Police Association, Mayor remain at odds over COVID-19 vaccine mandate
Speaker 1: (00:00)
Yesterday marked a key date in the city's impending vaccine mandate for all city workers, city employees would have had to receive their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine in order to be fully vaccinated by the final deadline of December 2nd, the San Diego police department has so far given the strongest pushback to this mandate, which has fueled an ongoing disagreement between police and the mayor's office over a potential staffing shortage that could result from the mandate. Joining me now with more is KPBS general assignment reporter Kibby Alvarado, kitty, welcome to the
Speaker 2: (00:34)
Program. Thank you. Thank you for having me here. The deadline
Speaker 1: (00:37)
For city workers to receive their first dose of the COVID vaccine was yesterday. Do we know how many city workers got the shot?
Speaker 2: (00:44)
I'm looking at the numbers right here and over 8,000 employees have been fully vaccinated and that's out of over 11,000.
Speaker 1: (00:53)
We've seen the most resistance to get the shot from the city's police department. Do we have numbers on how many officers are vaccinated or
Speaker 2: (01:01)
Vaccinated? 730 are not fully vaccinated. And 80 of them did not want to respond. We did speak with Jack Shaffer, the president of the police officers association, they did put out a recent survey that showed about 300 officers would rather be fired than get the vaccine and to make it clear. He does tell us that the union does support vaccinations and he's fully vaccinated, but what they don't support is the mandate. They do feel officers have the right to choose whether or not to get vaccinated. And he says a lot of them feel especially strong if they had prior infections. And even though that's contrary to the CDC recommendations that even people with previous COVID infections get vaccinated SDP,
Speaker 1: (01:45)
Katie has warned that mandating vaccination among its ranks could cause officers to seek employment elsewhere. Have we seen any truth to that so far?
Speaker 2: (01:54)
R no one, not that I know of, but from what Shaffer tells us again, the president of the union, he says that those who aren't going to comply really are considering very strongly going to neighboring departments. And that would be really easy for them to do because all departments are struggling with staffing. What have we,
Speaker 1: (02:11)
We've been hearing from the police union on this impending deadline? You know,
Speaker 2: (02:15)
Something that I did find really interesting is the way most of us understand them. The mandate is a firm hard deadline of December 1st or second making this week, the deadline to get the first dose. But the union tells us they do have regular conversations with the mayor's office. And from what they understand is that as long as officers have at least one dose on board, by December 1st, they will not be dismissed. And that doesn't include the exemptions for religious reasons or medical reasons. And the city has to go through and decide on each one. So this could play out for a while.
Speaker 1: (02:47)
Uh, has the union indicated how many officers could potentially leave because of these mandates?
Speaker 2: (02:52)
Well, based on the survey they put out and, uh, the president said he would just be guessing, but probably about 200, maybe that is even a, a high number, but no one really knows. And these officers may comply last minute, but it's clear. The city is not going to change the rules. The mayor responded yesterday to us saying that they already have about 150 officers either starting the department or just about to start, which sounds good. But the union tells us that each hire will cost the city about $200,000 to train. And that's just the basic, so they won't have as much experience. And if you do the math on each, each replacement, it's really costly.
Speaker 1: (03:30)
We spend conflicting messaging from the mayor's office and the police department about staffing issues. What can you tell us about that?
Speaker 2: (03:37)
The union tells us they're alarmingly, understaffed, and it's causing slow response times. They even included an incident that happened in Hillcrest as an example, that took about two hours to respond to a car driving on the sidewalk, but the mayor disputes that, and he says that it's not because of understaffing and blames and increase in call volume saying that on that night calls were up about 90%. And again, he adds that they will continue to hire new officers and they will be able to handle this. The San Diego
Speaker 1: (04:05)
Know fire department has also had its own issues with vaccine hesitancy among the ranks is at anything we're seeing to the scale of what's going on with the police.
Speaker 2: (04:14)
It doesn't seem as big of an issue, but the numbers are still high. I did speak with chief Colin Stonewell hidden. He did give me the numbers. He says about 12% of the fire department are unvaccinated. And he does make it clear. They do support the mandate and are encouraging members to get vaccinated, but they like every other fire department across the state are struggling with staffing and they had to brown out a fire unit last month, but they did that at a double house. So they did have coverage. So anyone leaving at this point, it will hurt their staffing levels.
