It’s not often that a city commission starts a session with a bang. But that was precisely the case last Tuesday morning, when William Briggs began the weekly meeting of the Los Angeles Police Commission by throwing haymakers.
Briggs, the president of the civilian panel that oversees the Los Angeles Police Department, is among the many who’ve decried the slow pace of coronavirus vaccinations for the more than 12,000 sworn and civilian LAPD employees. Unlike others in upper-crust positions, however, he didn’t hold his tongue.
After referencing the importance of public safety, he stated, “I personally find it appalling that they would willfully, intentionally, and brazenly endanger the lives of those they have taken an oath to protect. I’m talking about those individuals who openly disregarded the solemn promise they made to protect the citizens of Los Angeles by refusing to be vaccinated.”
The explosive talk had me reaching for the popcorn, even though it was only 9:30 a.m. Briggs, it turns out, was just getting going. He then declared, “The fact that someone who swore to protect the citizens of the city would instead act to cause harm to citizens is intolerable.”
According to a recent Los Angeles Times report, only about 61 percent of LAPD personnel are fully vaccinated. The city has mandated that all municipal employees—including police and firefighters—be fully vaccinated, though wiggle room has been left for people to seek religious or medical exemptions. That kept Briggs in fiery mode.
“It appears that more than 2,000 LAPD employees are attempting to take advantage of one of those exemptions, and that is extremely dubious,” he stated. “Our citizens need to be protected from a virus that has killed millions, that has left a deadly toll on humanity, that has caused untold suffering and pain.”
He culminated with an angry plea directly to those who wear LAPD blues: “You swore an oath to protect and serve. You need to uphold that oath.”
I was kinda hoping for a mic drop.
The verbal Molotov cocktails Briggs threw were startling, but what is perhaps more jaw-dropping is that other city leaders are not en masse delivering similar tough talk. Yes, nearly every pol has discussed the importance of getting vaxxed, and there have been many references to holding talks with the police and firefighter unions about how to proceed with those refusing the shots, but there seems to be a level of timidity, particularly with a cadre of first responders looking to sue to thwart the city mandate.
Careful couching of public statements makes sense when one is playing the long game of union contract negotiations. But this isn’t the time to play nice—since COVID-19 slammed into Los Angeles, nearly 1.5 million county residents have contracted the disease, and as of Sunday, 26,153 people had died, according to the County Department of Public Health. This includes 11 LAPD personnel.
Politics can be fractious, but if ever there were a time for Mayor Eric Garcetti, City Council President Nury Martinez, the other 16 elected city officials, and Police Chief Michel Moore, and Fire Chief Ralph Terrazas to come together for a strength-in-numbers, line-in-the-sand moment, this is it. Briggs just gave them the script. Given that 69 percent of county residents are fully vaccinated, this is elected officials’ moment to say that cops and firefighters either get the jab, or they get another job.
This is not an anti-police sentiment. Rather, it’s a sentiment against a virus that, until it’s quashed, will continue to severely sicken and kill people, including kids under 12 who can’t yet get vaccinated. And in case anyone forget, the Delta variant is frighteningly contagious, and first responders deal with a large number of vulnerable individuals.
Politicians in Los Angeles are squeamish about crossing any public employees union, but even from the purely strategic perspective, this is prime time to dump that status quo—public sentiment is largely in favor of vaccinations, and police unions are at a nadir of popularity.
Talking tough could be a win for every public official.
Some politicians may worry what the Los Angeles Police Protective League will do come election time—this is understandable, as the union representing thousands of rank and file officers can be a ballot box force. But again, the world has been flipped upside down, and with city elections approaching in 2022, candidates are likely to win more votes than they would lose by declaring that as mayor/city attorney/council member they would be in favor of someone getting vaccinated or losing their job.
In other words, talking tough could be a win for every public official. That includes Garcetti, who has nothing to lose—the guy is seemingly counting the days until he becomes Ambassador to India, and future support from the police union matters little now. In the early days of the pandemic he took steps that likely saved lives by putting the city on a near-lockdown. This is a chance to bookend his pandemic response with another strong step.
There will be those who cry foul, the whole “My Body, My Choice” brigade. At this point any attempt to persuade vaccine refuseniks with science is pointless—that the jabs are safe and largely prevent coronavirus transmission is indisputable. If public safety personnel by now have opted not to get shots that help protect the public, further attempts at reason won’t work.
But the city political brass has another card to play, and it’s an ace: that aforementioned threat of firing those who refuse to be inoculated.
Freedom of choice is one thing, but a fat paycheck could hold more sway. According to City Controller Ron Galperin’s Payroll Explorer database, the average LAPD officer with a rank of lieutenant or below makes just under $100,000 a year including base pay, overtime and assorted other pay. The average firefighter and fire captain pulls in $140,000 in base pay and overtime.
Will some balk at a requirement to get a shot in the arm, and quit? Probably a few. But really, how many people will walk away from that kind of salary and benefits package amid the lingering economic uncertainty of a pandemic economy?
There is every reason for local leaders to demand that police officers, as Briggs said, uphold their oath to protect and serve. The question is, will the politicians make them do it?
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