The Slatest

Why Police Won’t Confront Their Deadliest Danger

And what their low vaccination rates could mean for everyone else.

Police stand by as a city worker cleans graffiti from the USS Maine National Monument.
Police stand by as a city worker cleans graffiti from the USS Maine National Monument. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Justin Feldman, a social epidemiologist, tells me that 60 million people report an interaction with the police annually. Paired with the news that only a small portion of law enforcement officers have been vaccinated against COVID-19, it’s a number that puts the subject of policing as a public health issue into perspective—one more example of the various dangers police pose to communities.

The Washington Post contacted 40 police departments nationwide, and of those, only five reported vaccination rates higher than the general public. Reasons as to why cops aren’t getting vaccinated are as murky as they are in the general population. It could be a matter of hesitancy or of access. The New York Post reported that NYPD officers aren’t getting vaccinated because they want the one shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine instead of going back for a second dose. Or it could be policy. Departments aren’t declaring vaccination mandates, which is a complicated process, and powerful police unions are upholding it as a private personal matter. In places like D.C., it’s possible that an officer got vaccinated in a nearby jurisdiction. The Washington Post analysis also discovered that some large departments—like Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Houston—aren’t tracking how many officers were receiving vaccinations. (The Post notes that in some cases the rates are reflective of broader vaccination rates in the department’s county.)

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I spoke with Feldman, the inaugural health and human rights fellow at the Harvard FXB Center for Health & Human Rights. The conversation below has been edited for clarity and length.

The vaccination rates within police departments nationwide are pretty low. What does that mean for community health, considering how often police come into contact with civilians? 

The first thing to know is that the vaccines not only do a really good job of preventing disease, but they also provide some protection from transmitting it to others. So police who are not vaccinated having contact with communities, especially those with low vaccination rates at this point in the rollout, is concerning. There’s about 60 million people who report having at least one contact with police in a given year. There’s also about 10 million arrests that happen in a year.

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And these contacts are going to be disproportionately lower income people, Black people, and other people of color. These are the same communities that have been dying and hospitalized at the highest rate. They’re also communities that have struggled to get access to vaccination—and that’s not a question of hesitancy. It’s a question of are the vaccines being made available locally.

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These are all concerns and those issues come together when thinking about police not getting vaccinated.

60 million people a year report having contact with police is a really high number. What are some of the ways in which people come into contact with police? 

The data comes from what’s called the Police Public Contact Survey that is an add on to the Census. They break it down into two broad categories: Contacts that are initiated by the civilian and contacts that are initiated by police. This includes everything from your car being damaged, or something was stolen from your home, and you need to file a police report for insurance reasons to someone being shot by police and everything in between.

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As you get into the police-initiated contacts, and contacts where there was either use of force or arrest, you tend to see those kinds of acts are more likely to involve lower income people and Black people.

What do you know about hesitancy among police officers to get vaccinated? 

I don’t think there have been specific surveys of police asking them these questions. So I don’t think we know in a systematic way. But what I can tell you is that there have been, in many States, first responders, including police, who were in the first priority category or close to it. In many cases, they were offered the vaccine much earlier than the rest of the population.

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When you look at the demographics and politics of police officers, they are often younger. And, in general, we see a lower vaccine uptake among younger populations because they don’t believe that they are susceptible to the worst effects of the virus. And if you have a lot of white men with conservative politics represented among police, you see the same since that demographic in the general population has pretty high vaccine hesitancy. Therefore it’s not surprising to me that you’d see a similar pattern happening in police departments.

It’s been reported that NYPD officers aren’t getting vaccinated because they want the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Departments aren’t mandating vaccinations, either. Some aren’t tracking vaccination rates within their forces and, in D.C., the police chief has said it’s possible that an officer got their shot in a nearby jurisdiction. Could this bureaucratic murkiness affect the continued spread of COVID-19? 

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It is possible that police officers are being vaccinated through means other than their department. If the department doesn’t ask for proof of vaccination, they would not know who received doses outside of their system. But I do think hesitancy is a major issue among police and the high proportion of officers turning down vaccines means they are largely remaining unvaccinated. In many states, police were included in the first few priority groups. Vaccines were only readily available through their departments, and there was not yet a choice of vaccines since J&J had not been approved.

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I expect that employer vaccine mandates will become more common this fall and winter. They will be a contentious issue throughout the US,  including among police officers but not limited to them.

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There were discussions last summer during the anti-racism protests about how police officers were very scantily masking. What does this, plus the low vaccination rates, say about how police navigate society? 

Some people hold up an ideal of policing as this institution that upholds public safety, that keeps people safe, and prevents death. But if you look both at low vaccine uptake and reluctance to wear masks, that tells another story. So many more people have died of COVID than have died of interpersonal violence. Police like to tell us that they keep communities safe from things like shootings and assault, but they are not doing much to guard us from more severe health risks. Police also like to draw attention to how dangerous their job is and point to officers who are killed on the job by civilians. And in 2020 the leading cause of death for police officers was COVID-19.

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So even within their own workforce and institutions there is much larger risk of COVID than of violence. There’s this ideological filtering that happens where this tough orientation using state violence to subdue communities, especially Black communities, is something they embrace. This idea of their profession being under physical threat from members of the public is something they embrace. But you don’t see them reckoning with this pandemic, which poses a much greater threat.

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What is the impact on the communities that they police? 

We don’t have great data on the exact role that policing has contributed to the overall pandemic. But we can certainly see things like increased fear if you’re being arrested or approached closely by a police officer, who’s potentially unvaccinated and perhaps unmasked and an increased risk of infection. I expect this to break down even further trust between communities and police. It’s an actual cause of harm in itself.

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There have been moves across the country to decrease the role that police play in addressing various social problems ranging from mental health crises, to homelessness, to quality of life violation.

You can’t change policing culture so easily to make them embrace more public safety and public health goals. But one thing that policymakers can do and that activists can push for is reducing the number of contacts between civilians and police. You don’t need a police officer with a gun to come when you just need to fill out an insurance form. You don’t need a police officer to come when there’s an alleged $20 counterfeit bill. This can all be addressed by other civil servants and health workers who have a different orientation towards health and harm.

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