The corona virus epidemic has gripped law enforcement agencies. In Georgia, where vaccination rates are low and vaccine mandates are low, at least 33 officers have died from COVID-19 in 2021.
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The corona virus epidemic has affected law enforcement agencies across the country. COVID killed more officers in both 2020 and 2021 – in fact, more than any other cause of death. The problem is clear in Georgia, where vaccination rates are low and vaccine mandates are low. Report from Sam Whitehead, member station WABE in Atlanta.
Sam Whitehead, Byline: Tony Whitemeyer has had a difficult time recently. He is the police chief of Lake City, a small suburban community in southeastern Atlanta. Two members of its 16-member force died of COVID-19 about a month apart at the end of the summer – Officer Brian Hawkins and Sergeant William Yancey.
Tony Whitmeier: He left a huge hole in the department. These were our friends and our family. It was kind of tough, especially one after the other.
Whitehead: White Mayer remembers them fondly. He says Hawkins was kind to animals and was quick to help wanderers. He says that if Yankee catches an uninsured driver, he will take the time to tell him how to sign up for coverage.
Whitemaire says neither was vaccinated. This is not what he was given as his chief mandate, although he did encourage it.
Whitmire: I had to go back and think, bullet, I made it mandatory, would they still be here? But it was a choice they made and not something I could force.
Whitehead: Sergeant Todd Thomas was just months away from retirement when he died of COVID-19 in late September. He served in the police force in Griffin, 40 miles south of Atlanta. Lt. Chip Johns says it was like losing a close relative.
Chip Johns: Because you see these people 12 hours a day. They become your family. And with Todd being part of this family, it’s definitely a catastrophic loss for us.
Whitehead: Johns says Thomas was partially vaccinated, and his death has raised more suspicions about officers being shot. Johns says most officers will not be vaccinated, even if it is mandatory. This, in his words, would leave the city very insecure.
Johns: Coercion by any government – it will definitely put them in a position where there will be no coverage in their city.
Whitehead: COVID-19 has killed 33 police officers, correctional officers and sheriff’s deputies this year, accounting for more than three-quarters of all deaths, according to Georgia Concern of Police Survivors, a nonprofit organization that died. Helps families of officers. Only 50% of Georgia’s population is fully vaccinated, and there is little appetite for a vaccine mandate. In only a few cities are they for employees.
Janet Moon is the head of the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police. Fear of the mandate, she says, drives officers away.
JANET MOON: We are seeing a shortage of qualified candidates applying for our jobs, so we are all there trying to compete for a very small pool of applicants for various open positions. Are
Whitehead: She attributes officials’ reluctance to the vaccine to misinformation on social media and to politicizing the epidemic. And Moon says departments across the state have tried other ways to protect officers – measures such as masks and social distance.
Moon: I think we all tried to do our best with the information we had at the time, as circumstances changed, to keep officers safe.
Whitehead: Georgia has not seen the public reaction to the vaccination by law enforcement officers in cities such as Chicago and New York. But Rafiq Ahmed, head of the Georgia chapter of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, still finds the resistance troubling.
Rafiq Ahmed: You would think that in law enforcement agencies, we would be the group that would set an example by doing things that would benefit the community at large.
Whitehead: Ahmed says a change of mindset is needed. He says officers are trained to respond to threats and need to think about COVID-19 the way they think about high-speed vehicles or active shooters.
Ahmed: We have identified the threat. Then, the next logical thing to do is to do whatever is necessary to eliminate this threat.
Whitehead: They may need to re-evaluate their weaknesses. Ahmed says it is not uncommon for law enforcement officers to consider themselves strong, sometimes invincible. They say the COVID-19 epidemic has shown them otherwise.
For NPR News, I’m Sam Whitehead in Atlanta.
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