As Villanueva blasts vaccine mandate, Sheriff’s Department falls further behind LAPD in shots
For weeks, Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva has blasted the county’s vaccine mandate for employees, saying he won’t force his deputies to get inoculated.
It’s a decidedly different stance from the one taken by Michel Moore, chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, who has agreed to enforce the vaccination rules city officials put in place.
And it shows in their vaccination figures. About 53% of 16,070 Sheriff’s Department employees, both sworn and civilian, have had at least one dose of a vaccine, compared with 74% of 12,143 LAPD employees, according to figures released by each agency.
Villanueva has made dramatic claims that the mandate would trigger a mass exodus, on Tuesday telling reporters that about a hundred more employees retired in the last year than in the year before, and that 238 more employees are transferring to other agencies or switching careers. Those figures include departures that occurred before the county mandate was in place.
But he provided no specific evidence that employees have quit or retired early because of the vaccine mandate other than saying: “People are not happy with the vaccine mandate. The fact that we’re seeing the uptick, we are attributing it to the vaccine mandate.”
Villanueva, who said he is vaccinated, has encouraged department members to get the shots but doesn’t think they should be fired for refusing because it should be a personal choice.
After convincing liberal voters he would represent their interests, Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva has shifted decisively to the right as a reelection bid looms.
He told reporters Tuesday that “the collective risk does not justify this type of an intrusion.”
He said 15 Sheriff’s Department members have died of COVID-19.
Public policy experts say that across the country, mandates have been effective in getting employees vaccinated, even among groups that have resisted, and that the sheriff’s “lax” attitude is contributing to the low numbers.
“Some of the statements are just really, in many respects, attention-seeking and trying to frame this around personal freedoms when really his organization is an important component to community life and engagement, and really shows how these are not personal choices — these are choices that impact other people,” said Richard Carpiano, public policy professor at UC Riverside. “He’s really giving fuel to a lot of anti-vaccine sentiment.”
The sheriff’s stance is part of his larger strategy of taking on increasingly conservative positions that are widely seen as an effort to carve out a new political base as he comes up for reelection.
On Monday, Villanueva appeared on Fox News, telling host Tucker Carlson that the mandate is causing deputies to leave the department, and that in turn homicides will climb and response times will increase.
“Your priorities are so exactly in the right place,” said Carlson, who is known for his strong conservative leanings and inflammatory commentary. He later added, “Man, why didn’t you run for governor?”
In a statement Tuesday, Los Angeles County Supervisor Janice Hahn called on Villanueva to enforce the mandate.
“The No. 1 killer of law enforcement officers nationwide this past year has been COVID,” Hahn said. “Instead of implementing L.A. County’s vaccine mandate (like every other county department has done successfully), he is putting both his deputies and the public they come face-to-face with every day at unnecessary risk. What we need from the sheriff right now is leadership, for once.”
Supervisor Kathryn Barger said in a statement that Villanueva “won’t engage in dialogue with me to figure out a solution.”
“I am committed to supporting and listening to our sheriff’s rank and file to get to the bottom of what barriers and obstacles they are facing so we can reach a resolution,” she said.
County officials pushed back on Villanueva’s claims that the mandate is causing a mass exodus. Jesus Ruiz, an L.A. County spokesperson, said officials have not seen an increase in retirements or resignations among sworn staff since the policy took effect.
“There has been no increase in attrition,” he said, saying officials compared data from the last year with this month when the vaccine policy was implemented. “The LASD level of attrition over the past year has been slightly lower than the overall county rate.”
He said nine sheriff’s employees retired in October, “which is not considered a high number.”
Officials are sending out notices to employees who have not yet complied with the vaccination policy. They have 45 days to comply before facing a five-day suspension, and 30 days after that before they face termination, Ruiz said.
As of last week, 1,843 Sheriff’s Department employees were seeking a medical or religious exemption to the vaccine and 2,327 were not vaccinated. An additional 3,444 sheriff’s employees had not reported their vaccination status, a county spokesperson said.
Villanueva’s recalcitrance in the face of the vaccine mandate stood in sharp contrast to the position staked out by LAPD Chief Moore.
Moore, who is not elected like Villanueva but appointed by city leaders, has for months said he would follow vaccination rules put in place by the city after negotiations with the police union and other collective bargaining units.
On Tuesday, he told the civilian Police Commission that the LAPD was gearing up to begin enforcing the city’s rules even if it meant sidelining hundreds of officers, including by creating contingency plans for backfilling critical patrol and other shifts.
Moore said he had a meeting with department commanders Tuesday morning where he outlined how they would hand-deliver vaccination notices to every officer or civilian employee who remains unvaccinated or who has refused to provide their vaccination status to the city.
Those notices would largely be delivered in the next two days, Moore said, though some officers who are on longer-term leave or out injured may not receive them as quickly.
The notices will dictate that officers report their vaccination status if they haven’t already done so and begin submitting to and paying for regular COVID-19 testing within 48 hours and until they are either vaccinated, which they must be by December, or granted a medical or religious exemption.
Officers who do not comply with the reporting and testing requirements will be placed off duty pending disciplinary proceedings and possible termination, while civilian employees will have their pay withheld pending disciplinary review.
It was unclear Tuesday how many LAPD officers may end up getting removed from duty, but the number set to receive a notice represented a sizable percentage of the force — which as of this week stood at 9,473 sworn officers and 2,670 civilian employees.
Of those, more than 400 LAPD employees, most of them sworn officers, had not informed the city of their vaccination status as of Tuesday, and more than 2,000 more are seeking exemptions. Moore said it was impossible to predict how many of them would continue withholding their status or refuse the new testing regimen after receiving the notices, but he was hoping the number would be small.
“I remain hopeful that these employees will all get vaccinated or enter into the agreement for those intent on filing an exemption,” Moore said.
Still, in case a large number of officers do get placed off duty, Moore said “contingencies” were already being worked up, including plans to possibly cancel leave, extend work hours and shuffle the assignments of officers who remain on duty.
“We will monitor the results of the service of these notices [and] have contingencies to ensure needed staffing in critical positions,” Moore said.
To date, more than 3,200 LAPD employees have contracted COVID-19, and at least 11 have died. A dozen officers contracted COVID-19 in the last week. Two were hospitalized as of Tuesday, and 80 employees remained at home recovering.
Some officers are suing the city over the mandate, and the police union is suing over its rollout — including the requirement that unvaccinated officers pay for their own testing prior to getting vaccinated or having an exemption request granted.
Times staff writer Luke Money contributed to this report.
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