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Coronavirus cases spiking in LAPD as some officers skirt vaccine mandate

Two police officers, one wearing a mask and the other with it below his mouth, patrol Union Station
LAPD officers patrol Union Station this month.
(Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

Coronavirus cases are spiking within the Los Angeles Police Department as city officials work with labor leaders to finalize a vaccination mandate for city employees, and those who oppose the requirement search for ways to circumvent it.

There were 84 new coronavirus cases identified among LAPD personnel in the last week, an increase from 45 the week prior, according to police. The new total includes a “hot spot” of 26 new infections among employees at the LAPD’s Central Station in skid row — where officials were scrambling to isolate the outbreak.

“We’ve taken some added protective measures, including restricting the front desk access, in an effort to reduce the infection rate that we’re seeing there,” LAPD Chief Michel Moore told a civilian oversight panel this week.

The rise in cases comes amid a growing debate around the looming mandate, which some officers are already trying to find a way to circumvent. At least one officer sought assistance in getting a religious exemption from a firebrand Sun Valley megachurch pastor known for his opposition to pandemic-related government orders, according to comments the pastor made at a meeting of church elders Aug. 19.

The increase in cases also comes amid intense criticism of the LAPD over its low vaccination rate — nearly half of all employees remain unvaccinated — and its poor enforcement of rules that require officers to wear masks in public.

Thousands of maskless congregants gather weekly at Grace Community Church as Pastor John MacArthur ignores orders from a judge and public health officials.

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High case loads among front-line agencies like the LAPD have been a driving factor in the city’s decision to institute the mandate, and the latest cases — which included two new hospitalizations — only reiterate the need, officials said.

They hope the mandate will finally lift the LAPD’s stubbornly low vaccination rate by making the jab a condition of employment. Moore said given the toll the virus has taken on the department, and the science behind the safety of the vaccines, the sense of urgency is appropriate.

Nearly 3,000 LAPD employees have been infected by the virus, and 10 employees and three employees’ spouses have died from COVID-19.

“If we had lost 10 officers in the line of duty in this last year to gun violence, it would be devastating,” Moore told the Police Commission on Tuesday. “It is no less devastating losing 10 members of this organization to this virus.”

Medical experts, as well as the federal government, say COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective, reducing the likelihood of serious symptoms among individuals who contract the virus.

Still, there is significant resistance to the vaccine within the LAPD, and what impact the mandate will have remains unclear.

The City Council approved a new ordinance last week requiring city employees to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by early October, unless they are granted an exemption for documented medical reasons or “sincerely held religious beliefs.”

Those exempted from getting vaccinated will have to submit to regular testing for the virus.

Moore said the LAPD is working with personnel officials and the police union to nail down the “actual rules and application of” the ordinance.

The LAPD says a 10th employee has died from complications of COVID-19 amid rising coronavirus cases across the region and within the department.

Still to be addressed are the exact repercussions for officers who refuse the shots without an exemption, as well as the ways in which claims of medical or religious exemptions will be assessed for merit among LAPD employees opposed to the vaccine for a host of reasons — including medical and religious, but also political, ideological and conspiratorial.

The Rev. John MacArthur, of Grace Community Church, said a veteran LAPD sergeant approached him before a recent Sunday service, asked if MacArthur could help him get a religious exemption, and suggested there were many other officers who would want one as well.

A recording of MacArthur’s comments at the elders’ meeting was shared with The Times.

MacArthur said the church could provide forms backing religious exemptions to officers and others who object to employer vaccine mandates, but had to be careful with its language because members of the church have varying opinions on the matter.

“It’s really important for us to tie it to the Bible and not to Grace Church,” MacArthur said. “… If you say, ‘I go to Grace Church, and we don’t believe in that,’ and they find two people at Grace Church who do believe in vaccines, then that’s not going to hold up, so it has to be a personal conviction based upon the Scripture, and we can give anybody that document and see where it goes.”

Church leadership did not respond to requests for comment.

Grace Church has a long history of supporting the LAPD, with prominent police officials among its congregants. It has also fought against pandemic-related restrictions, including around religious gatherings.

Since July 2020, MacArthur and his church have been battling L.A. County in court over the church’s refusal to follow indoor worship rules set out by the county health officer, despite members falling sick.

The LAPD did not immediately respond to questions from The Times this week about the number of personnel who have asked for a medical or religious exemption to the vaccine mandate, and how many of those, if any, did so with the support of Grace Community Church.

The LAPD also did not immediately provide answers to questions about how many of its officers who have fallen sick or died from the virus were unvaccinated.

The Los Angeles Police Protective League, the union that represents officers, has encouraged officers to get vaccinated, but also has said that it had “many questions and concerns” about the mandate and was working to ensure its members are “treated fairly.”

The sidelining of thousands of officers who have contracted the virus has corresponded with a surge in homicides and shootings, a large reduction in LAPD ranks due to attrition and a hiring freeze, and claims from department officials that they don’t have enough officers to effectively police the city.


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