This year, COVID-19 is on track to again be the leading cause of death for cops, though the still-climbing death toll could be significantly slowed by the vaccine, which is widely available, highly effective and, not for nothing, a solution the National Fraternal Order of Police asked their 350,000 members be given early access to back in January.
But cops around the country are not only refusing to wear masks where they’re required and when they’ve been ordered to, they’re also vocally opposing vaccine mandates—threatening walkouts, demanding exemptions on specious grounds, and, in many places, filing lawsuits. The grim reality that one out of every 500 people in the U.S. have died of COVID since the pandemic began isn’t apparently enough to motivate many police to get vaccinated.
It’s one more indicator of how little an awful lot of cops care about “public safety,” and a reaffirmation of how many officers see themselves as above the law.
(A similar dynamic is playing out in prisons, where the corrections union has sued to overturn a vaccine mandate in Pennsylvania, while their counterparts in Massachusetts have sworn to investigate "all legal and legislative" options to avoid consenting to a vaccine order. Add in many jail staffers’ reported resistance to even wearing masks, and you have a toxic breeding ground for COVID transmission complete with a captive audience.)
Almost 61 percent of New York City residents have gotten fully vaccinated, but just 48 percent of NYPD employees; almost 70 percent of Los Angeleans, but just 54 percent of LAPD employees are. Even in Rick DeSantis’ Florida, 70 percent of Miami denizens have received both shots compared to just half of police department employees. Vaccination rates aren’t available for most police departments, but those sample numbers explain why five cops died in South Florida in a seven-day period, while last week 22 officers in New Jersey succumbed to the virus.
Police have historically been highly reactionary to outside threats, real or perceived. In the years following the 2014 Ferguson uprisings, as Black Lives Matter protests against police violence became nationally visible, police and conservative media were quick to attack the movement and attempt to quash its very existence. The killings of 10 cops over two years in Dallas, Baton Rouge, and New York City were held up as evidence of what law enforcement around the country had already dubbed—falsely, based on every shred of statistical evidence—a “War on Cops.”
In the summer of 2020, as police rioted against anti-racist protesters, law enforcement pulled a classic DARVO move and declared themselves the targets of violence, using phrases like “Back the Blue” and “Blue Lives Matter” to underscore the oppression they supposedly faced in the line of duty. They warned of a wave of police defections because of BLM, which one police union leader wrote—even before the protests following George Floyd’s death—had “made policing more dangerous than ever before.”
That mass exodus of police officers never happened, even though police continue to falsely claim it did. But COVID really has made policing more dangerous, as 2020 became the deadliest year for officers since 1974. Yet those blue lives don’t seem to matter so much to the six LAPD officers suing the city over a recently issued vaccine mandate, along with police unions and officers filing similar suits in Oregon, Arizona, South Carolina, Washington state, and elsewhere.
Nearly all of these lawsuits hinge on claims that these mandates violate police officers’ constitutional rights, which is genuinely rich coming from this lot. In New York City, where officials have mandated that officers who refuse to get vaccinated must be tested weekly—the literal least they could do in a job that requires regular engagement with the public—the police union is demanding that officers be tested while on duty or that they be paid time-and-a-half for after-hours testing, while the testing mandate in Los Angeles has been dubbed “highly intrusive” by those behind the lawsuit. (Roughly 3,000 LAPD staff are expected to claim religious exemption from vaccine mandates.)
It’s astounding to watch the same cops who justify atrocities up to murder with the refrain that people should’ve “just complied” pretend to be persecuted when told they’re not allowed to be superspreaders. It lays bare how little the police believe the law applies to them, even when it’s unquestionably the right thing to do.
And yet, cops are the people given license to enforce mask mandates in many places, even as they shirk the responsibility of wearing them. Never mind the drain on taxpayer resources that result from irresponsible unvaxxed cops not getting shots—seriously, an entire department in Illinois was out with COVID in August—or from demanding they be paid for getting a daily test they wouldn’t need if inoculated, the threat to public health and safety created by police vaccine refusal should worry us all.
Cops’ dismissal of the rules that govern the rest of us, their endangerment of our well-being especially Black folks and people in underserved communities—is, like so much else this country abides, yet another indictment of our system of policing.