In recent weeks, police unions, in step with thousands of police officers in major American cities, have vigorously resisted and protested vaccine mandates, leading to the possibility that many departments will soon face crippling labor shortages. While providing questionable public-health benefits, mandates thus threaten to make the problem of rising violent crime even worse.
In Seattle, where a vaccination deadline for city officials passed in October, the police department is on the verge of losing more than half of its personnel since the start of last year. The department has already lost some 300 officers in the post-George Floyd exodus, and now almost 300 more of the 1,000 remaining officers have not reported their vaccination status or are seeking a medical exemption. “We have to protect jobs. Whether it’s one or a couple hundred. That’s our mission here, to protect jobs. It’s not vaccinated versus unvaccinated,” said Mike Solan, president of the officers’ union in Seattle. Since mid-October, Seattle’s police department has been sending non-patrol officers and detectives to emergency calls because of officer shortages.
Last week, Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva wrote a letter to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, warning that vaccine requirements would force a significant portion of his department out of their jobs. “If I were to follow your mandate, I could potentially lose 44 percent of my workforce in one day,” Villanueva said. “I cannot enforce reckless mandates that put the public’s safety at risk.”
Chicago has seen some of the most rancorous fights over vaccine mandates. Mayor Lori Lightfoot has accused John Catanzara, head of the city’s largest police union, of attempting to “induce an insurrection” for calling on his 11,000 union members to defy the city’s mandate. (Catanzara is vaccinated himself.) Approximately 4,000 of Chicago’s 13,000-member police department have refused to report their vaccination status, and about two dozen officers have been put on no-pay leave, according to ABC7, prompting another officer-led protest at police headquarters last week. The prospect of losing cops has alarmed many West and South Side Chicago residents and local officials, who have already endured a 56 percent surge in homicides since 2019. Last week, two city council representatives, Marty Quinn and Matt O’Shea, wrote a letter asking Lightfoot to withdraw the mandates over public-safety concerns:
We want to be clear that this isn’t about mandates. . . . For us, this is about public safety. We are both fully vaccinated. We work closely with healthcare providers in our communities to ensure residents can easily be vaccinated and we will continue that effort. . . . Our main concern now is about losing police officers as we face a dwindling police force and rising incidents of crime and violence.
Quinn also told the BBC that reduction in police officers has alarmed local residents. “Since last week, my phones have been burning up about what’s going on,” he said. “What I’m hearing loud and clear is we have to make sure that every single officer that’s capable of being on the job, is on the job.”
I recently spoke to Stanford medicine professor and infectious disease expert Jay Bhattacharya on mandating vaccines for police officers. “First responders were the heroes of the epidemic last year, working to serve the public despite the high risk of Covid exposure—and many of them got Covid and recovered and hence have strong immunity versus reinfection,” he stated. “For them and others around them, the vaccine provides at best a marginal benefit.” As a matter of public policy, Bhattacharya believes “vaccine mandates constitute poor public health policy” because they will “hamper the ability of communities around the country to provide basic public services.”
Local health officials in some cities have weighed the costs and benefits to public safety and decided against mandates. In Philadelphia, where homicide rates continue to climb after 2020’s three-decade-high of 499 murders, only one in ten officers has reported his vaccination status. The city gives public employees the choice between vaccination and strict mask-wearing protocols. “It’s not a ‘vaccine-or-be-terminated’ mandate, it’s a requirement to either be vaccinated or double-mask,” Cheryl Bettigole, interim head of the city’s Department of Public Health, said at a recent press conference.
In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis is offering $5,000 bonuses to police officers across the U.S. who have faced discrimination on the basis of vaccination status. “We’re actually actively working to recruit out-of-state law enforcement,” DeSantis told Fox News. “NYPD, Minneapolis, Seattle, if you’re not being treated well, we will treat you better here. You can fill important needs for us, and we will compensate you as a result.”
The question is not whether police officers should get vaccinated. Clearly, some should do so, for their own health—especially older officers or those with preexisting health conditions. The top cause of death for law-enforcement right now, after all, is Covid-19. But this private health benefit doesn’t mean that a healthy, 28-year-old police officer, or one with natural immunity from prior infection, should be forced to get a vaccine that provides only a small personal and short-lived public benefit (along with small risks, such as vaccine-induced myocarditis). A government operating on such maximalist public health grounds might as well mandate, say, maintaining a healthy weight, taking vitamin D and Zinc, or exercising at a gym. In a free society, governments should not be able to dictate how public employees weigh the individualized costs and benefits of a treatment. Indeed, if the goal is to reduce transmission of Covid and protect the public from infection, much more effective means exist, as Joel Zinberg has pointed out.
Given the recent violent crime surge, the cost to public safety of mandates is likely to be unbearably steep. According to the CDC’s newly released provisional data, in 2020 the U.S. witnessed the largest increase in homicides in modern history. The rise in murders was especially acute in crime-ridden areas of major cities such as Minneapolis, Portland, Chicago, and New York, where, not coincidentally, police officers quit or retired at unprecedented rates. The remaining cops in these areas pulled back from proactive policing under political pressure amid institutionalized anti-police rhetoric. It will take years to replenish the resulting officer shortages and thus return to pre-2020 levels of public safety in inner-city communities.
An overwhelming body of criminology literature shows that as police presence declines, crime rises. For instance, a recent paper by economist Sarit Weisburd published in The Review of Economics and Statistics found a “10% decrease in police presence at [a] location results in a 7% increase in crime.” Residents in areas experiencing high levels of violence can’t afford another hit to their already-depleted police forces. If politicians and public-health officials continue to push vaccine mandates on law enforcement and public-safety officials, violent crime and homicide will likely continue to rise, further victimizing the most vulnerable communities.
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