February 20, 2021

COVID Vaccines Are an Opportunity for Chiefs and Union Leaders to Work Together


Dear PERF members, 

For the past year, PERF has been tracking the impact of COVID-19 on the country and policing, and many of you have told me harrowing stories about you experiences.  Early on, Detroit Chief Jim Craig told me about losing his head of homicide to COVID, and later our good friend Benny Napoleon, Sheriff in Wayne County.  Jim himself came down with COVID and was very sick, and other chiefs across the country have also caught the virus.

No city has been more hard hit than New York City, where almost 10,000 members of the Police Department have tested positive and 50 have died. Seven officers in Newark died, and eight members of the LAPD.  The FOP’s national total of COVID line-of-duty deaths is currently 429. It’s been rough hearing story after story about officers getting sick. And what chiefs have told me is that often cops were infecting other cops, because the very nature of their jobs makes working closely an occupational necessity.

So when the FDA approved two vaccines in December, it seemed like a miracle. 

But when we asked all PERF member chiefs about vaccination issues in a survey in mid-December, we found that 22% of them expected that fewer than half of their members would choose to be vaccinated. The was borne out in the weeks that followed, as many chiefs have told me that 30 or 40% of their officers have been saying “no thanks” to the vaccines, or “maybe later.”

At the same time, several departments were telling us they expect 80 or 90 percent of their members to get vaccinated.  So why are the stories so different?

It seemed like we needed to explore these issues in greater depth, so this past Wednesday, PERF held a 75-minute virtual Town Hall on the topic of COVID vaccines.  If you weren’t able to join us, I’d encourage you to watch it by clicking here.  Or click here if you’d like to view short sections of the Town Hall about particular issues.

The Town Hall went a long way in explaining the science behind the vaccines and the need to educate cops. Simply making vaccines available isn’t working. In departments that are getting high numbers of officers vaccinated, it seems that the roll-out was strategic.  And like everything else that works, leadership is playing a key role.

As I listened to the chiefs and medical experts in our Town Hall, they kept coming back to the idea that there’s an opportunity for all of us to recognize that by getting vaccinated, you can help yourself, your family, your co-workers, and your community.

Often, this means that there’s an opportunity for labor and management to work together and make a difference. The jurisdictions represented in our Town Hall -- Denver, Palm Beach County, FL, and Cambridge, MA --  all have one thing in common: labor and management are working together.

Denver Chief Paul Pazen set the highest possible standard for his department. “Our department is at least at 80% vaccinated today, and our goal is 100%,” he said. “We want to get through this pandemic without losing a member of our team, and I’m holding my breath now until we can get to that point.”

Detective Nick Rogers, the union president in Denver, said he doesn’t see the vaccine as a labor-vs.-management issue, because it’s a matter of officer safety.  He and Chief Pazen are “in lockstep,” he said.  That lockstep began back in August, when Chief Pazen announced that officers could volunteer to participate in a trial of the Moderna vaccine.

Because Rogers works in a narcotics unit, he said, “I was coming into contact with three or four people a day who were sick, or who had COVID or had just gotten over COVID. So I signed up immediately.” And it’s not just about protecting yourself and your department, he said; it’s about protecting your family.  “I have parents who are pretty old, and I can’t tell you how bad I would feel if I brought the virus to them,” Rogers told us. 

Now that a large majority of officers in Denver have been vaccinated, “it’s kind of lightened the mood in the Police Department,” Rogers said. “The officers aren’t on pins and needles, and I think everyone feels more comfortable doing their job now and interacting with the public.”

Ric Bradshaw is one of the most respected people I know in law enforcement. As chief in West Palm Beach and now as Sheriff in Palm Beach County, he has really stepped up, big time. When the vaccines were announced, Ric and his union conducted a survey and found that 30 to 40% of the deputies said they wouldn’t be taking a vaccine. At our Town Hall, Ric recounted what he did in response:

“I told the union president, ‘Look, we’re going to have to lead by example.’ So I got together with some of my upper staff members and the union president, and we did a video showing all of us getting the vaccine. And we talked about how the rumors that people were hearing about the vaccine were not true. Once our deputies saw that, they started coming around. I believe we’re probably going to get at least 90% compliance when we get the vaccines available here. I tell them that this is a public safety issue. It’s not just about keeping yourself safe. If you get sick and we have to quarantine 15 or 20 other deputies, that’s 15 or 20 people off the street, and that’s affecting our service delivery.”

Another helpful tip that we heard:  Identify informal leaders who are trusted within the department to help disseminate information.  In Cambridge, the Police Department achieved an 80% vaccination rate by providing officers with a lot of information, but in a neutral manner, not in a heavy-handed way. Deputy Superintendent Pauline Wells told us that officers naturally gravitated toward an officer who is also a nurse, who answered a lot of officers’ questions. And the department identified other influential people in each part of the department who could share information.

After our Town Hall was over, I got an interesting message from Rick Myers, who has served as chief in many places, including Newport News, VA; Colorado Springs; and Appleton, WI. Historically, Rick said, crises have tended to unify people, and he sees COVID as an opportunity to create a new model for collaborations between police chiefs and labor leaders. 

Here’s what Rick said:   “I always used to tell my labor leaders that about 80-85% of the time, we're going to want the same things for our agency; and in the other 15-20%, we’ll be on opposite sides. So where do you want to spend your time?  If you want to spend your time always fighting about the 15%, we can do that, but my preference would be to work together on the majority of things that we all want to see for our agency.”   

I think Rick is right. The COVID pandemic, and the vaccine issue in particular, are an opportunity to work together, to answer everybody’s questions, and to get through this together.

So much time is spent talking about officer safety, and usually it’s framed in terms of what steps officers can take to protect themselves. Can you imagine a more compelling issue than making cops safe during the largest health epidemic in 100 years? This is one issue where labor and management can come together. Getting 80% of department vaccinated could be a total game changer, saving lives and dramatically improving working conditions.