L.A. firefighters, police officers dig in heels over vaccination mandate
Los Angeles firefighters and police officers who are angry over City Hall’s new requirement that employees be vaccinated against COVID-19 are mounting an offensive.
Firefighters 4 Freedom, a group of Los Angeles city firefighters, was launched recently “to stop the mandated vaccinations for all city employees as well as the citizens of this great country,” according to its website. “We want to bring education and truth to the people without being censored.”
Firefighter John Knox, one of the group’s leaders, appeared on a nationally syndicated radio show and compared vaccination requirements for entering businesses to rules imposed in Nazi Germany, warning that freedoms are at stake.
“I basically stated in the union meeting that I will not submit to this. I will come to work every day, as long as I’m healthy,” Knox said on “The Kate Dalley Show.” “I will not wear a mask. I’m not going to test. And I will not get a shot.”
Knox’s interview followed the release of a YouTube video of an LAFD captain criticizing the vaccination mandate.
At the same time, “hundreds” of sworn and civilian Los Angeles Police Department staff have joined Roll Call 4 Freedom, a subgroup of Firefighters 4 Freedom, said LAPD Sgt. Veronica Saucedo.
“We are supportive of individual rights, personal choice and for managing our own health,” Saucedo said. She said Roll Call’s members are concerned that they will be terminated or fired by the city if they don’t get the vaccine.
Members are also worried that they won’t be able to be promoted, transfer or work new special assignments, she said.
Unions representing police and firefighters are warning that the city will be less safe if officers are terminated or leave over the vaccination mandate.
Courts have in the past upheld compulsory vaccination laws. Still, the pushback from employee groups highlights the political hurdles city leaders could face as they seek to vaccinate workers.
Asked to address the criticisms, Mayor Eric Garcetti urged people to take the vaccine.
“The Delta variant continues to spread, and it is more important than ever that people get vaccinated right now,” Garcetti said. “This requirement is critical to protecting the health and safety of our workers and Angelenos.”
Garcetti last month signed off on a plan requiring city employees to be vaccinated by early October. Employees with medical conditions or “sincerely held religious beliefs” are exempt but must submit to regular testing.
The law doesn’t say what happens if someone refuses to get vaccinated without an approved exemption. Details about the proposal are being worked out between city leaders and unions.
The resistance by first responders, who regularly come into contact with members of the public, to be vaccinated is concerning to some. Jimmie Woods-Gray, president of the city’s Board of Fire Commissioners, said the vaccination fight is also about the role of government.
“It’s the [political] right movement,” Woods-Gray said. “We have always known that we have them in the Fire Department, but now they’re speaking out. And it’s not the right thing to do.
“They can organize all that they want to. But we’re not backing down,” she added.
Firefighters 4 Freedom states on its website that the vaccination mandate “is not a left [vs.] right political issue.”
Kevin McBride, an attorney representing Firefighters 4 Freedom, said he plans to file a lawsuit on behalf of the group against the city and county over the vaccination mandates. He said Firefighters 4 Freedom has about 350 members.
“They want a right to choose what goes into their own body,” said McBride, who also represents individual firefighters. He said he understands concerns by the public about unvaccinated first responders and wants to find a “middle ground.”
“We have to protect the public,” he said. “But we shouldn’t be forced to take a vaccine.”
McBride said he planned to challenge the law by relying on a privacy clause in the California Constitution. His clients also have rights through the state’s Medical Experimentation Act, he said.
At an informal meeting with LAFD firefighters last month that was streamed on YouTube, McBride outlined the group’s legal strategy. At one point, he warned the firefighters: “Don’t go get your vaccine, seriously. ... In my opinion, it would hurt your health.”
McBride told The Times he was giving his opinion. He said he has had COVID-19. “I trust my body’s immune system. That’s my plan. My strategy is for not everyone,” he said.
Health experts have said the COVID-19 vaccines are safe, effective and save lives. Data released last month by L.A. County showed that hospitals are seeing a greater number of COVID-19 cases among unvaccinated people who are young and otherwise healthy than earlier in the pandemic.
A Fire Department spokeswoman said the agency understands that the vaccination issue is “polarizing.”
For the record:
5:47 a.m. Sept. 4, 2021A previous version of this article quoted a Los Angeles Fire Department statement saying that firefighters can express their personal opinions while on duty. A department spokeswoman later clarified that firefighters can express their personal opinions while off duty, not on duty.
“With over 3,300 sworn members, the LAFD is a microcosm of society. Our members come from different backgrounds and have varying beliefs. We respect their rights to their own opinions and their ability to express them while off duty,” said LAFD spokeswoman Cheryl Getuiza.
Several city unions are also questioning the ordinance. Under a counterproposal presented last week to the city by the police union, police officers would provide either proof of vaccination or proof of a weekly negative coronavirus test.
The plan “strikes an appropriate balance,” according to the proposal by the Los Angeles Police Protective League, which was reviewed by The Times. The proposal aligns with the California and federal government vaccination policies, according to the union.
The union warned that there would be a “debilitating and catastrophic impact to the safety of Los Angeles residents” if the city ordinance is implemented and officers are terminated.
United Firefighters of Los Angeles City offered a similar message.
“We are in discussion with the city because our highly skilled and experienced LAFD firefighters and paramedics cannot be easily replaced, especially in a department that is already understaffed,” said Freddy Escobar, president of the union.
Brian D’Arcy, business manager and financial secretary of IBEW Local 18, which represents 10,000 workers at the Department of Water and Power, told The Times that the city “overstepped by implementing provisions in its ordinance before the requisite bargaining is completed.”
Amid the back and forth over the vaccination policy, there are accusations that firefighters are flouting rules requiring face coverings while indoors. Los Angeles police officers have also been accused at times of failing to wear masks while on duty.
Greg Hoerner, a fire inspector and 18-year veteran with the LAFD, told The Times he’s concerned about the inconsistent use of masks he sees at the Fire Department’s City Hall headquarters.
“Some wear masks all the time,” Hoerner said. “Others, including captains and above, I have never seen wearing masks. The lack of leadership and clear direction on this issue is stunning, no matter what side of the fence you are on.”
Getuiza, the LAFD spokeswoman, said the department has given face-covering guidance to its employees since the start of the pandemic and will continue to educate on and, if necessary, enforce the rules.
“As the pandemic continues, our members, like the public have at times, become complacent in wearing their face covers,” she said.
The view from Sacramento
For reporting and exclusive analysis from bureau chief John Myers, get our California Politics newsletter.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.