Why police, firefighters are fighting vaccine mandates and what that means for their jobs

Friday afternoon was the deadline for all New York City workers to get at least one COVID vaccine dose or go on unpaid leave. It could mean several thousand officers may have to stay home as early as Monday. In New York and other cities around the country, some of the loudest opposition voices belong to police union officials. John Yang reports.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Amna Nawaz:

    In New York, this afternoon was the deadline for all city workers to get at least one vaccine dose, or go on unpaid leave. It could mean several thousand officers may be on leave as early as Monday.

    As John Yang reports, in New York and other cities around the country, some of the loudest opposition voices belong to police union officials.

  • Protestors:

    The people will not comply!

  • John Yang:

    Carrying signs reading "My Body, My Choice" and "No Vaccine Mandate," thousands of people, including New York police and firefighters, marched across the Brooklyn Bridge this week to protest the city's directive.

  • Protestors:

    Hold the line! Hold the line!

  • Man:

    Today is a day in which we, the workers of this great city, stand up to unreasonable mandates.

  • John Yang:

    The mandate is one of the most aggressive in the nation.

    Bill De Blasio (D), Mayor of New York: If you're a city worker, you need to be vaccinated. We are here to keep you safe, so you can keep everyone else safe. We need you to keep everyone around you in the workplace safe. We need you to make sure that people who you encounter, the people of this city, the residents of this city are safe.

  • John Yang:

    Most New York City municipal workers are getting vaccinated, with the pace picking up as today's deadline neared. Today, officials said 71 percent of fire department workers and 80 percent of police employees have gotten at least one dose.

    But the city's biggest police union continues to resist, and is in court to try to block the mandate, calling it coercive and the threat of unpaid leave for not complying arbitrary and capricious. It prefers an earlier plan calling for weekly testing.

    City and state officials are making contingency plans for possible staffing shortfalls on Monday, the first day the leaves would take effect. In cities like Seattle, San Diego, and Los Angeles, police unions have urged members to resist vaccine requirements, even though COVID has killed about 500 law enforcement officers nationwide since the pandemic began. That's more than all other causes of death combined.

  • Chuck Wexler, Executive Director, Police Executive Research Forum:

    We have a way to prevent those cops from dying. And it's been tested.

  • John Yang:

    Former Boston police official Chuck Wexler is executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a policy development group.

  • Chuck Wexler:

    Look, if they were getting shot or stabbed on the streets of America at the rate they're dying of COVID, there would be outrage. But, instead, somehow, this issue has become politicized.

  • John Yang:

    The clash over vaccine mandates comes as police are under increasing scrutiny, with a nationwide spike in the murder rate and incidents like the death of George Floyd.

    In many big cities, that's led to tense relations between elected leaders and police unions.

  • Protestors:

    Hold the line! Hold the line!

  • John Yang:

    In few places is it as bitter as it is in Chicago, where the mayor and the police union president have long been at odds.

    In August, Mayor Lori Lightfoot, elected on a pledge of police reform, ordered all city workers to report their vaccination status by October 15 or go on unpaid leave.

    John Catanzara, President, Chicago Fraternal Order of Police: We're going to keep fighting this mandate and this dictatorship.

  • John Yang:

    Police Union President John Catanzara took to social media to urge disobedience.

  • John Catanzara:

    Do not comply with any direct order to fill out the portal, period. It is illegal. They cannot do it.

  • John Yang:

    The mayor called the positioning foolish.

    Lori Lightfoot, Mayor of Chicago, Illinois: Unfortunately, that's in keeping with the leadership of this Fraternal Order of Police.

  • John Yang:

    By the deadline, almost a third of the city's more than 12,000 officers had not complied.

  • Elizabeth Alaniza, Chicago Police Officer:

    For the first time in my 21-year career, I disobeyed a direct order. This is very stressful for these officers, for myself. And it seems that the city doesn't care.

  • John Yang:

    But as union protesters gathered at City Hall this week, the city is giving most of them another chance. Only 27 officers have been placed on unpaid leave. The union president warns of the possibility of scores of police off the job.

  • John Catanzara:

    I don't know how the mayor in good conscience can force this to go forward and risk sending half the police department home and subjecting the citizens of this city to that.

  • Lori Lightfoot:

    What I have concerns about is seeing more officers die needlessly of COVID-19. Again, you're all aware we had four officers who passed away in 2020, every single one of them from COVID-19.

  • John Yang:

    Catanzara says the issue isn't vaccines. It's what job requirements should be determined by negotiations. That puts officers in the middle, says Chuck Wexler of the Police Executive Research Forum.

  • Chuck Wexler:

    Labor is saying, wait a second, not so fast. We have collective bargaining agreements. You want us to get vaccinated, fine. Let's sit down and bargain for it.

  • John Yang:

    And some say it could be putting public health in jeopardy.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm John Yang.

Listen to this Segment