Why are so many police officers refusing to get the COVID vaccine?

police officers refuse vaccine
Photo via Metropolitan Transportation Authority of the State of New York/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
  • This story is regularly updated for relevance. Last updated: July 22, 2021

Police officers are among the lowest vaccinated groups in the United States, despite gaining eligibility before most other people. Police officers, along with other frontline workers, gained priority access to COVID-19 vaccines before most citizens were eligible, but the number of vaccinated police officers is lower, or on par, with the general public. This poses a substantial potential risk, prompting questions about why, exactly, so many police officers are refusing the COVID vaccine.

Data from some of the nation’s largest law enforcement agencies indicates that less than half of many police departments have been vaccinated.

Only 39% of officers at the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department have been vaccinated by early May 2021, despite a high tourist population in the city. In Atlanta, even fewer officers have been vaccinated, at only 36%. Numbers from the Columbus Division of Police, Ohio’s largest police department, are even worse. Only 28% of officers employed by the department have received their vaccination.

In Chicago, it was estimated that the percentage of police department employees who are vaccinated is even lower at about 25%.

By mid-June, slightly more than 50% of Los Angeles police officers and firefighters had been partially vaccinated. Later that month, San Francisco revealed it would require city workers to be vaccinated, and the San Francisco Police Officers Association signaled its support, saying, “Throughout the pandemic, San Francisco police officers put their lives and their health on the line to protect our citizens. We understand the importance of keeping our officers and the public safe from COVID-19 on an ongoing basis.”

In late July, the New York Police Department said it had vaccinated only 43% of its force with more than 11,000 members getting infected by the coronavirus. That percentage, though, doesn’t include officers and staff who might have gotten the vaccination from somewhere outside the police department’s vaccination program.

The low number of vaccinations among police is concerning on several levels.

According to the Washington Post, police officers typically have higher rates of diabetes and heart disease, which puts them at enhanced risk of complications stemming from a COVID-19 infection. According to data from the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, COVID-19 was the most likely cause of death among officers throughout 2020.

Police also interact with broad swathes of the public on a daily basis, making them a risk to the communities they serve. Officers typically come in close contact with the general public through their daily work, stemming fears that they may be risk factors in the viruses’ further spread.

“Police touch people,” Sharona Hoffman, a professor of law and bioethics at Case Western Reserve University, told the Washington Post. “Imagine having a child in the car who’s not vaccinated. People would want to know if a police officer coming to their window is protected.”

Experts in bioethics and public health have recommended a few potential solutions to vaccine refusals among police. Mandatory vaccines are one option, but this measure could easily lead to larger problems. Litigation is almost certain to follow any compulsory vaccine, as most officers see receiving a vaccine as an individual, private decision.

The majority of police involved in a December 2020 poll did not plan to be vaccinated. Thirty-eight percent of respondents said they would not get the vaccine at all, while 13% said they would only get a shot if mandated by their employer. Eleven percent were still uncertain.

Of those who said they would not receive the shot, the overwhelming majority said that they would not change their minds even if it had an effect on their medical benefits and sick time.

But in at least one case, the heartfelt plea from one officer who was fighting for his life after being infected convinced others to get their vaccine.

How to deal with police officers who refuse the vaccine

Incentives and information campaigns are a safer option than mandating vaccines, but not all departments are having the same success. Denver’s police department has one of the highest vaccination rates in the U.S., thanks to early efforts to inform and urge officers to get inoculated. 

The Phoenix Police Department, meanwhile, is offering a one-time $75 vaccine incentive for any employees who get their shots. Even this hasn’t sparked much interest, however, as data shows only 919 of 3,982 total employees have submitted proof of vaccination. Other departments are seeking to ease the process of receiving vaccines by offering them in department facilities, but these efforts have had little effect.

As for why so many police officers are refusing to get the vaccine, experts believe there are several culprits at play. The majority of police officers are male, and data shows that men are less likely than women to be immunized. Officers have also expressed concern over the novelty of the approved COVID-19 vaccines, as well as the speed with which they were developed, despite ample evidence that the vaccines are a safe and healthy route to eradicating COVID-19.

In this case, the refusal of many police officers to get vaccinated is not much different than healthcare workers and military members who hold the same view. In the case of some healthcare workers, they’re getting suspended for not getting vaccinated, and a federal judge has said that hospitals are well within their rights to do so.

Sources: Washington Post, Police1

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