San Diego to move forward with vax mandate despite impasse with police union

City employees who are not in compliance after Wednesday’s deadline will receive an advanced notice of termination

Mayor Todd Gloria

San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria, right, speaks in front of Fire Chief Colin Stowell at the scene of a deadly accident Monday, March 15, 2021. Gloria will ask the City Council to move forward with a vaccine mandate for city employees on Monday.

AP Photo/Gregory Bull

By David Hernandez
The San Diego Union-Tribune

SAN DIEGO, Calif. — Brandon Gibson knows just how serious COVID-19 is. He beat back the disease two months ago.

“It kicked my butt,” he said.

Yet he quit the San Diego police force earlier this month after 10 years because he is not ready to get the vaccine, an imminent condition of employment for city workers.

“I am not an anti-vaxer,” Gibson, 45, said in a recent interview.

He appreciates science, he said, but he has concerns about serious side effects — which health officials say are rare — and doesn’t agree with the city’s mandate.

“It’s really infringing on our freedoms,” he said. “It’s my body; it’s my choice.”

So he quit.

Whether Gibson will be an outlier among the San Diego Police Department’s 1,982 rank-and-file officers will soon be evident. Wednesday is the deadline for all city employees to show proof of vaccination or request a religious or medical exemption.

According to city figures, around 60 percent of officers were vaccinated as of Nov. 17.

Mayor Todd Gloria on Monday will ask the City Council to move forward with the mandate, which the city announced in late August, despite an impasse with the San Diego Police Officers Association over the requirements.

“The way out of this pandemic is through vaccines — and the City of San Diego will lead by example,” Gloria said in a recent statement. “With City employees regularly interacting with members of the public, this vaccination mandate takes on even more necessity — not only to protect the public, but also to protect our city workers.”

During months of negotiations, the police union called on the city to give employees the option to undergo testing instead of vaccination, consider progressive discipline over termination, commit to finding reasonable accommodations for requests for exemptions and set up an appeals process for any denied requests.

And in the past month, law enforcement officers, firefighters and their families have staged rallies against the mandate on at least two occasions.

The city did not budge. According to the city, a testing alternative was not in the best interest of the safety of employees and members of the public they interact with; progressive discipline was not appropriate because employees have had enough time to decide whether to get the vaccine; the city is legally required to evaluate requests for exemptions on a case-by-case basis; and employees will have the option to meet with the city to discuss any proposed accommodations or denied requests.

As of Nov. 17, the city had received 249 requests for exemptions, although a breakdown by employee groups was not available last week. Only seven were requests for medical exemptions; the rest asked for religious exemptions.

After Wednesday’s deadline, the city will send employees who are not in compliance an advanced notice of termination, which will give them 30 days to comply, take a leave of absence without pay, retire or resign.

Otherwise the city will terminate their employment.

“We at the Police Department are hopeful that all of our unvaccinated employees will find a way to stay employed, either through vaccination or reasonable accommodation through the city,” Assistant Chief Paul Connelly told the city’s advisory board on police-community relations during a recent virtual meeting. “I think it’s obvious that any loss of our valuable employees will negatively affect our staffing levels and in turn affect our ability to meet the community’s expectations to serve them effectively and efficiently.”

Connelly said department leaders have had “many discussions” about how to handle “any loss” of officers.

“It’s just hard to predict how many (officers) we could lose,” he said, “so we have different levels of what we’d do based on how many officers we could potentially lose.”

The Police Department referred questions about its contingency plans to the mayor’s office.

Courtney Pittam, the mayor’s press secretary, said Gloria has worked to ensure the city is a competitive and desirable employer for police officers and firefighters by investing in academies, wages and pension benefits. She noted that 47 recruits started the police academy earlier this month, with another 46 set to graduate in January. Within the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department, 16 recruits completed the academy earlier this month and 33 are set to graduate in March.

“This shows that even with the proposed vaccine mandate, we continue to attract both police officers and firefighters to serve our city,” Pittam said.

She added that the city is exploring options such as overtime, shift changes and incentive pay to retain and attract police and fire personnel.

“We will continue to do whatever it takes to make sure residents are safe and able to access public safety services,” she said.

Jack Schaeffer, president of the police union, has said he believes the department will lose officers to law enforcement agencies with looser vaccine rules, which would undo years of hiring efforts that filled chronic vacancies.

Gibson, who was a member of the Police Department’s Special Operations Unit and an on-call sniper on the SWAT team, said he knows “quite a few” officers who, like him, resigned recently, although he was unable to share an estimate.

“I’ve lost track,” he said.

Many of the officers, he said, are eyeing law enforcement jobs out of state.

As for Gibson, who opened fire three times during his career with the SWAT team — no one was struck on two of the occasions; on the third, he and another sniper fatally shot an armed fugitive — he said he plans to offer private firearms training lessons.

“I did not foresee this,” he said, adding that he had planned to stay on the force for another 10 years.

“I’m walking away from a pension,” he said. “This is a bad financial decision, but money is not going to bend my principles.”

He said he thinks about the officers he left behind on the force.

“I feel for the police officers who are still out there trying to do the job with less numbers,” he said. “They’re out there in smaller numbers, behind the ball when it comes to calls holding and call wait times.”

Few law enforcement agencies in the county have a mandate in place for their front-line officers.

The Sheriff’s Department, which employs about 2,600 deputies in jurisdictions across the county, will require employees to show proof of vaccination or request an exemption by Dec. 12. Employees who request an exemption or don’t share proof of vaccination will be considered unvaccinated and required to undergo weekly testing, Lt. Amber Baggs, a spokesperson, said in an email.

Baggs said 60 percent of employees had shown proof of vaccination as of last week.

Elsewhere in the county, the Chula Vista Police Department reported that 74 percent of its officers were vaccinated. National City said 68 percent of its police employees, including non-sworn personnel, were vaccinated. Carlsbad and El Cajon declined to provide figures, and other agencies did not respond to questions about their latest vaccination rates.

In October, Oceanside pegged its vaccination rate at 43 percent; La Mesa at 45 percent; Harbor police at 70 percent; and Coronado at 74 percent.

COVID-19 was the leading cause of line-of-duty deaths nationwide last year, killing 182 officers, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.

©2021 The San Diego Union-Tribune.