By the hundreds they lined in formation, standing at attention when Sgt. Patrick Madison’s flag-draped casket was taken from the hearse. Many of them have gathered like this before for yet another full-honor funeral for a South Florida police officer felled by the coronavirus.
As of Friday there have been at least 622 deaths in the U.S., according the National Fraternal Order of Police. That’s more than one a day since the pandemic began.
In Florida, 56 officers have died so far, including five from South Florida in one week. California has also suffered 56 deaths. Only Texas, with 143 deaths, has had more.
The job of a beat cop, coming into contact with countless, unknown individuals, doesn’t leave much room for social distancing. The same is true for corrections officers and detectives. And yet there is great reluctance to get vaccinated.
Plantation is now requiring its police and city employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine. Firefighters in Pembroke Pines have to get the shot. Weston workers have a deadline just days away to get it done.
But most agencies say vaccine mandates are not under consideration, including Coral Springs, which has no plans for mandates for any city employees, including police, even though they just buried one of their own.
Law enforcement officers are a microcosm of America — heavily divided over the vaccine, said Jeff Bell, the leader of the Broward Sheriff’s Office union for deputies and lieutenants. Eight Sheriff’s Office employees have died of COVID-19.
But where law enforcement officers differ from most of America is the death benefit. When sworn officers die from COVID-19 related illness, it is typically considered a line-of duty death, much like being shot on the job or being killed in a crash, even if they got the virus somewhere else.
And the payouts from local, state and federal coffers can top $1 million. Tuition to state schools for dead Florida law enforcement officers with children is also guaranteed.
When Madison, 43, of the Coral Springs Police Department died, he was the fifth law enforcement officer in South Florida to die within a week.
Two spokesmen for his agency refused to say whether Madison was vaccinated. One also refused to say whether Coral Springs even asks its officers if they are vaccinated — something employers are lawfully allowed to do.
At least a few agencies are asking.
“The low response from members of our agency on their willingness to take the COVID vaccine — this is not acceptable and their reasons are not based on fact, not based on medical science and based on uncertainty,” said Palm Beach County Sheriff Ric Bradshaw in a video that is meant to encourage employees to get vaccinated. The video shows Bradshaw and others in his command staff getting the shot.
The vaccine is safe and necessary, Bradshaw said. “Everyone needs to get involved. It’s for your benefit. It’s for the benefit of the people of Palm Beach County because we need you on the road and in the jails.”
More recently, a survey was sent out to Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office’s approximately 4,000 employees; about 41% said they were not vaccinated. The 59% vaccination rate is significantly lower than the overall rate of 71 percent of all Palm Beach County residents of 12 years and older who are vaccinated, according to the Florida Department of Health.
In Miami-Dade, the difference is much greater. Fifty-two percent of the employees from the Miami-Dade Police Department said they were vaccinated. Dade County has the highest vaccination rate in the state with 86% of those 12 and older vaccinated, the department of health’s figures show.
Miami Police Chief Art Acevedo took to Twitter to get his message out. “Please let’s all get vaccinated,” he tweeted in a post that showed a picture of the condolence letters he was sending the families of law enforcement officers dead from COVID-19.
He has tweeted often about COVID, including the deaths of officers nationwide. One tweet pleaded: “We all need to do our part and get people to get vaccinated, which is, in essence, biologic body armor.”
Acevedo said police officers can be a tough bunch: “Police officers can be skeptical, and that skepticism can sometimes bite us. Look at the skeptics who have been dying across the country. If it’s good enough for President Trump and President Biden” then it’s good enough for everyone else, he said.
“As police officers we should make evidence-based decisions, and I like to look at statistics and look at odds. … If people can play politics, I’m going to play the odds.”
The Broward Sheriff’s Office has not surveyed its members. But when vaccines were offered on site earlier this year, only a fraction signed up, said Bell of the union.
COVID has been rampant at the Broward Sheriff’s Office. The agency has 5,688 employees; since March 2020, a total of 1,677 have gotten COVID-19. Sheriff Gregory Tony has been vocal about the need for protection. A vaccine, he has said, is no different than a bulletproof vest — it’s an added layer of protection.
Recently Tony made it a policy that all non-union members of the Sheriff’s Office must show proof of a COVID-19 vaccination by mid October. Bell said if the mandate is broadened to include his union members, the union would get with its legal team to fight it. “It should be an individual choice,” he said.
That sentiment falls in line with the National Fraternal Order of Police. However, the organization sent a letter to branch offices in August strongly encouraging members to get vaccinated to protect themselves and others from getting seriously ill.
“However, it is the position of the group that individuals regardless of their status should maintain the freedom to make that educated decision for themselves. … We are vehemently opposed to any suggestion of a vaccine mandate from any organization, employer or government agency.”
A few decision makers at South Florida’s cities and towns are moving ahead with mandates.
- Hillsboro Beach is considering a mandate for its town employees. City Manager Mac Serda said, “I don’t want to risk being able to provide essential services to our residents due to an outbreak of employees testing positive to COVID, or worse, becoming ill.”
- In Weston, city staff must be vaccinated by Sept. 10. Those who claim a religious or medical exemption must get weekly testing.
- In Hallandale Beach, vaccines aren’t mandatory, but weekly testing is for city staff, including police officers who won’t get the shot.
- In Pembroke Pines, vaccination is mandatory for firefighters. “It is a matter of great public importance for frontline health care workers to be vaccinated,” said Marcelino Rodriguez, a Pembroke Pines Fire Rescue Division chief. “Firefighters on the front lines are increasingly vulnerable to contracting the virus, and there have already been a significant number of deaths as a result of this disease.”
- Plantation has among the most expansive policy for all city employees, including police. The city has a volunteer fire department, who are not included. The policy in Plantation calls for everyone to be fully vaccinated by Sept. 30 or face unpaid leave and then termination.
Others are easing into vaccines.
- “All new employees at City Hall and in the Fire Department must be vaccinated before they start working for the city,” said Shannon Vezina, Oakland Park city spokeswoman. The city is talking with unions as it considers a policy for existing employees.
- The city of West Palm Beach is trying to entice its employees to get vaccinated by adding an additional one-time payout of $500 to paychecks of those that provide proof of vaccination.
Many naysayers say getting a vaccine is pointless because vaccinated people are still getting sick. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention counters: ”There is evidence that vaccination may make illness less severe for those who are vaccinated and still get sick. The risk of infection, hospitalization, and death are all much lower in vaccinated compared with unvaccinated people.”
Glenn Matonak, the Coral Springs police union spokesman, said even though the death of Madison rattled the agency, it won’t change policy.
“We are encouraging everyone to go and get vaccinated, we feel it is the best way to stay protected against COVID,” he said. “Mandating someone inject something into your body, it’s a tricky question. Some people have a strong belief they don’t want to do it.”