As of last week, all Baltimore City employees are required to receive at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine or get weekly COVID-19 tests if they want to continue working for the city. Reflecting a troubling national trend that perpetuates the ongoing public health crisis under the guise of “freedom,” Baltimore City’s police union is speaking out against Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott’s vaccination mandate. 

Organized opposition to vaccination mandates for Baltimore police emerged back in August when Baltimore City’s Fraternal Order of Police (FOP3) and the Baltimore City firefighters’ unions released a joint statement responding to Mayor Scott’s policy.

“It is our desire to remain engaged in collective bargaining over the implementation of this policy,” the Aug. 31 statement said. “We look forward to working amicably with members of Mayor Scott’s administration to ensure this policy and its associated procedures are implemented fairly and equitably while protecting our member’s [sic] personal concern and autonomy.”

Earlier this month, [Baltimore City’s Fraternal Order of Police] President Mike Mancuso encouraged police officers not to reveal their vaccination status to the city and continued the argument that this was about workers’ rights.

The police union’s stance has not eased since then. Earlier this month, FOP3 President Mike Mancuso encouraged police officers not to reveal their vaccination status to the city and continued the argument that this was about workers’ rights.

“Until the city responds to our right to bargain these issues, or the courts intervene, I suggest you do nothing in regard to revealing your vaccination status as it is outlined in the city’s policy,” Mancuso wrote to police union members. “Obviously, this is an individual choice on how each of you handles this situation. Whatever choice you make FOP3 and I will be there to support you in your decision.”

Protesting vaccines to prop up police power

Police unions around the country have been fighting vaccination mandates. On Monday, Oct. 25, the New York Police Department union, the Police Benevolent Association of New York, sued the city over its mandate, which says that by Friday, Oct. 29, all of New York City’s workers (including police and firefighters) are required to have at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. 

The same day the NYPD union’s lawsuit was filed, a few thousand workers—including a large number of police—marched over the Brooklyn Bridge in protest, recalling the infamous 1992 NYPD “cop riot.” Among a sea of American flags were a few “Don’t Tread On Me” flags as the group of cops and anti-vaxxers shouted, “We will not comply.” One sign among the crowd read, “Workers are Essential, Mandates are Not.”

Politicians such as Maryland’s Gov. Larry Hogan have falsely claimed police officers are “under attack” and being “defunded.” But elected officials’ inability to get police to vaccinate themselves so that they don’t spread a deadly disease to a populace they interact with daily is evidence of just how much power police officers actually wield. In Portland, for example, police were simply exempted from a vaccination mandate that applied to all other city workers.

“We’ve heard this story before,” Esther Wang wrote in The New Republic earlier this month. “After a year of protests and calls to defund the police, law enforcement officials and police unions repeated on loop that demoralized cops were leaving their jobs en masse, a narrative, coupled with misleading crime statistics and laundered through media outlets, that served only to prop up the punitive power of the police. The refusal to abide by vaccine mandates should be seen as yet another attempt to entrench police authority.”

In Baltimore, no other unions that include City employees have publicly opposed the vaccination mandate.

There has long been a debate regarding whether or not law enforcement should be considered “workers” at all. Kristian Williams argues in the 2004 book Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America that “police unions aren’t unions” because they “mostly reflect the interests of the institution (the police department) rather than those of the working class.” In answer to labor’s enduring question “Which side are you on?,” it’s worth remembering that police have historically been the ones arresting striking workers and protecting passage of scab workers across picket lines.  

“Police associations provide a stronghold for the most reactionary aspects of the profession—elements that the command hierarchy is often at pains to disavow,” William writes. “When the police command cannot, for legal or political reasons, resist demands for civilian oversight, for more diversity in the department, or for redress in particular cases, the union can defend the departmental status quo.”

In Baltimore, no other unions that include City employees have publicly opposed the vaccination mandate. 

According to WBAL TV, 51% of Baltimore Police are fully vaccinated. That’s 1,466 of the city’s 2,881 police. Los Angeles and New York police officers’ vaccination rates are both around 70%. 

“They… seem only to despise us.”

Mayor Scott has stressed communication with FOP3 about the vaccination mandate and collective bargaining, and other council members have released statements encouraging vaccination. True to form, though, City Councilperson Ryan Dorsey didn’t mince words.

“I’ve never known the FOP to have an interest in the health and welfare of Baltimore City or its people. They are led by and overwhelmingly represent people who don’t live here, and seem only to despise us,” Dorsey wrote in a statement last week provided to Battleground Baltimore and other local news outlets. “They contribute to and benefit from our city’s epidemic of violence. Why would anybody expect better of them with regard to a global pandemic?”

Throughout 2020, many residents called attention to Baltimore Police officers not wearing masks despite the department’s procedures and guidance requiring N95 masks to be worn while officers are on call. 

By April 2020, a month after COVID-19 precautions began, 24 members of the Baltimore Police Department had tested positive for COVID-19. That same month, there were two high-profile incidents of police misconduct related to the pandemic. 

On April 8, 2020, a public housing resident recorded a Baltimore Police sergeant intentionally coughing on people after someone greeted him with, “Hey Officer Friendly with the cherry cheeks.” The name of that sergeant, who was suspended for coughing on the citizens he swore to protect and serve, was never released by the police. 

On April 19, 2020, Baltimore Police officer Andre Pringle allegedly grabbed 25-year-old Brandon Walker, a Baltimore man who was not wearing his mask and refused to put it on when he entered a supermarket. Pringle shoved Walker out of the supermarket and then slammed him onto the concrete ground face-first. Walker was charged with assault, disorderly conduct, failure to obey a lawful order, resisting arrest, and trespassing, but those charges were later dropped. Pringle was charged by the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office with second-degree assault and misconduct in office. Court records show he has a court hearing related to the charges in February of next year.

COVID-19 is the leading cause of death for law enforcement officers in the United States.

In July 2020, in-service training of Baltimore Police was temporarily suspended after four trainees and two staff members tested positive for COVID-19. 

In December 2020, civilian police employee Katiza Melette died from complications from COVID-19.

In January 2021, then-Baltimore Police Sergeant James Rhoden used his influence to get the then-harder-to-obtain COVID-19 vaccine for a family member. Rhoden is no longer with the police department.

Nearly 80% of Baltimore Police officers do not live in Baltimore City. Most Baltimore cops (many of them unvaccinated) return to their homes somewhere else in the state where they can and may spread the virus. 

According to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, Baltimore City is one of the state’s six counties whose transmission rate is considered “substantial,” which means 50-100 new cases per 100,000 residents over the past week, or 8-10% positivity rate. 16 Maryland counties are categorized by the CDC as having a “high” transmission rate, which means 100+ new cases per 100,000 residents over the past week, or 10% positivity rate or higher. 

Only two Maryland counties—Montgomery and Howard—have positivity rates considered “moderate,” which means 15-50 new cases per 100,00 residents over the past week, or 5-8% positivity rate.

COVID-19 is the leading cause of death for law enforcement officers in the United States. According to the Officer Down Memorial Page, a website that commemorates the deaths of law enforcement, 245 law enforcement officers died nationwide of COVID-19-related causes in 2020.

In 2021 so far, 240 law enforcement officers have died from COVID-19.

Brandon Soderberg

Brandon Soderberg is a Baltimore-based writer reporting on guns, drugs, and police corruption. He is the coauthor of I Got a Monster: The Rise and Fall of America’s Most Corrupt Police Squad. Formerly, he was the editor-in-chief of the Baltimore City Paper. His work has appeared in The Intercept, VICE, The Appeal, and many other publications. Follow him on Twitter @notrivia.