COVID-19 killed 4 times as many Georgia cops as violence, accidents

Despite casualties, some law enforcement officers remain hesitant about vaccines
Griffin police Sgt. Michael Todd Thomas

Credit: Officer Down Memorial Page

Credit: Officer Down Memorial Page

Griffin police Sgt. Michael Todd Thomas

The deadliest threat facing law enforcement officers in Georgia isn’t being shot, stabbed or run over by assailants — it’s COVID-19.

Since the pandemic began, at least 60 Georgia police officers, deputies and jailers have died from the virus, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s review of death certificates and the Officer Down Memorial Page’s database. That vastly outnumbers other law enforcement deaths since 2020.

Officers and deputies are essential workers who often interact with the public, so they’re at a higher risk of catching COVID-19 or spreading it. Yet law enforcement agencies in Georgia and across the nation have wrestled with the decision of whether to require officers to be vaccinated, amid pushback from some officers.

Griffin police Sgt. Michael Todd Thomas, 52, died in late September from COVID-19 despite being fully vaccinated, according to his colleague Lt. Chip Johns. He said losing a fellow officer hurts no matter what the cause, and the fact Thomas was vaccinated makes it even more complicated.

“It’s one of those things where everybody just has their own opinions on it. Some are vaccinated, some aren’t,” Johns said, adding that his department doesn’t track vaccination status. “You don’t really know who to believe right now because when you lose somebody that’s been vaccinated, you’re like ‘Well, hell!’”

Griffin police Sgt. Michael Todd Thomas

Credit: Officer Down Memorial Page

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Credit: Officer Down Memorial Page

Whether it’s hesitancy, misinformation or breakthrough cases, there’s little evidence that law enforcement deaths from COVID-19 have swayed swaths of cops to get the shot. Roughly 51% of Georgia residents are fully vaccinated, but many law enforcement agencies either report lower participation rates or don’t track their employees’ vaccination status.

No agency tracks statewide vaccination or COVID-19 death rates among law enforcement.

A few cities in Georgia are mandating vaccinations or weekly COVID-19 tests for their employees, while others are debating it, casting the issue as a broad public safety matter.

“If a policeman interacts with someone in the public, the public doesn’t have a choice. The public deserves to be protected,” said Stone Mountain Councilman Clint Monroe, whose city employees are only about 34% vaccinated. “You don’t want the police to be the spreaders of the disease for any reason.”

But such mandates have quickly become a controversial topic across the country. Mandates in the state of Washington and Chicago have prompted clashes between police and politicians, and the sheriff of Los Angeles County recently announced he wouldn’t enforce his county’s mandate for fear of widespread resignations.

“Given that COVID-19 is by far the greatest risk right now for police, it is bewildering that officers would not only refuse a vaccine administered to literally billions of people, but do so proudly and make it yet another part of the ‘us vs. them’ dynamic that is a cancer on American policing,” Patrick Skinner, a Savannah police officer, wrote in a recent opinion column in The Washington Post.

So far, Georgia cities with similar policies haven’t experienced resignations or much internal controversy. But law enforcement deaths attributed to COVID-19 have only increased in 2021, peaking over the past few months.

“There’s always going to be some hesitancies,” said Decatur Fire Chief Toni Washington, whose city was the second in Georgia to implement a vaccine mandate. “We’re never going to have 100% cooperation with all employees, but for the most part, it’s been pretty positive.”

Leading cause of death

The number of law enforcement officers who died while on duty has risen across the country, reaching the highest rate in the past five years, according to the FBI. While an uptick in violence against police officers is a factor, COVID-19 has easily been the primary killer of law enforcement since the pandemic began.

Sixteen cops have died from causes other than COVID-19 since 2020 in Georgia. Most of those officers died in vehicle-related incidents, whether that be car accidents or being hit by a fleeing suspect. Four officers were shot and killed, while one was fatally stabbed.

COVID-19 has taken its largest toll on Georgia police during August and September. At least 12 law enforcement officers died from the virus in September, which is nearly as many cops as the virus claimed in all of 2020. More than 70% of the officers known to have died from COVID-19 succumbed this year.

For Griffin police officers, it doesn’t matter what kills a fellow officer. All that matters is that their friend and colleague’s service has come to an end. Johns said Thomas, a 20-year veteran with the department who was months away from retirement, was the second colleague he’s lost since joining the department — Officer Kevin Jordan was shot and killed while arresting a woman outside a Waffle House in May 2014.

“It really feels the exact same,” Johns said. “It’s just like losing a family member when you lose one of your own. It doesn’t matter how they died, whether from gunfire, getting hit by a vehicle or this nasty virus we’ve got going on. It still hits the same.”

Brookhaven, Decatur and Doraville — all cities in DeKalb County — were the first three Georgia cities to announce they’re requiring employees to get vaccinated or submit to weekly COVID-19 tests. According to the Georgia Municipal Association, Avondale Estates, Fort Oglethorpe and Jonesboro have also either enacted a similar mandate or plan to have a vaccine requirement.

Brookhaven, Decatur and Doraville report between a 72% and 80% vaccination rate among employees, which is more than 20% higher than the statewide rate. They also said there’s been no resignations as a result of their policies.

While none of the departments have suffered a death due to the virus, their leaders said they have experienced officers get sick and have to miss time. Washington said a few Decatur employees have cited others getting sick or succumbing to the virus as a reason they recently got the shot.

“I think it has really opened their eyes and made a lot of people look at what’s going on and help them make their decision to be vaccinated,” she said.

Fear of spreading infection

Doraville police Chief Charles Atkinson said he hasn’t asked why his officers choose to get vaccinated or not. He primarily cares about them adhering to the city’s policy and getting tested if they abstain — the rest is their business, he said.

“I don’t ask and I haven’t asked officers why they got vaccinated, and I haven’t asked them why they didn’t get vaccinated,” he said. “I think everyone has their own reasons for doing what they’ve done.”

He said the city’s vaccine mandate prompted roughly a third of unvaccinated officers to begin getting their shots. Doraville city employees are about 80% vaccinated.

Other cities, like Dunwoody, report roughly equivalent vaccination rates despite not requiring their employees to get the shot or submit to weekly testing. City employees are 75% vaccinated, while police department employees lag behind by 10%, according to the city’s spokeswoman.

Monroe believes requiring vaccinations or COVID-19 testing will encourage hesitant employees in Stone Mountain to get vaccinated. He said residents should be confident that a police officer will not bring the virus into their car during a traffic stop or into city buildings.

“If you get a ticket, you’ve got to come in to City Hall. You don’t have a choice,” he said. “You have to interact with the judge, the bailiff, the police officers in the courthouse.”

Stone Mountain leaders are currently discussing whether to implement a vaccine mandate, prompting pushback and a petition from some city employees, City Manager ChaQuias Miller-Thornton said during an Oct. 19 meeting.

Atkinson said Doraville residents shouldn’t be concerned with whether public safety employees are vaccinated. He said they continue to follow safety protocols, including wearing personal protective equipment, during most situations.

Despite the deaths and the risk of infection, he said police will keep doing their jobs.

“Our officers are going to respond and do whatever they have to do on any given call or any given situation, and we’re always going to take proper precautions to keep everybody safe,” Atkinson said.