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Opinion Why I oppose the Los Angeles County vaccine mandate for my sheriff’s department

A Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy keeps watch on a group of people apprehended at an illegal marijuana dispensary in Compton, Calif, in 2018. (Jae C. Hong/AP)

Alex Villanueva is the sheriff of Los Angeles County.

Before I explain why I am refusing to enforce a vaccine mandate for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, let me make my position on coronavirus vaccines clear.

I believe that vaccines approved by the Food and Drug Administration are safe and effective. My wife and I are both fully vaccinated. In private and in public, I have urged Los Angeles County deputies and civilian staff to get vaccinated. The minor risk of side effects from the vaccines are dwarfed by the threat from covid-19.

But the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors’ recently imposed vaccine mandate for the members of my department as a condition of employment was dangerously misguided.

Currently, about 52 percent of the department’s personnel are fully vaccinated, and about 2 percent are partially vaccinated. We want those rates to go much higher, but we also have to deal with reality: Six weeks after the rule took effect on Oct. 1, more than 3,000 sworn deputies and about 1,000 additional staff members are subject to termination because of the vaccine mandate.

That is a prescription for a public-safety disaster.

The threat of being fired did not force unvaccinated members of the department to get their shots, as the Board of Supervisors clearly assumed it would. Instead, we’ve seen a spike in early retirements: 102 more deputies filed for retirement between October 2020 and October 2021 than in the previous year, and much of that increase has come since the board announced its intentions in August. Another 238 sworn personnel have told us they intend to leave the department.

I assume that my refusal to enforce the mandate and start firing people is the only thing keeping many more from leaving. But deputies tell me that they would rather quit or retire than be publicly shamed by a liberal Board of Supervisors, along with its media cheerleaders, telling them what to put in their bodies. I expect a slow-motion exodus from the force in the coming weeks and months.

Imagine how demoralizing the board’s actions have been for the sheriff’s department. Last year, amid the woke “defund the police” craze, the board irresponsibly cut $145 million from our budget. Coming as it did in the middle of the pandemic, the move sent a message that the board had no appreciation for the sworn personnel who risked their lives by continuing to serve, providing first aid and other help to the homeless, at a time when no vaccines were available.

Our department’s performance during the pandemic deserves the board’s thanks, not its contempt. We were among the first jail systems in the nation to release low-level offenders as the virus spread, as well as give masks to all inmates. When covid raged in immigrant detention centers, we put a moratorium on transfers to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a moratorium now permanent.

We were also the first agency in the nation to take the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine into the homes of the ill, elderly, disabled and homebound, and we persuaded Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) to grant emergency clearance for the county’s EMTs to administer vaccines.

Instead of unilaterally imposing a vaccine mandate on the department, the Board of Supervisors could have tried to work with us. My preference would have been to continue with the protocols that have been proved effective, with weekly coronavirus testing for those who are not vaccinated. But I would have been happy to work with the board to see if we could devise a strategy to get more deputies and staff vaccinated.

One aspect of progressive “wokeness” is the urge to have government dictate every aspect of people’s personal lives. That’s what is going on here. Members of the Board of Supervisors sit safely on Zoom while handing down vaccination edicts not only to the sheriff’s department but also to everyone in firefighting, health care, retail shops, agriculture, transportation and beyond — in short, to the people who, despite the danger, have showed up for work in person and kept society running throughout the pandemic.

My objection to the vaccine mandate for my department is not ideological; it’s practical. I need deputies on the streets. Sitting at home on Zoom like our critics is not an option. My unvaccinated deputies and I might not agree about the vaccines, but I have no other option than to stand by them and protest this move to fire today the heroes who risked their lives yesterday. The next time a pandemic hits, and no vaccine is available, I know they would stand with me, working to keep the public safe.

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