Three bike-wielding cops form a barricade around a sweep with a large contingent of officers behind
Police gathered in large numbers to ensure houseless individuals were swept and cleared in rapid fashion with no interruption from encampment residents or their allies during a fall 2021 sweep. (Photo by Enrico Doan)

Every major public sector union has cut a deal with the City of Seattle to implement the Mayor’s Covid vaccine mandate, but the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG) is the odd one out. SPOG continues to fight the mandate, and its vaccination rate continues to lag.

Mayor Jenny Durkan’s vaccine mandate is set to go into place on October 18th, and proof of vaccination was due by October 5th. That means it’s too late for an officer to begin their two-dose Pfizer or Moderna vaccines and have full immunity in time to be compliant for the deadline — though beginning their immunization may buy them some leniency. Employees could meet the deadline with the single-dose Johnson & Johnson shot if they act fast.

The Seattle Police Department (SPD) reported Wednesday that 292 sworn officers have yet to submit their proof of vaccination. Furthermore, an additional 111 officers have filed for an exemption from the vaccine mandate, Publicola’s Erica Barnett wrote. In sum, 38% of police operations staff are unvaccinated in a county where “19% of eligible King County residents have not completed their vaccine series as of Oct. 4, according to Public Health Seattle & King County,” KUOW reported Tuesday.

Some proof of vaccination paperwork continues to trickle in after the October 5th deadline. The Mayor’s Office reported 242 sworn officers had yet to submit their paperwork. 734 sworn officers had confirmed they are vaccinated, and 100 sworn officers continue to seek an exemption. That puts the unvaccinated rate among sworn officers at 32% if all those who have submitted proof aren’t vaccinated.

“Prior to October 18, it is premature to assume that people who have not submitted a vaccine verification form are also not vaccinated,” Mayoral spokesperson Anthony Derrick said in an email. “We anticipate that a good number of people will continue to submit their vaccine verification forms as they either become fully vaccinated, or simply remember to do so.”

Compliance appears to be higher among SPD’s non-sworn civilian staff with 262 confirming vaccination, six seeking exemption, and seven yet to submit their required paperwork, the Mayor’s office reported. While the police guild has framed the mandate as unfair, it does seem to be driving up the vaccination rate at SPD even if some resisters remain.

Mayor Durkan had been hesitant to specify consequences that police officers would face for failing to comply with the mandate. She declined to specify if firings would occur when Q13’s Brandi Kruse asked last month. That position has gotten more tenuous as it’s become clear hundreds of officers likely will not voluntarily comply with the mandate by the deadline, as she hoped. Today the Mayor did broach the subject of terminations in an interview with KUOW’s Katie Campbell.

“All city employees on the front lines will be vaccinated,” Durkan told KUOW. “If there is a valid religious or medical exemption, then we have an obligation to determine whether we can accommodate them with other jobs that will not put them in that position where they could expose others. And if we can’t, then they will not be able to continue in their employment.”

Facing a high rate of attrition at SPD, Mayor Durkan has also proposed hiring 125 additional officers for a net gain of 35 sworn officers in her 2022 budget proposal. The Mayor is targeting an average officer count of 1,230 next year. To argue for hiring more officers, Durkan has contended this would drive down violent crime, significantly lower response times, and solve more murders — although the data does not support a causal relationship between officer head count and curbing violent crime, let alone a correlation.

“You’ve talked to us before about your efforts to get new officers onboard, retain the officers we have, but if you have officers saying they disagree with the mandate for whatever reason and you can’t afford to lose more officers, that seems like they have the upperhand,” Campbell pressed the Mayor in a follow-up question.

“Look I truly believe that most individuals presented with the opportunity to do something that will keep them safe, their coworkers safe, and their community safe — and continue to do a job they want do — will make that choice” the Mayor responded. “[T]hey know what is required for them to maintain the job they have. If they make the decision not do it, that’s their individual choice.”

Those officers who successfully win a medical or religious exemption would not be able to serve on patrol and would need to be switched to desk duty or some other non-frontline service given the Mayor’s directive. SPOG’s failure to reach a deal with the City to implement the mandate will also deprive officers of benefit guarantees that other unions won, which are quite generous.

According to the Mayor’s Office, Campbell reported, the tentative agreements the City made with the other unions included:

  • Establish processes for vaccination confirmation, exemptions, accommodations and employee separation.
  • City employees will receive 40 hours of Covid-19 supplementary leave for pandemic reasons. Employees who have proved they will be fully vaccinated by the October 18 deadline will get another 40 hours, adding up to a total of 80 hours of paid time for Covid-related needs.
  • Employees who prove they will be fully vaccinated by October 18 will receive an additional eight hours of paid time off. The deadline to show proof is October 5.
  • Frontline workers on staff after Aug. 1, 2021 and performing in-person work could get a one-time payment of up to $1,750.
  • “Additional flexibility” for employees to choose to telework through Jan. 19, 2022.

Employee churn at SPD could become even more pronounced following a 18-month stretch where SPD reported saw more than 300 officers leave or retire. If most of the 242 officers who failed to show proof of vaccination end up being terminated the Mayor’s hopes of increasing head count by 35 sworn officers next year could be dashed.

SPOG’s negotiating tactic, such that it is, appears to be spread fears about a shrinking police force rather than message to officers to get vaccinated and accept a deal that would boost incentives for vaccinated officers.

“If we lose even 50 officers, the community’s 911 response will be drastically impacted,” SPOG President Mike Solan told KIRO 7. “We’re fighting for jobs. And if that’s extending the deadline, if it’s getting an accommodation for masking and testing, absolutely.”

SPOG scheduled further negotiations with the City on Thursday and hope to reach a solution soon, KIRO reported. Solan was elected as a hardline alternative to a more moderate predecessor and has made “holding the line” a signature motto. SPOG claims 88% of union members are vaccinated, but that lack of submitted proof calls the claim into doubt.

Some police accountability and abolitionist activists have welcomed terminations, arguing their officers weren’t taking their oath to protect and serve seriously if they wouldn’t get vaccinated to reduce the spread of a deadly pandemic that stubbornly continues to rage into its 19th month. It may not be defund activists that take the next bite out of SPD’s budget, but a self-inflicted wound of officers resisting the mandate and shrinking the agencies numbers of their own accord.

Update: This article has been updated with a quote and information from Mayor Durkan’s office at 10:10am October 10th.

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Doug Trumm is publisher of The Urbanist. An Urbanist writer since 2015, he dreams of pedestrianizing streets, blanketing the city in bus lanes, and unleashing a mass timber building spree to end the affordable housing shortage and avert our coming climate catastrophe. He graduated from the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington in 2019. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.