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Police Unions’ Latest Grievance: Vaccine Mandates

We’ve heard this story before, when police said criminal justice reform would lead to mass resignations.

police officer carrying mask
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

In September, the State Police Association of Massachusetts, or SPAM, sued the state over Governor Charlie Baker’s vaccine mandate. The police union argued that it would cause state troopers “irreparable harm” to be forced to be vaccinated against a deadly virus or be fired if they declined. When that lawsuit failed, SPAM president Michael Cherven threatened that the mandate would have an immediate impact on his workforce. “To date, dozens of troopers have already submitted their resignation paperwork,” he claimed, adding that it would decimate what he described as an “already critically short-staffed” department. The warning was clear—make us get the Covid-19 vaccine, and you’ll be sorry.

How real is this looming wave of resignations? According to a source within the agency, who spoke with a local news outlet, “only one state trooper has told human resources that they would resign because of the vaccine mandate.” (A few troopers considering retirement, that source said, had inquired about their pensions if they left the force.) It was hardly the mass exodus forewarned by the union.

But that hasn’t stopped police unions and individual cops around the country from pushing the narrative that requiring law enforcement agents to get vaccinated—a public safety measure—is not only an infringement of their rights but somehow a threat to public safety. In Denver, a group of seven police officers (unsuccessfully) sued the city over its vaccine mandate, arguing that it was “unlawful” and that “everyone … is currently being pressured by governments, businesses and educational institutions to submit to a COVID inoculation with no assessment of the risks or benefits for each individual.” (That four of the seven cops already received exemptions from vaccination appeared not to matter to those filing the lawsuit.) Los Angeles Police Department officers have filed their own legal challenge, while thousands of LAPD employees reportedly plan to seek a religious exemption. (Meanwhile, outbreaks at L.A. police and fire agencies have been responsible for 2,500 cases of Covid-19, a Los Angeles Times analysis recently found.)

The rationale for the protests over vaccine—and mask—mandates is remarkably consistent. Cops simply don’t want to be told what to do—and they’re perfectly willing to issue not-so-veiled threats. At a recent council hearing in Leesburg, Virginia, police officer Josh Carter warned the council, “If you decide to move forward with mandating this vaccine, the loss of officers is on you, and I’m going to come back and ask what your plan is to keep my family and my neighbors safe, with little to no officers patrolling our streets or our schools.” This summer, John Catanzara, the head of Chicago’s Fraternal Order of Police, put it most bluntly in his response to Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s vaccine mandate for city employees. “What are they gonna do when four or five thousand coppers say, ‘Screw you. I’m staying home. You’re not making me get this fucking vaccination. Don’t pay me. That’s fine. We’ll see you in court,’” Catanzara told the Chicago Sun-Times. (His hyperbole didn’t stop there: “We’re in America, Goddamn it,” he reportedly said. “We don’t want to be forced to do anything. Period. This ain’t Nazi fucking Germany, [where they say], ‘Step into the fucking showers.’”) In some cities, like San Jose, California, and Portland, Oregon, the threats from police unions have been effective. After San Jose’s police union warned that an untold number of officers would resign if required to get vaccinated, the city backed off.

We’ve heard this story before. After a year of protests and calls to defund the police, law enforcement officials and police unions repeated on loop that demoralized cops were leaving their jobs en masse, a narrative, coupled with misleading crime statistics and laundered through media outlets, that served only to prop up the punitive power of the police. The refusal to abide by vaccine mandates should be seen as yet another attempt to entrench police authority, a reminder of their grip over government officials who ostensibly have the ability to rein them in yet too often fail to exert it. We should be clear on why exactly these mandates pose such a threat to cops. Police unions have long fought battles to preserve their ability to police their own; these mandates, enforced by the threat of firing if people don’t comply, challenge that authority. Yet again, they wish to remain above the law.