Editor’s Note: Sonia Pruitt is a retired Montgomery County, Maryland, police captain. She is the founder of The Black Police Experience, which promotes the education and history of the intersection of law enforcement and the Black community. She is also an assistant professor of criminal justice at Montgomery College in Maryland. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion at CNN.
I was waiting in line at the Motor Vehicle Administration (MVA) in Maryland this summer when I noticed two state troopers posted inside. Despite a mask mandate in Prince George’s County, neither wore a face covering.
Out of curiosity, I called the Maryland State Police headquarters and asked a sergeant if their troopers are required to follow the Covid-19 protocols of the counties in which they work. The sergeant replied the troopers were state employees, and there was not a statewide mask mandate in place.
When I pointed out it was only reasonable to comply with the county rules, particularly when everyone else in the MVA was masked amid a Delta variant surge, the sergeant simply told me to take it up with the governor.
We have seen police officers resist Covid-19 precautions elsewhere in this country. Last week, a commuter in New York City said he was forcibly removed from a subway station when he asked two NYPD officers why they weren’t masked. In Chicago, a vaccine mandate dispute between Mayor Lori Lightfoot and police union President John Catanzara has been so fraught it’s brought national attention.
Covid-19 has become the leading cause of death among police officers in the US. Since the start of the pandemic, 476 police officers have died from the coronavirus; about five times the number of deaths from gunfire in the same period. Despite these figures, many police officers have resisted the guidance of public health experts touting the importance of masks and Covid-19 vaccines.
While the reasons officers are refusing to be vaccinated parallel those found in the nation at large — distrust of science, belief that it impinges on civil rights and misinformation about the vaccines — another cause is deeply embedded within police culture: the politics of police unions.
Those politics lean strongly to the right, and have historically been a roadblock for accountability and change in policing. And today, those politics are fed by an unimaginably large Covid-19 misinformation machine built during the last presidency. This misinformation has taken on a life of its own and is being spread through conservative news outlets, radio shows and social media. The disinformation campaign has apparently now taken root in policing, where even a life-saving vaccine is fair game for attack.
Given that most law enforcement work for government entities — either local, state or federal — it is right to expect police officers follow the rules of their employers as long as they are reasonable. A rule founded in protecting public health is more than reasonable; it is necessary. Rather than inserting themselves as power movers in the politics of the day, or backing their members’ right to endanger themselves and others, police unions opposing vaccine mandates should be working to protect the health and wellness of officers and the public those officers serve.
In New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio has issued a vaccine mandate for city employees with an end of the month deadline. As of October 20, roughly 30% of police officers weren’t vaccinated, and on Monday the Police Benevolent Association of New York filed a lawsuit in protest of the vaccine requirement.
In Los Angeles, the County Sheriff has said he will not enforce the county’s vaccine mandate. And back in Chicago, the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police has filed a lawsuit alleging the mayor, police superintendent, the city, and the police department failed “to comply with the collective bargaining agreement’s status quo.”
The scientific evidence is strong: the Covid-19 vaccine is the most effective way of protecting against severe illness or death. In light of police departments across the country losing officers to Covid, police unions should encourage vaccination for all members out of concern for their safety.
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It’s the same philosophy behind the Occupational Safety and Health Administration requiring employers to offer the Hepatitis B vaccine to workers at risk of exposure, such as police officers. The vaccine can prevent liver scarring or failure, and even liver cancer in its most extreme cases. Where is the police outrage over this effort, similarly intended to mitigate the spread of the disease?
Instead of resisting vaccine mandates, police unions should honor their colleagues by encouraging them to protect themselves, their families, and the public they serve from Covid-19’s harmful effects. Rather than police officers turning in their boots, they should consider turning in their police union membership cards.