Late last month, Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva released a memo on official letterhead titled “Imminent Threat to Public Safety.” The memo wasn’t an alert about an impending natural disaster; instead, Villanueva, in his typical bombastic style, wanted to let the public know that the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors’ vaccine mandate for all county employees would lead to “a mass exodus” of deputies, resulting in, the sheriff said, an unprecedented wave of increased homicides and response times, as well as diminished patrols.
According to Villanueva, the COVID-19 vaccine mandate has led “a large part” of the sheriff’s workforce to retire, quit, or otherwise make themselves unavailable for duty. He claimed, without a shred of evidence, that his workforce would soon be reduced by 20 to 30 percent.
Other law enforcement officials across the country have made similar claims, using the media-fueled panic over rising homicide rates as a platform to complain about vaccine mandates.
In New York City, union leaders claimed that as many as “10,000” officers would be pulled from patrol due to a vaccination mandate, which went into effect on Oct. 20. In Chicago, Fraternal Order of Police president John Catanzara urged his members not to comply with a citywide mandate that sworn officers report whether or not they are vaccinated. In a series of bombastic videos, Catanzara told FOP members that the city could not force them to get vaccinated and that any such vaccination requirement wasn’t in the union contract. His comments reached such a pitch that the city of Chicago filed—and won—a court order to force Catanzara to stop. And in Seattle, where the police department is already facing staffing shortages, the police union president warned that hundreds more officers would leave because of the state mandate.
Some sheriff’s offices, unconstrained by city mandates, are attempting to capitalize on the supposed attrition. They are using officer’s vaccine mandates as an opportunity to recruit dissatisfied law enforcement professionals. Many sheriffs across the country, particularly across the South and Southwest, wrote letters and made statements opposing President Joe Biden’s federal vaccine mandate. Others are going a step further.
In Arizona, Pinal County Sheriff Mark Lamb fired the first shot against the federal vaccine mandate when he released a video message to would-be deputies looking for work. “Here at the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office, we do NOT mandate the vaccine, and as long as I am your sheriff we will NEVER mandate the vaccine,” he says, wearing his traditional cowboy hat and tactical vest. Lamb says “mandate” like a dirty word.
In Spokane County, Washington, Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich claimed his officers were county, not state, employees, and therefore not subject to Gov. Jay Inslee’s vaccine mandate.* In a promotional video shared on social media, a green banner reads “NO mandatory vaccinations required.” He claimed in one news story that deputies from the San Diego Sheriff’s Office were seeking to transfer to his department to avoid their vaccine mandate.
Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor, also said he would pay a $5,000 bonus to any sworn law enforcement officer who moved to Florida. It’s not clear this has happened yet.
Throughout the pandemic, sheriffs have been vocal anti-vax and anti-mask resisters, channeling the growing rightward tilt of law enforcement officers generally across the country, even in quite Democratic urban areas. They are seizing on this moment to raise their profile and cash in on the perceived negative public attitude about law enforcement, a largely invented concern that has been rampant on pro-cop media. There’s also a practical problem many county sheriffs have: Their pay is lower than the nearby city police’s pay. In Pinal County, for example, a junior deputy can expect to make about $40,000 as a base salary (high with experience). Phoenix police officers start at $52,000 and have more opportunities for bonuses.
But DeSantis and the sheriffs shouldn’t hold their breath for officers fleeing vaccine mandates to apply for these jobs. In reality, this mass hysteria doesn’t live up to the hype. In New York, the total number of officers who left over the mandate was a whopping 34 out of 35,000 sworn officers, with 85 percent of the force vaccinated to date. (There are other officers who have applied for exemption waivers, allowed under the current rules.) In Chicago, only about one-third of all officers have refused to submit their vaccination status, far less than the 50 percent Catanzara warned wouldn’t comply. In Seattle, 98 officers are seeking exemptions and 186 have not filed their paperwork; 782 have been vaccinated. The city employs roughly 1,300 officers.
Police officer’s aren’t quitting in droves like the union leaders warned, and they aren’t retiring at a higher rate because of the mandates either. Even in the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, the number of actual retirements is far from what the sheriff himself warned. In a Nov. 2 press conference, the sheriff said that retirements were up by 20 percent (from 515 to 617); worker’s compensation claims have about the same increase, but there’s no specific evidence these are related to vaccine mandates or even COVID. The sheriff’s main evidence was that 238 deputies “shared their intent” to quit, but his claims are still unsubstantiated. (In response to a question from the press, he said that the department was collecting information.)
What is clear is that the LASD is behind on vaccination rates. About 53 percent of LASD employees (sworn and civilian) are vaccinated versus the Los Angeles Police Department rate, which is 74 percent, per the agencies as reported by the Los Angeles Times.
Vaccination mandates for law enforcement officers makes sense. Less than a year ago, the president of the Fraternal Order of Police in New York demanded that police should have “expedited access” to the shot. COVID-19 is by far the highest cause of death of police officers, beyond car accidents or shootings. At least 230 officers have died thus far in 2021, four times the number of officers killed by gunfire. And city officials, alongside state governors, are seeking to prevent the spread of COVID-19 through mandating vaccination for many city employees, like teachers, nurses, and firefighters.
It should come as no surprise that many officers are now vaccinated. In general, vaccination mandates have worked. For example, in New York, public school teachers have a 95 percent vaccination rate after Mayor Bill de Blasio put a mandate in place. The same is true across the public sector and the private; United Airlines, for example, has an employee vaccination rate of 99.5 percent.
Vaccine mandates likely aren’t the cause of a slight uptick in retirements, either. In places where sworn officers are retiring, they may be motivated to do so because their pensions are higher thanks to more overtime during the 2020 protests; in most places, retirement benefits are calculated using an average of the officer’s highest-paying years. Because police officer pensions vest after only 20 or 25 years, many veteran cops are leaving their jobs because they can cash out high. (Police officers who are disciplined or even fired for misconduct are still eligible for their pensions.) In many cases, law enforcement officers who transfer to other departments can carry their credits for pension with them.
Sheriffs and police unions have a habit of stirring up fear. They’re the first to sound the alarm of deadly “crime waves” after modest upticks in crime. They’ve even warned of an inevitable crime wave as a result of vaccine mandates (no such wave has happened). Too often, they respond to the slightest criticism from elected officials with calls for work slowdowns, threatening the public by suggesting wait times for 911 calls will rise. And now, they’ve tried to use vaccine mandates—a largely successful public health policy designed to prevent the spread of a deadly virus—to justify special treatment and bigger perks. It’s time we stop taking the bait.
Correction, Nov. 5, 2021: This piece originally misspelled Ozzie Knezovich’s last name.