July 31, 2021

Policing and COVID – It’s time to change strategy


Dear PERF member,

We are at a critical inflection point in our country’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

PERF has been closely monitoring the police perspective on COVID since March 2020, with our Daily COVID-19 Reports, a webinar we conducted on COVID vaccines, and ongoing conversations with PERF members and others. We’ve heard your stories of overcoming debilitating working conditions, and the sickness and death that COVID brought to police departments and sheriffs’ offices. In cities large and small, officers fell ill, and many died.

You know the stories. In places like New York City, as many as 10,000 officers were out sick with COVID at some point, and 55 members of the department died. Across our country, the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund identified 182 officers who died of COVID in 2020, plus 71 more who died in the first six months of 2021.

And now, 17 months after we first heard about COVID, just as we thought we were seeing daylight, the Delta variant has put us back on our heels, big time.

Just look at the latest chart showing new reported cases nationally. You can see how starting in January, the vaccines quickly started bringing us down off the cliff. But around July 1, the curve started going in the wrong direction again. Hospitalizations and deaths are also on the rise.

Source:  New York Times

And we’re starting to hear about increases in officers becoming infected. On Tuesday, LAPD Chief Michel Moore told the city’s Police Commission that 33 LAPD personnel tested positive for COVID in the last week. During the three prior weeks, the LAPD had only seen 19 new cases. And during a previous commission meeting on June 29, Moore reported just one new case among LAPD personnel during the previous week.

Here is the inflection point. We now have vaccines, which have almost entirely stopped vaccinated persons from experiencing serious illness, hospitalization, or death. The problem isn’t unsolvable. We have the solution in hand, but too many people are refusing to accept the solution.

A mixed record of vaccination rates among police officers

PERF has been following vaccinations among law enforcement personnel from the beginning. On December 14, 2020, three days after the Pfizer vaccine was approved for emergency use, we conducted a survey of all PERF members who are chiefs, sheriffs, or otherwise chief executives of their agencies.  We asked them to estimate the percentage of their officers and other employees who would want to be vaccinated.

The results were encouraging. 31% said they expected more than 75% of their employees to be vaccinated. Another 47% expected that 51-75% of their employees would be vaccinated. Only 22% said they expected that only half or fewer of their employees would be vaccinated.

On March 9, we conducted a follow-up survey. 240 agencies responded, and 78% were tracking how many members of their agencies were getting vaccinated. Again, the findings looked good. 54% of the responding agencies reported that more than half of their sworn personnel had already been vaccinated. And only 7% reported that fewer than 25% of their officers had been vaccinated. That was impressive, considering that vaccines were not widely available in early March, even for high-priority groups.

But more recently, there have been reports that in some cities, fewer than 50% of officers have been vaccinated.

The Delta variant means we must do better, right now.

Vaccination rates among the general public have slowed down. As of this week, only 58% of Americans 12 years or older have been fully vaccinated, and only 67% have received at least one dose.

That’s not good enough to reach herd immunity. And the Delta variant has thrown a monkey wrench into the picture, by making COVID much more easily transmissible. That is why the infection, hospitalization, and death rates are trending up again.

So it’s time to ask ourselves some questions:

Police have had 17 months of experience with COVID. Should we continue on the path we have been taking, or should police chiefs change course?

Our surveys of PERF members found that chiefs and sheriffs were mostly focusing on education and encouragement when it comes to getting their personnel vaccinated. But under the current circumstances, that may not be enough. New York City just adopted a mandate for city employees, including NYPD officers. Police Commissioner Dermot Shea was asked about it in a TV interview, and he strongly endorsed it, saying:

“I support this move 100%. When you feel sick, you go to the doctor, and you listen to the doctor. To me, this isn’t that complicated. We’ve eradicated diseases in this country, and this is another one. The vaccines work.  I have 5 members of the department in the hospital right now, some in quite serious condition, and all [were] unvaccinated. I think we can all do better on this. God forbid, you put yourself or your loved ones or anyone else at risk. It’s the right thing to do.”

Are police officer vaccinations an officer safety issue?

There’s no question that getting a vaccine reduces your chance of dying of COVID almost to zero. More than 99% of recent COVID deaths were among unvaccinated persons, and unvaccinated people also are accounting for more than 97% of COVID hospitalizations, according to the CDC and other experts. So, yes, vaccinations are an officer safety issue.

Should police chiefs mandate vaccinations, like they have done for body armor and seatbelts?

In a 2014 meeting in Philadelphia, PERF chiefs met with union leaders and reached a groundbreaking consensus on adopting mandatory policies requiring the use of body armor and seatbelts by officers.

Is requiring COVID vaccines any different from requiring officers to use body armor and seatbelts?

So far, government employee unions, and especially police unions, have had a mixed reaction to COVID vaccine mandates. In some cases, union leaders have said they don’t oppose vaccines, but they believe vaccine mandates are an issue that should be negotiated. Many questions can be worked out, such as whether officers should be given a choice between (1) being vaccinated and (2) being required to undergo COVID-testing once a week, while continuing to wear masks and observe social distancing. Other issues to decide are what sanctions can be imposed for violating a department’s COVID policy, and exemptions to vaccine requirements for medical or religious reasons.

Police chiefs and unions need to come together and work toward getting all officers vaccinated. If unions refuse to consider reasonable proposals, chiefs should move forward on their own authority. Right now it’s important that we increase our vaccination rates right away. There is no time to waste.

Vaccinations don’t just protect the vaccinated cops; they protect fellow officers and the public.

There is strong evidence that vaccination substantially reduces the vaccinated person’s risk of passing on the COVID virus to other people, although yesterday we learned of ominous signs that the Delta variant is more dangerous in this respect. But we know that vaccinations aren’t only about protecting oneself; they’re about protecting everyone else you come in contact with.  This has implications for officers using 2-person cars, and for officers’ daily interactions with community members. What does it say about a department that sends unvaccinated officers into crime victims’ homes to take statements, for example?

This is an opportunity for police to strengthen relationships with their communities.

The policing profession took some tough hits in 2020. Perhaps police agencies can help restore trust by showing leadership at this critical moment to put down COVID and save lives.

I think that police chiefs should do everything they can to help increase vaccination rates and prevent a new wave of COVID deaths.  This is a moment for police chiefs and sheriffs to lead.

The Las Vegas Metro Police Department, with a fully-vaccinated rate of only 48% (similar to the rate for all of Nevada), last week released a powerful video in which Sergeant Tom Jenkins describes his experience with COVID.  I encourage you to watch this 3 minute video.  Excerpts below:


Sgt. Tom Jenkins

“I was that skeptical dude. I thought COVID was a joke. I thought it was just another flu.  I was also anti-mask. July 1, I couldn’t breathe. I jumped in the car and drove myself to [the hospital]. I was admitted for 8 or 9 days. For the first time in my life, I knew what fear was. It wasn’t the fear of dying; it was the fear of not being able to breathe. It feels like somebody put a bag around your head and duct-taped it to your neck.

“Go get the shot. Get it for your family, get it for your coworkers, get it for your friends, get it for your spouse, get it for your kids. COVID is not a joke. It almost took me off this planet.”

This is a defining moment for police executives, an opportunity not only to make your officers and community safer, but to set a tone of being part of something larger, and recognizing that we are all in this together.