More than 500 of the 356,000 officers represented by the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) have died from COVID-19 since the pandemic began, according to information released by the prominent police union.
The release also breaks down the death count by state, reporting that 124 officers died in Texas, 53 died in California and 44 died in New York. Delaware, Hawaii and Idaho were among the 12 states and territories where no officers reportedly died.
“As we had feared, the virus has claimed the lives of many, and now includes a growing number of law enforcement officers,” the release reads. The FOP and other police groups didn’t know of statistics indicating how many officers contracted COVID on the job, or how many may have spread the virus, reports Business Insider.
FOP’s detailing of deaths among police officers — who, as first responders, have been hit hard by the pandemic — comes as police departments nationwide report low vaccination rates among officers. According to Axios, significant numbers of police officers across the country are refusing the COVID-19 vaccine, ignoring mandates and leaning on their unions to back them up.
Already, departments are seeing the transmission of COVID-19 among unvaccinated officers as the Delta variant spreads. In Denver, where 57 percent of the Denver Police Protective Association aren’t vaccinated, Denver’s top public safety leader said he’s “prepared to fire police officers who don’t comply with the vaccine mandate,” reports the Denver Post.
In Los Angeles, where half of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) remains unvaccinated, a tenth LAPD employee died last week from complications of COVID-19, the LA Times reported. The department saw 36 additional coronavirus cases among its personnel in the last week.
Some officers, including those with the New York Police Department (NYPD), are required to get the vaccine or a weekly COVID-19 test, with New York Mayor Bill de Blasio promising “consequences” and to be “very tough if a city government employee does not wear a mask and they are unvaccinated,” NewsDay reports.
Regarding vaccine mandates, the FOP is staying true to its members’ wishes. Although FOP leadership recommends its members get vaccinated, endorsing the COVID-19 vaccine as safe and effective, executive director Jim Pasco told Axios the FOP won’t mandate the shot.
“We are a union and we will defend our members,” he said. “You cannot tell people what to do. It’s still an individual and personal choice.”
Criticizing other police chiefs — like Miami Police Chief Art Acevedo — for telling unvaccinated officers to work elsewhere, Pasco called Acevedo’s decision “management by tantrum.”
As a union, the FOP operates with unusual protections and exemptions. While legal scholars say most employers have the right to mandate vaccinations as a condition of employment, circumstances differ for unions, which represent a vast number of police officers.
Vaccine mandates could violate unions’ collective bargaining agreements, South Texas College of Law Houston constitutional law professor Josh Blackman told Axios.
“Unions don’t like to yield ground,” Blackman said. “They like to fight for every single benefit. So if they’re suddenly giving up members’ rights, then they’re perhaps giving ground for some future collective bargaining battle.”
For now, it seems a pattern is emerging among officers, with COVID-19 case counts rising and vaccination rates remaining low.
Eva Herscovitz is a TCR Justice Reporting intern