If You Live in the Phoenix Area, There's a Good Chance the Cop You're Talking to Isn't Vaccinated

If You Live in the Phoenix Area, There's a Good Chance the Cop You're Talking to Isn't Vaccinated
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Despite a new surge of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in Arizona, vaccination rates among the employees of several Phoenix-area law enforcement agencies are lagging. Others aren't even tracking the data.

Of all the law enforcement agencies in Maricopa County that Phoenix New Times contacted, only four disclosed how many of their employees have received COVID-19 vaccinations: the Phoenix Police Department, the Gilbert Police Department, the Buckeye Police Department, and the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office (MCSO). Staff at the City of Goodyear indicated that they were working to obtain the figures, while the rest either didn't respond or stated that they weren't tracking employee vaccination rates.

Here's what the numbers look like as of Friday, August 27.

Phoenix Police Department: Around 34 percent of the Phoenix Police Department's employees have been vaccinated, according to Dan Wilson, a spokesperson for the City of Phoenix. Wilson wrote in an email that 1,373 of the department's 3,954 total employees have presented proof of vaccination. Vaccinated employees in the department received a "$75 safety award" and potential prize winnings in a sweepstakes contest. (The prizes include airline tickets and a Phoenix Suns jersey signed by star player Devin Booker.)

Maricopa County Sheriff's Office: Around 36 percent of MCSO employees have been vaccinated. Norma Gutierrez-Deorta, a spokesperson for MCSO, wrote in an email that 1,187 out of 3,211 employees have been fully vaccinated.

Gilbert Police Department: Just 31 percent of the Gilbert Police Department has been vaccinated — though Brenda Carrasco, a spokesperson for the department, noted that the number only includes officers that were vaccinated through clinics sponsored by the Town of Gilbert.

Buckeye Police Department: Buckeye is doing much better, with a 50 percent vaccination rate among its 144 employees, according to Bob Sanders, a spokesperson for the department. Sanders added that the city of Buckeye is not offering any kind of incentives to department employees to get vaccinated.

Overall, law enforcement rates lag behind Maricopa County's vaccination rates. As of August 24, over 62 percent of all adults in the county aged 18 and up have received at least one vaccine dose, according to the County. Statewide, 47 percent of the population is fully vaccinated, with 56 percent of Arizonans having received at least one shot. Perhaps not surprisingly, local police departments also compare unfavorably to public safety agencies in places like New York, where roughly 47 percent of all New York Police Department employees have been vaccinated, according to the New York Times.

The fact that major local law enforcement agencies are reporting worse vaccination statistics than Maricopa County or the state of Arizona as a whole, both of which are trailing the national U.S. vaccination rate, is concerning, some public health and legal experts say, due to the human contact inherent in policing.

"People who don’t get vaccinated are not only endangering themselves, they are endangering others," said Sharona Hoffman, a professor of law and bioethics at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. "Policing is a job where you really have the community's welfare in your hands."

"They are directly threatening the health and welfare of children and anyone else who is not vaccinated," Hoffman added. "It really goes contrary to the spirit of the job."

"Obviously, something is going on with the worldview of law enforcement that is different from the general population. Our [Arizona's] vaccination rates among adults are bad enough, but that is extraordinarily bad," said Will Humble, executive director of the Arizona Public Health Association, in reference to the Phoenix Police Department and MCSO vaccination rates. "There is an approved vaccine now. This is a workforce issue. It goes to your mission in the community to set a good example. Your obligation is to not infect others as a public official."

Asked if the City of Phoenix was concerned about lagging vaccination rates among its employees, Wilson said, "City leadership has been consistent in its message to employees encouraging vaccination and will continue to do so." Carrasco pointed to the fact that the Gilbert Police Department's figures don't include employees who got vaccinated at sites other than town-sponsored clinics. Gutierrez-Deorta wrote in an email that Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone has "repeatedly strongly encouraged all employees to get vaccinated."

In a statement to New Times, Michael "Britt" London, president of the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association, the union that represents rank-and-file Phoenix police officers, sidestepped direct questions regarding the low rate of vaccinations within the Phoenix Police Department.

"It is important to note that the vaccination numbers from the City of Phoenix reflect those who voluntarily disclosed that information," London said. "The decision to get vaccinated is up to each individual officer and we respect each officer's right to make that choice."

Meanwhile, many other regional law enforcement agencies have no idea how many of their employees are vaccinated. Those agencies include the Chandler Police Department, the Tempe Police Department, and the Glendale Police Department.

Charles Trapani, a spokesperson for the Mesa Police Department, claimed in an email that the department doesn't track internal vaccination rates due to the 1996 Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). But HIPAA only mandates that certain entities, like healthcare providers, health insurance companies, and associated businesses, withhold medical information, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Hoffman, the law and bioethics professor, said the HIPAA excuse doesn't apply: "They [law enforcement agencies] are not healthcare providers or insurers, and in this context, they are acting as employers. HIPAA has nothing to do with it."

When presented with information regarding what HIPAA actually entails, Trapani responded that he is seeking "a response from my Legal [team] to clarify why we do not track vaccinated employees."
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Josh Kelety is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times. Previously, he worked as a reporter for the Inlander and Seattle Weekly.
Contact: Josh Kelety