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Why Are Police Unions Protesting Vaccine Mandates?

Chicago police

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Key Takeaways

  • Some police unions are resisting vaccine mandates.
  • Experts stress the importance of vaccinations for law enforcement personnel, but worry that mandates won’t be effective in increasing vaccination rates.
  • Vaccine education and efforts to combat misinformation will be essential to addressing concerns about vaccine safety.

Police unions across the country are resisting COVID-19 vaccinations and protesting against vaccine mandates. 

A Chicago judge on Monday temporarily blocked the city from firing police officers who don’t meet the December 31 vaccine mandate deadline. He wrote that while he acknowledges the vaccines are life-saving, safe, and effective, the union demonstrates a need for “temporary injunctive relief” of the mandate and a right to “meaningful arbitration.” But Chicago police officers are still required to report their vaccination status.

“I do not credit any suggestion that the city's vaccination policy is anything other than an effort to safeguard the health of its employees,” Judge Raymond W. Mitchell wrote. “Likewise, I do not accept that police union's grievances and alternate proposals are anything other than an effort to protect their members.”

COVID-19 is now the leading cause of death for U.S. law enforcement officers, but strong resistance against vaccination is putting officers and others at risk.

“They are at higher risk of getting the disease as part of their occupational exposure, and they're also at greater risk of infecting somebody else in the public if they happen to be infected.” William Lang, MD, MHA, chief medical officer at World Clinic and former White House physician, tells Verywell.

Police vaccination rates vary throughout U.S. cities. The New York Police Department announced 85% of its staff were vaccinated as of November 1, while rates in Chicago and Philadelphia hover in the 50-60% range.

Incentives and mandates for police vaccinations are also different across cities. In some cases, police unions seem more opposed to the mandate than the vaccine itself.

Mandate Resistance and Vaccine Hesitancy

Multiple cities—including Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, Nevada, New York, Seattle, San Francisco—have issued vaccine mandates for police workers. Several of these mandates have been met with opposition from police union members—and have led to lawsuits in Los Angeles and Chicago.

The Los Angeles police union in September sued the city over the vaccine mandate, claiming that it violated their constitutional rights and that “natural antibodies and immunity” from previous COVID-19 infection were better than vaccination. The union also filed a request to temporarily halt the mandate in October, which was denied by a federal judge.

Despite the relatively high vaccination rate among NYPD officers, a union filed a lawsuit last week, seeking to overturn the mandate.

Seeing the police opposition to vaccine mandates, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said he is “actively working to recruit out-of-state law enforcement” by offering a potential $5,000 bonus to those who are willing to relocate—regardless of vaccination status. 

Lang says the opposition to mandates is not surprising. “Even if they agree with the medical outcome [of vaccinations]—that we have less disease—people are very resistant when the government tries to tell them what to do,” he says. “That's the issue with mandates.”

He cites the 1998 rollout of the Anthrax vaccine before an FDA-approval for setting historical precedent for vaccine hesitancy and mandate resistance. For this reason, Lang previously told Verywell that he supported the NFL’s decision to use financial vaccine incentives and penalties in place of a mandate.

Lang adds that a mandate may also be ineffective for people who are uninformed about the risks or the benefits of the vaccine. The large volume of vaccine misinformation prompted people to make decisions without “having the full story.”

“From a medical aspect, when you go through the data, it is very clear that vaccines are decreasing transmission, and vaccines are decreasing bad outcomes,” Lang says. “The problem is that vaccines also come with a known risk level.”

“When you can go through and specifically answer these people's concerns directly—not just arguing—but directly educate these people, they typically come around and oftentimes change their mind,” he adds.

The COVID-19 vaccines come with common side effects like arm soreness and discomfort in the days after inoculation, along with extremely rare risks like heart inflammation from the mRNA vaccines or Guillain-Barre Syndrome from the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. But health officials and recent studies have determined that the benefits of these vaccines outweigh the risks. 

“A person’s risk of long term medical issues or damaging conditions like long COVID, myocarditis, or a pulmonary embolism are all significantly higher from the virus itself than from the vaccine,” Lang says.

Is Voluntary Compliance Enough?

Philadelphia is among the cities without a vaccine mandate for police officers. Instead, vaccinations are incentivized through what some local news organizations call “voluntary compliance,” in which police are given a choice to be vaccinated or double-mask.

The city's lack of vaccine mandate has received backlash from local health experts. Even so, the city has no plans to institute a mandate now or in the future, Philadelphia spokesperson James Garrow wrote in an email to Verywell.

Between 51% and 60% of officers have been vaccinated in the city, according to the Philadelphia Department of Health, a figure that has been criticized as lagging behind other major cities. Garrow said that this number does not include people who were vaccinated outside of Philadelphia, as the city does not have this data.

Garrow described Philadelphia’s high vaccination rate—71.5% of adults are fully vaccinated—as one of the best in the country.

“People are safer from COVID in Philadelphia than anywhere else in the region,” he wrote. “But even then, there is risk in every interaction, which is why we continue to ensure that everyone wears masks indoors, and everyone gets vaccinated.”

For unvaccinated individuals, however, the risk of severe COVID-19 remains high. Unvaccinated individuals are almost five times more likely to contract COVID-19 than vaccinated individuals, and about 29 times more likely to be hospitalized, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Nationally, 69.7% of U.S. adults and 58.1% of the entire population are fully vaccinated.

Vaccinations, whether they’re mandated or incentivized, are essential tools in ending the pandemic and protecting people from COVID-19, Lang says. And unvaccinated police officers can be a danger to themselves and the community they were hired to protect.

“Police don't get to choose who they interact with,” Lang says. “They have to interact with whoever in the community needs police services, good or bad.”

What This Means For You

Vaccine mandates continue to be an intense discussion among public service workers like law enforcement officers and firefighters. In some cities, police unions are opposing mandates through lawsuits. Experts emphasize that vaccination is meant to protect both officers and other people in their community.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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  1. Griffin JB, Haddix M, Danza P, et al. SARS-CoV-2 Infections and Hospitalizations Among Persons Aged ≥16 Years, by Vaccination Status — Los Angeles County, California, May 1–July 25, 2021. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2021;70:1170–1176. doi:10.15585/mmwr.mm7034e5

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. COVID Data Tracker.