Speaker 1: (04:46)
And ultimately let's bring this conversation back to why the mandates are put in place in the first place.
Speaker 2: (04:51)
Well, I suppose that the mayor's office just believes that it's the right thing to do, especially with departments that deal with the community. One-on-one they just really want to be an example for maybe the rest of the country as what a mandate and what public health should look like. But ultimately it's just a wait and see game to see how many people will leave the city rather than comply with these mandates.
Speaker 1: (05:15)
Speaking with KPBS general assignment reporter, kitty Alvarado, kitty. Thank you so much for joining us. Thank you.
As the city's mandatory deadline for its employees to receive at least the first COVID-19 vaccination arrives Wednesday, Mayor Todd Gloria disagreed with a San Diego Police Officers Association claim that the police department is "alarmingly" understaffed, instead attributing slow response times to increased volume of calls.
The SDPOA released a statement on Tuesday blaming staffing shortages for delayed response time, citing Halloween night specifically.
"An incident involving a motorist driving on the sidewalk in Hillcrest sparked conversation of a two-hour response time from SDPD," a statement from the association read. "Due to alarmingly low staffing levels citywide, officers were unable to quickly respond to 911 calls on Halloween evening."
The union and city have good communication about the policy, president of the Police Officers Association Jack Schaeffer said.
"The city has told us repeatedly that their goal is not to have to terminate people," he said. "And so my understanding is that as long as they’re getting that shot sometime before Dec. 2, we should be in an OK place."
Neither the union nor the police department could say how many of the 1,900 officers are vaccinated. But a recent survey released by the police officer’s association or union showed more than 300 of their officers would rather be fired than comply.
"Some people are going to you know having to make probably the toughest decision of their careers," Schaeffer said.
The police union encourages vaccination but doesn't believe it should be mandated, Schaeffer said. He worries the city will lose a lot of good cops, who have experience that can’t be replaced by costly new hires.
"Two hundred people leaving, it would probably take a decade for us to catch up to that to just get to where we’re at now and where we’re at now is lower than what we should be," Schaeffer said.
What weighs more heavily on him is that this exodus will be bad for San Diegans, the people who visit and put officers at risk, as staffing levels are already low, he said.
"You just have to do the math it’s going to be harder for us to do the job," Schaeffer said. "My biggest fear is that you know we have to have enough officers to do things safely … because I really do feel that a significant number of people by the time this is all said and done will be gone."
In a statement, Mayor Todd Gloria told KPBS that the police department is not short staffed.
"Rather than a lack of adequate staffing, delays in responding to 911 calls were due to an increased volume of emergency calls," he said. "The amount of emergency calls on Sunday, November 14, 2021 alone increased by nearly 90% when compared to the year before."
"We're going to do everything we can to retain the valuable members of our organization, but if folks choose to go somewhere else, we'll do our level best to recruit topflight, high first-class talent," Gloria said at the time.
"Of those 141 recruits, 26 are women and more than 68% are people of color," he said. "I'm proud of our diverse recruitment efforts and remain committed to increasing diversity in all areas of the city."
The fire department is also struggling with staffing shortages and Chief Colin Stowel said that about 12% of the staff is unvaccinated.
In September, the city announced all employees would have to be vaccinated for COVID-19, barring religious or medical exemptions. The deadline to show proof of full vaccination is Dec. 1.
SDPD Chief David Nisleit said the possibility of losing officers due to vaccine mandates was an issue.
"That's concerning, the possible impacts of if we were to lose officers, you look at this police department, our ratio of officers to citizens is second-lowest in this nation, so obviously that impacts our ability to respond to crime," he said.
In June the City Council unanimously voted to pass Gloria's roughly $4.6 billion proposed budget, an increase of more than $537 million — or 13.4% — over last year's spending plan. A not-insignificant $23 million increase to the San Diego Police Department's budget was made despite calls asking the council to defund the SDPD's overtime allocation by at least $10 million.
Much of the police budget increase is part of non-discretionary spending such as pensions, over which Gloria has little say, according to city officials. The budget cuts police overtime by $4 million.
The city has increased the SDPD's budget for the last 10 years, an increase of more than $200 million since 2011.