police saying “We will not comply” isn’t just a threat to public health; it’s also a threat to the idea that policing must be done with the consent of those we police. Officers encounter a great number of people during their shifts, and there is often little choice in these encounters. It is the essence of anti-policing for officers to create increased and wholly unnecessary exposure to a killer disease, especially when the rationale seems to be that we should get special deference.

Police officers wield the immense power of the state, which is why it is so dangerous when we set ourselves above those we police. The spectacle of some officers insisting that their personal preferences supersede public safety is part of an ugly trend of police seeking to be treated as distinct from the communities we work for and with and, ideally, live in. And officers yelling their refusal to “comply” with long-established and previously uncontroversial public health fundamentals does not go unnoticed by communities and neighborhoods with strained or tenuous relations with their police departments.

Like so many Americans, I spent the last 17 months doing what I could to avoid catching the coronavirus. Since I am a detective, this involved wearing a mask and maintaining social distancing in a job where a fair amount of the work is up close and personal. Wearing a mask while investigating shootings in the seemingly endless Savannah summer was uncomfortable, but it was mandated by the city and the department, because it was and is the right thing to do in the face of an airborne illness. Trying to protect myself and my neighbors also involved getting vaccinated as soon as possible. In the early days of the vaccines, supplies were limited and distribution was imperfect. We in health and law enforcement roles were given priority because of the inherent risks of our jobs. This needs repeating: Governments — federal, state and local — had to make hard choices about who could go to the front of a very, very long line, and these governments all chose police officers: Protecting the public meant protecting the police who served them. It wasn’t just the risks of our jobs but their perceived social value.

Millions of people in our communities waited for a chance to get vaccines that some police officers still refuse to get. Hundreds of thousands of people died before those vaccines were available. Covid doesn’t care if a person quit their job over the vaccine: A San Francisco family and community is mourning the loss this month of an officer who was placed on leave for refusing his city’s vaccine mandate; he was one of more than 1,000 people a day that covid still claims in this country. We don’t have to be this way. Vaccination rates for police officers nationwide, like those for the overall population, are rising as mandates kick in, but there are still high-profile instances of dissent. And the reasoning behind it is suffocating.

Patrick Skinner is a police officer in Savannah, Ga. He is a former CIA operations officer and served in the U.S. Coast Guard as well as the U.S. Capitol Police.

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