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COVID risk: Do department policies protect Utah law enforcement and the public?

SALT LAKE CITY – The COVID-19 pandemic has had a staggering impact on law enforcement agencies across the country and is now the leading reported cause of line-of-duty deaths among officers.

While those serving in the profession are often at an increased risk of exposure, some are also skeptical of vaccines and other health safety measures.

Utah agencies have avoided controversial vaccine mandates with varying levels of success, raising complicated questions about whether enough is being done to protect both police and the public.

‘I don’t want to die.’

A Utah deputy who was not vaccinated is among those currently hospitalized with COVID-19.

After 28 years of life and love, Ricki Draper struggles to describe her husband.

“I have a hard time describing him just because he is so amazing and wonderful,” she said.

Still, she tries.

“He is larger than life,” Ricki said. “He is so funny and so hilarious and happy all the time and loves his fellow man.”

Dustin Draper is Ricki’s high school sweetheart. They’ve been married for 25 years. He’s also a Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Deputy and on Sept. 30, he was hospitalized with COVID-19.

The last time Ricki heard him speak was moments before he was intubated on Oct. 10.

“He just said, ‘I don’t want to die,’” she remembers. “So, that was the last words that I heard from him.”

Ricki and Dustin Draper (Courtesy: The Draper family)

Dustin’s doctor didn’t sugar-coat his grave prognosis in discussions with Ricki, telling her it was not likely Dustin would survive.

“You can’t even describe the gut-wrenching, heart-wrenching, soul-eating feelings that you have hearing that your husband may not walk out of there,” Ricki said.

In what Ricki calls a miracle, Dustin’s condition started to improve. During an interview on Oct. 22, Ricki was hopeful. For the first time, Dustin’s doctor was talking about the future.

But Ricki was also grappling with feelings of regret. After waiting for months, the couple had decided to get vaccinated for COVID-19, but they both contracted COVID before their vaccine appointments.

Ricki’s symptoms were significantly milder than Dustin’s and she recovered.

“Had we gotten them before,” she said, “I don’t know if he would be where he is now.”

Sobering statistics

Dustin is facing a disease that’s claimed the lives of too many like him before.

The Officers Down Memorial Page, a national organization tracking law enforcement deaths across the country, reports more than 500 line-of-duty deaths attributed to COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic.

One Utahn is included in the count: Officer J. Adam Ashworth, a member of the St. George Police Department, who died of COVID-19 in July.

According to the site, COVID-19 deaths account for roughly 65% of line-of-duty deaths in 2020 and 2021 and represent five times the number of line-of-duty deaths caused by gunfire.

“It’s a crazy and sobering stat,” said Brent Jex, president of Utah’s Fraternal Order of Police.

Even so, Jex acknowledges resistance to COVID-19 health safety measures among some in the profession.

“It is as complicated an issue in law enforcement than I think I’ve ever seen,” he said.

Utah law enforcement

Hoping to understand the practices, resources and attitudes relating to COVID-19 safety measures among Utah law enforcement, KSL investigators sent out an anonymous, state-wide survey in October.

Of the 340 members of law enforcement who responded, 64% said they are fully vaccinated.

The approximately one-third who are not pointed to varied reasons, including “Had COVID-19 and should be immune” (22%), “Don’t trust the COVID-19 vaccines” (17%) and “Concerned about side effects” (14%).

Of the officers surveyed, 14% said they knew someone in law enforcement who has died due to COVID-19 and 62% said they know an officer who has been hospitalized.

While 85% said they interact with members of the public daily, more than half (54%) said they rarely or never wear a mask when doing so.

A majority (76%) said they would not support a workplace mask requirement and 78% said they would not support a vaccine requirement, with 42% indicating they would quit if their employer mandated vaccines.

One of the survey questions asked unvaccinated respondents whether there is anything their employer could do to change their minds. A majority said ‘no,’ but some signaled concerns over side effects could be overcome with considerable monetary incentives.

