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Criminal Justice

LA Sheriff Warns Of 'Mass Exodus' Of Deputies Because of Vaccine Mandate

A man in a tan shirt with button epaulets looks to the right with his lips pursed.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva believes getting vaccinated should be a "personal choice." (Kyle Grillot for LAist)
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Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva is warning of an “imminent threat to public safety” caused by a “mass exodus” of thousands of deputies and civilian personnel from his department who refuse to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

I could potentially lose 44% of my workforce in one day.

— Sheriff Alex Villanueva

“I could potentially lose 44% of my workforce in one day,” Villanueva wrote Thursday in an open letter to the Board of Supervisors. The sheriff said he cannot enforce “reckless mandates that put public safety at risk.”

The county is currently sending notices to employees who have not yet complied with the vaccination policy that they have 45 days from the date of the notice to register as fully vaccinated, according to a statement from the office of County CEO Fesia Davenport.

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After the 45 days have passed, employees who have not demonstrated proof of full vaccination or requested a medical or religious exemption will get a five-day suspension and have 30 days after they return from suspension to come into compliance, the statement said.

When asked how the sheriff calculated the percentage of people who would leave or could be terminated by the county, department spokesperson Deputy Alejandra Parra said “the number is a projection based on what we are seeing unfolding within the organization currently.”

The Sheriff's Department is the largest in the country. Of its 16,084 sworn and civilian personnel, 51% — 8,180 — are fully vaccinated, according to data provided by the county CEO's office. There are at least 2,327 unvaccinated employees and 1,843 seeking a religious or medical exemption. Twenty-one percent — 3,444 — are yet to register their vaccination status with the county.

Just 41% of the department's 9,656 sworn officers — 3,942 —are fully vaccinated, while at least 1,698 are unvaccinated and 1,369 are seeking a religious or medical exemption. There are 2,455 sworn officers who still have not registered their vaccination status with the county.

An Election Challenger Slams Villanueva's Stance

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“With the pandemic waning, there is no justification for your mandate,” Villanueva wrote to the supervisors. "This mandate is like putting up storm windows after the storm has passed."

In a public statement accompanying his letter, Villanueva said, “I am vaccinated and believe the vaccine works,” but added, “the choice to receive the vaccine is a personal one, and an individual who served the community tirelessly before there was a vaccine should not now be fired because they made a decision about their own body.”

Public health experts have emphasized since vaccines first became available that getting immunized is not only about protecting yourself, but about protecting everyone with whom you come into contact. This is particularly important for sheriff’s deputies and other first responders, who interact with members of the public every day.

James Wheeler, president of the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs union, issued a statement agreeing with Villanueva that the “potential loss of thousands of deputies is alarming and will result in a devastating impact to public safety.”

Wheeler argued that as the union continues to negotiate with the county over its policy, “any disciplinary action that results in the termination of employees is simply not a prudent approach as a solution to this issue.”

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One of Villanueva’s challengers in next year’s election quickly condemned the sheriff’s statements.

“This is yet another example of Villanueva’s failed leadership and why change is growing more urgent at the department,” said LAX Airport Police Chief Cecil Rhambo, who was once an assistant sheriff.

Supervisor Solis To Villanueva: Don't Be An 'Obstacle'

The sheriff is also getting pushback from members of the Board of Supervisors.

Board Chair Hilda Solis issued a statement noting, “[w]e now have over a year’s worth of data that overwhelmingly show that these vaccines are safe, effective, and can help reduce transmission.”

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She said since Villanueva issued his letter Thursday, “I have heard from constituents, including within the Sheriff’s department, expressing disappointment with the Sheriff and calling for enforcement of the mandate as they want to stay healthy and protect their loved ones.”

Solis said “instead of being an obstacle,” Villanueva should work with the board to educate the unvaccinated.

Supervisor Kathryn Barger issued a statement expressing support for the County Department of Public Health’s “data-driven and science-informed” orders and guidelines.

While noting her “avid” support of law enforcement professionals “and their important role in keeping our communities safe, being vaccinated against COVID-19 is an important part of that mission,” she said.

Barger also noted that County employees can seek an exemption from the vaccine mandate based on medical or religious reasons.

Supervisor Sheila Kuehl had no immediate comment on the sheriff’s statements.

We have reached out to the other two members of the board for reaction.

Villanueva claimed the situation has been made worse because the department “is experiencing a mass exodus of employees who are retiring early.” He said 1,605 employees have worked for the department for 28 years or more and are eligible for full retirement benefits.

Telling the supervisors that "you continue to defund my department and freeze my service budget," the sheriff asserted that the loss of a large number of deputies would force him to close some patrol stations and eliminate some specialized units.

Five L.A. County employees, including a Sheriff’s deputy, have sued the county claiming the vaccination mandate is unconstitutional.

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