the national interest

How Vaccine Mandates Can Promote Police Reform

Photo: Charles Rex Arbogast/AP/Shutterstock

Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot has mandated vaccination for all city employees, and Fraternal Order of Police president John Catanzara is not taking it well. “This has literally lit a bomb underneath the membership,” he told the Chicago Sun-Times. “We’re in America, goddamn it. We don’t want to be forced to do anything. Period. This ain’t Nazi fucking Germany.”

Making vaccination a condition of municipal employment was not in fact one of the tenets of National Socialism. (Nor, for that matter, is it “literally” a bomb.) What is at least slightly reminiscent of Nazi Germany, however, is detaining people at an off-the-books warehouse and denying them legal counsel, which was both a real practice of Chicago police and one of the first steps taken by the Nazis after Adolf Hitler took power.

Catanzara isn’t the only cop who has some peculiar ideas about which kinds of government powers are necessary measures to preserve public safety and which are terrifying abuses. Police unions are denouncing vaccine mandates in New York, San Francisco, Boston, Seattle, Tucson, and Richmond, among others. “We are a union and we will defend our members,” national FOP executive director Jim Pasco told Axios. “You cannot tell people what to do. It’s still an individual and personal choice.” In cities that have made their mandates stick, police have warned of mass exodus.

It’s usually easy for police to scare a mayor by threatening to leave the streets undefended. But in this instance, vaccine mandates present a rare opportunity for a double win. Cities can simultaneously defend an important anti-pandemic measure, and induce at least some of the most dangerous police officers to leave their jobs.

The public-health benefits of a vaccine mandate are obvious enough. The subtler, but longer-lasting, effect of the mandate would be to push out police officers who refuse vaccines.

While most police officers are trying to protect people and treat the public fairly, a disturbingly large minority are authoritarian bullies with overtly or covertly racist beliefs. The central obstacle to reforming police practices, and restoring trust between Black communities and the people entrusted with their protection, is ridding departments of their worst members. Police unions often make it virtually impossible to remove or even discipline abusive cops. If cops decide to walk away over the vaccine mandate, they’ll have accomplished what decades of reform efforts have failed to do: weed out the most dangerous cops.

Of course, not every anti-vaxx cop is a racist abuser, nor is every racist abuser anti-vaxx. But the two groups are likely to have a heavy overlap. Opposition to the vaccine is strongest among white Republicans. The news sources that have spread fear about the vaccine are the same ones that generally cater to white paranoia. It stands to reason that the police officers most likely to object strongly enough to a vaccine mandate to leave their jobs are the ones most committed to the paranoid worldview of the far right that has generated most of the intense vaccine resistance.

The reality is that police are paid quite well in comparison with other blue-collar jobs. The number of police who actually walk away over a vaccine mandate is likely to be far less than the threatened numbers. But however many police decide to self-purge over vaccine mandates is one less risking becoming that city’s next Derek Chauvin. Police threats shouldn’t make mayors scared to enforce a vaccine mandate. It should be seen instead as a side benefit.

How Vaccine Mandates Can Promote Police Reform