Here are some of the responses:

  • “No. I believe in personal freedoms. I swore an oath to protect them. Why would I want the entity I work for to take them away from me?”
  • “Offer to cover me, or pay a settlement if the vaccine has any side effects.”
  • “If it was mandated I would do it to keep my job”
  • “No, not at this time is there anything that would change my choice on this vaccine.”
  • “If they financially incentivized it enough to outweigh the my [sic] concerns about the risks.”
  • “Guarantee me or my family extra compensation if I become ill or extra side effect [sic] from the shot, short term or long term”
  • “Maybe give me a million dollars.”
  • “Threaten to fire me. However, I do not believe ANY employer should be able to dictate to an employee ANY medical procedure against their will.”
  • “I am vaccinated. I made the decision after speaking with my doctor and whole heartedly believe it is a personal decision and my employer has no business asking or knowing if I am vaccinated or not.”

Another open-ended survey question invited participants to share additional comments they feel should be included in a conversation regarding COVID-19 vaccinations and health safety measures in law enforcement.

Several responses emphasized concerns about personal choice and freedom.

“We are trusted in the most critical of circumstances, we should also be entrusted to make this decision as well,” one participant wrote.

Some of the written answers minimized the risk of contracting COVID-19, expressing a belief that the pandemic has been overblown and is a hoax.

While another law enforcement officer wrote, “For a bunch of people who know how government works, and who are so fact oriented, it blows my mind that some cops aren’t getting the vaccine … If you don’t trust countless doctors and scientists, how do you expect anyone to trust you?”

By nature, Jex says law enforcement professionals are more likely to take a wait-and-see approach.

“When there’s rapidly changing information, that’s where cops traditionally will step back and go, ‘We’re gonna let this play out,’” he said.

Pandemic policies

KSL investigators also sent out a survey to 40 of the largest law enforcement agencies in Utah and 35 responded.

The data, which was collected during the months of September and October, shows most departments don’t know how many or which of their employees are vaccinated and do not have strict masking policies.

Just over one-third (37%) of the departments reported having some version of a mask policy in place. Most of those policies are location-specific, applying only inside city or county buildings, corrections facilities, and court.

The West Jordan Police Department is the only agency surveyed that said it has a vaccine policy in place. Officers who want to travel out of state for training courses are required to be vaccinated for COVID-19. Otherwise, officers are not required to be vaccinated or report their vaccination status.

Some departments reported they’ve strongly encouraged vaccinations, held free vaccine clinics, and offered incentives, such as a day off.

Only seven agencies, or 20% of those that responded, are tracking vaccinations through voluntary reporting while 80% listed their department’s vaccination rate as unknown.

Jex, who is vaccinated, said the FOP has strongly encouraged members to get vaccinated for COVID-19 but is opposed to vaccine mandates.

“We feel comfortable with the position of encouraging it for those whose doctors recommend it,” he said.

While he’s heard from officers who are worried vaccines might become a condition of employment, Jex said so far, it appears Utah law enforcement agencies are holding off on mandates. He doesn’t know of a single agency with a department-wide vaccine requirement.

“There’s a better way to do things,” he said. “And the forced way has never been the good way.”

‘A fairly obvious solution’

The Salt Lake City Police Department did track vaccinations early on and is widely viewed as a vaccination success story in the Utah law enforcement community.

Research published in the international journal Police Practice & Research used daily infection case data from SLCPD from March 9, 2020, through Feb. 12, 2021, to analyze the effectiveness of the department’s vaccination program in reducing the spread of COVID-19.

The report states more than 70% of the department’s employees received a first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine during a four-day period in January 2020.

Immediately after vaccinations, the infection data showed a swift decline. Within weeks, the article states the seven-day rolling average infection rate per 100 employees hit zero.

“While this may seem to be a fairly obvious solution to the problems the pandemic is causing law enforcement agencies, we hope that empirically documenting this result within a police agency will (1) help encourage officers in other agencies to get vaccinated, and (2) support agencies in making intensive efforts to boost staff vaccination rates,” the article states.

The research and analysis project were completed by Salt Lake City Deputy Chief Scott Mourtgos and Ian Adams, executive director of the Utah FOP.

“Our officers have stepped up,” said Mike Brown, chief of Salt Lake City Police.

