What's leading to the law enforcement lag in vaccinations?

  • COVID-19 contracted as a result of the job has killed more police over the last year than all other on-duty causes combined. So why does it seem that police officers are falling behind in the race to get vaccinated?

    COVID-19 contracted as a result of the job has killed more police over the last year than all other on-duty causes combined. So why does it seem that police officers are falling behind in the race to get vaccinated? Brian Hill | Staff Photographer, April 2020

 
Posted5/7/2021 5:20 AM

The deadliest threat facing law enforcement officers across the country over the past year hasn't been armed criminals, high-speed pursuits or reckless drivers crashing into patrol vehicles.

It's been COVID-19.

 

According to the Officer Down Memorial Page, 297 officers -- including nine in Illinois -- have died after contracting the virus as a result of their duties. That's nearly 200 more than all other causes combined over the same time frame.

But despite those sobering statistics, police officers nationwide have been slow to get the COVID-19 vaccine, according to a report this week in The Washington Post. Although police were among the first with access, less than 40% of officers in several major-city departments -- New York, Atlanta and Phoenix among them -- have received even one dose, the Post reported. That compares to nearly 57% of adults nationwide, according to the latest figures from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

So why are police lagging in the race to get Americans vaccinated?

We reached out to Sean Smoot, director and chief counsel for the Illinois Police Benevolent and Protective Association, for answers.

Smoot said the figures may not reflect so much a reluctance to be vaccinated among law enforcement, but rather the male-dominated nature of the profession.

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"Research shows that males, whatever their occupation, are more reluctant to get vaccinated for anything, including the flu," Smoot said.

The CDC numbers support that, showing the rates of women getting the vaccine are about 8% higher than for men.

Smoot said there also seems to be a mistaken belief that many police officers already exposed to the virus on the job no longer need to be vaccinated.

"There's a misconception among some that, because they were infected with COVID, they have an immune response already and don't need the vaccine," he said. "While there may be some medical evidence that you get some protection for a period of time, I think the science is pretty clear that after an appropriate period of time you should get vaccinated and actually have a better vaccination protection if they do so."

Arlington Heights Police Chief Nicholas Pecora -- whose department is not mandating or tracking vaccinations -- said officers may also be reluctant for the same reasons anyone else might be: concerns about long-term effects, the speed at which it was rolled out, etc.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

We also contacted Chris Southwood, president of the Illinois Fraternal Order of Police, but he didn't get back to us.

Better in the 'burbs

A quick survey of law enforcement officials closer to home shows that suburban police are for the most part embracing the vaccine more than many of their peers nationwide.

Buffalo Grove Police Chief Steve Casstevens said about 80% of his department's staff has received the vaccine, and Lake Zurich Chief Steve Husak said 73% of his department's sworn officers and 61% of the civilian staff are fully vaccinated.

Several other departments said they are not tracking vaccinations, but indications are that a majority of their officers have been inoculated.

"We have had many take advantage of vaccination opportunities provided by the village, and quite a few have sought vaccines on their own," Palatine Chief David Daigle told us in an email. "I know we are well over 50%."

Justin Kmitch, director of communications for the DuPage County sheriff's office, said Deputy Chief Dan Bilodeau arranged for everyone who wanted a vaccine to receive one at an Illinois State Police event at McCormick Place in Chicago early this year. About 60% to 70% of the office's personnel is believed to be vaccinated, he added.

"Bilodeau received a meritorious service commendation for his efforts," Kmitch said.

According to Kane County Sheriff Ron Hain, about 40% of his 240 sworn personnel have taken a shot, despite efforts to offer special appointments and provide CDC information on the effectiveness and safety of vaccines.

Asked why some have so far declined, Hain told us, "They are not concerned about COVID-19 or they don't believe in the safety of the vaccine."

Worth their while

What more can law enforcement leaders do to encourage vaccinations among the ranks? Make it convenient and incentivize it, Smoot said.

That means allowing officers to get their shots at the start or conclusion of their shifts, rather than finding time on their own.

"We have incentives for physical fitness, for working out," he added. "If they're worried about officers who haven't been vaccinated, then (say), 'If you get vaccinated, you get an extra day off.'"

Anthony Romanelli retired this week after a 24-year law enforcement career that saw him win accolades including 2018 Chief of the Year by CIT International.
Anthony Romanelli retired this week after a 24-year law enforcement career that saw him win accolades including 2018 Chief of the Year by CIT International. - Courtesy of the DuPage County Sheriff's Office
Do-it-all deputy retires

Anthony Romanelli grew up wanting to be a doctor but found his calling and his career in law enforcement.

That distinguished 24-year career came to a close Monday, when Romanelli retired as chief of the DuPage County jail.

That was just the latest of several roles he took on during his more than two decades in law enforcement. He worked as a patrol deputy and head of the sheriff's office's narcotics unit, oversaw courthouse security and served as the chief of the Law Enforcement Bureau.

"Anthony has never languished in a position. He's always done a lot of work and created big things," Sheriff James Mendrick said Monday, as he presented Romanelli with his retirement badge.

In 2019, Romanelli was instrumental in the creation and coordination of the first-of-its-kind in Illinois Metropolitan Emergency Response and Investigations Team, for which he recently received a Commendation for Meritorious Conduct.

He also served as a SWAT operator and SWAT commander and is an original member of Illinois' Regional Weapons of Mass Destruction Special Response Team, which was created in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"There's not a day that has gone by that I've regretted (joining the DuPage County sheriff's office)," Romanelli said. "This is a noble profession. It's always been a noble profession and it will continue to be a noble profession. It was my privilege to work with and for all of you."

• Have a question, tip or comment? Email us at copsandcrime@dailyherald.com.

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