There are good and bad apples in every industry of course; but in this particular industry, where workers’ actions can carry life-or-death consequences, rotten apples can kill people. Sometimes they actually do.
Culling the rotten apples before they “spoil the bunch” — or kill unarmed teenagers — is challenging. That’s partly because police unions, whatever their other merits, have a long history of helping to conceal misconduct and other abuses of power by their members, and shielding officers from consequences when they’re caught crossing the line. It’s also partly because it’s genuinely hard to tell in advance which cops applied for the right reasons and are temperamentally suited to the work, regardless of what training they receive or what weapons they’re supplied with.
Around the country, local officials have begun requiring that some municipal employees, including police officers, get vaccinated — to protect the employees themselves, their co-workers, co-workers’ children not yet eligible to be vaccinated, and of course the many members of the public they interact with and ultimately serve. But a sizable contingent of police officers is refusing.
In San Francisco, for instance, city employees working in jails and other high-risk settings are required to be vaccinated by Sept. 15, with exemptions for medical or religious reasons. The union representing sheriff’s deputies threatened that many of its members would “retire early or seek employment elsewhere” if the order were enforced. In Van Buren Township, Mich., the presidents of local unions representing police and firefighters estimated that 20 percent of their members might quit in response to a vaccine mandate.
Anti-vax officers elsewhere are also daring their bosses to terminate them.
The unions representing law enforcement officials are, by and large, defending their members’ refusal to comply with lawful vaccination orders. Not because these unions are unaware of covid-19’s risks to the police or the public; in fact, the national Fraternal Order of Police reports that the virus has claimed the lives of 531 law enforcement officers around the country. Over the first six months of 2021 — that is, before the recent delta-driven surge in infections — covid-19 remained the single highest cause of law enforcement deaths, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.
Police unions also fought for cops to get expedited access to vaccine doses early this year “to keep them, and the public with whom they interact, safe from infection”; many continue to urge their members to get vaccinated voluntarily, citing the documented safety and efficacy of the vaccines. But clearly some portion of their memberships doesn’t care about any of this evidence — and doesn’t mind the risks that low vaccination rates might pose to individual colleagues, or the public, or to overall force readiness.
And union leaders are willing to coddle the cranks in their ranks.
It’s not clear whether threats to resign — expressed by individual officers or union leadership — should be taken at face value. After all, many cops would lose seniority and retirement benefits if they quit early. But let’s assume they’re not bluffing.
So what? Let them quit.
We need better ways to screen out the officers who don’t feel the law applies to them; who are inclined to put their own whims ahead of public safety; and who are likely to take unnecessary risks or reject evidence-based policing measures in favor of whatever their gut tells them to do. The response to this eminently reasonable public health requirement, not so different from other health and fitness requirements that have long been imposed upon officers, is probably a decent filtering mechanism.
If some police officers want to defund themselves, by all means let them. Let the bad cops go, and replace them with officers actually committed to the noble mission to protect and serve.