Brown attributes the department’s vaccination success to clear communication from department leadership from the start of the pandemic and partnering with public health officials to provide officers with facts and answer their questions.

“Answering those questions ‘why,’” said Brown. “Why this is important, why it’s important to you and your family, and then second, why it’s important to your coworkers.”

Like many other departments, Salt Lake is not currently requiring officers to report their vaccination status and Brown said he does not anticipate that will change.

Personal choice & privacy

In West Jordan, the vaccination rate among police officers is unknown.

“I know there are officers who prefer not to get the vaccine and I know plenty who were excited to get the vaccine,” said West Jordan Sgt. Andrew Hercules.

Hercules chose to get vaccinated as soon as he had the opportunity.

“I remember having a little turmoil over it,” he said, “but I was happy that I did it.”

He said increased calls in West Jordan, staffing shortages and COVID-19 infections among officers – including break through infections – have put a strain on his department.

“It does hurt our shifts when we have an officer who gets COVID-19 and has to be out,” he said.

While the department only mandates masks in court, Hercules said a department expectation of officers is that they will wear a mask if someone they’re interacting with asks them to.

Other departments have said the same – officers are expected to respect the masking and distancing wishes of members of the public when it’s reasonable and safe to do so.

 

The Summit County Sheriff’s Office is also not requiring employees to report their vaccination status but estimates between 70 and 80% of them have been vaccinated.

Lt. Andrew Wright called the feat “a pretty big deal.”

The recipe for employee buy-in, Wright said, included strong leadership, clear communication and public health education from sources deputies could trust.

“What the sheriff specifically did is just share the information and let people make that decision based off of their circumstances,” he said.

While one employee’s health decision could impact others and the public, Wright said the department’s approach has leaned heavily toward respecting personal privacy.

“I’m vaccinated,” Wright said, explaining he put all his trust in the health care system and scientists. “I could walk into our office today and have no idea if someone is vaccinated or not because we didn’t track that, we didn’t write it down. It’s none of our business.”

The approach seems to have worked well for his department, but for others with lagging vaccination rates, Wright said doing more to protect officers gets complicated.

“It is a very fine balance,” he said. “No one wants to be told what to do, especially by the government … they want to have the ability to make decisions for themselves, especially when it comes to their own well-being.”

Exemptions

Next to personal freedom, one of the most common reasons given for objecting to vaccine mandates is consideration for people who say they cannot get vaccinated due to medical and religious reasons.

But out of the of the 117 unvaccinated officers who responded to the KSL survey, only four cited a religious exemption. Even fewer – just two – cited a medical exemption.

Jex said he does believe the discussion surrounding vaccines has become politicized and emotionally charged to a point that people are basing their decision on factors other than whether the vaccine will protect them from serious illness and death due to COVID-19.

“The truthfulness has been lost in the in the noise,” he said. “And our tolerance for it is shaken.”

‘It’s time’

That noise played into the Drapers’ delay in getting vaccinated. Dustin was ready, but Ricki was not.

“I truly was just a little reluctant, just because of all the things that you hear out there,” said Ricki. “… but him in true fashion said, ‘You know, solidarity. I will wait for you.’ And I will always carry that guilt with me, that I didn’t trust him and didn’t trust the science to go and get the vaccine when we could have.”

Paper hearts peppered the entryway of the Draper’s home with encouraging words and positive affirmations last month. It’s one of the many ways Ricki said her friends, family and law enforcement community have rallied around her with support.

When asked how she would advise other families holding off on getting vaccinated, Ricki said she still values other people’s beliefs.

“For me and my family, like I said, I just needed to trust the science. I needed to trust the medical professionals. That was the right thing to do,” she said. “And I know there are others out there that are kind of on the fence with it and stuff, but if you’re on the fence at all, I would say it’s time. It’s time to get the vaccine just to protect your family, you know, and not be in the situation that we are today.”

Dustin’s struggle to recover during the last several weeks has been full of ups and downs that Ricki chronicles in daily posts on Facebook, hoping for the day he is conscious again and able to return home.

Have you experienced something you think just isn’t right? The KSL Investigators want to help. Submit your tip at  investigates@ksl.com or 385-707-6153 so we can get working for you.

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