To me, and I assume to most police officers, the policing profession is about protecting the public. That is protecting them from harm and victimization. And “prevention” is the priority as opposed to responding to calls for service and investigating crime. Any cop worth his or her salt would much prefer to prevent someone from being victimized before it happens. Second to protecting members of the community, comes protecting fellow officers and third comes protecting one’s self. That is the order of importance: public safety; officer safety; self-preservation.

Year ago a police association leader said, “Our people come first.” I disagreed and said, “No they don’t. They are a close second. If our people came first we’d never leave the office. We wouldn’t rush to dangerous calls or run into burning buildings. Nor would we charge into a home to prevent a woman or child from being physically abused. We do all of those things and more because it’s about the public first and foremost.” Obviously officer safety is a very significant issue, but the public comes first.

So fast forward to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic that has killed so many people around the world, including almost 10,000 Ontarians, and has made 600,000 more ill – some of whom had to fight for their lives and may be facing a life of yet unknown health challenges. Surprisingly, the debate over mandatory vaccinations for police officers ensues.

Some police chiefs have ordered all uniformed personnel to be vaccinated by a stated date. Others are encouraging, but are not issuing an edict. Little to no policy has been issued to police chiefs by the Ontario government, although the Ford government did state that “all 64,000 employees of the Ontario Public Service (OPS) will be required to get vaccinated or else submit to regular COVID-19 testing.” Of course OPP members are part of the broader Ontario Public Service, however I remain unclear as to how the OPP fits into those instructions.

The federal government has decreed that all public servants including the RCMP must be vaccinated or face consequences that include forced unpaid leave and other forms of disciplinary action.

But some Ontario police associations are pushing back at mandatory vaccinations. The Toronto Police Association (TPA) is opposed to the mandatory vaccine announcement made by Toronto Police Chief Ramer. The Ontario Provincial Police Association (OPPA) spoke positively about the health benefits of being vaccinated, but they also stated that they “will support and protect the legitimate concerns and objections of our members.” The reactions of other Ontario police associations are mixed. 

The Police Association of Ontario (PAO) to which all other Ontario police associations belong, stated in an August 25th release: “It is the view of the PAO that our sworn and civilian police personnel members who are eligible and able to be vaccinated against COVID-19 should be vaccinated.” The release also calls for a province-wide approach to this issue that is “thoughtful, purposeful and consistent.” It doesn’t speak to mandatory vaccinations, but it certainly is a mature and commonsense statement.

It strikes me that the pushback by some Ontario police officers and a number of police associations flies in the face of both public and officer safety. The average police officer and many of their civilian personnel interact constantly with members of the public they serve 24-7. At times it involves making arrests and the use of force, including applying physical restraints. At other times it entails extensive face-to-face interviews of victims, witnesses and suspects in homes, confined police cars and offices. Why wouldn’t all police officers want to maximize their ability to protect those members of the public that they interact with? Similarly would they not want to better protect the colleagues that they work side-by-side with for long shifts from potential exposure to the virus? What about their own health and safety and that of the spouses, partners, children, parents and other family members that they return to at the end of the day?

Police are provided with body armour; self-defence training; personal protective equipment including puncture-proof gloves; as well as firearms and other use of force options, and so they should be, to protect them from the many threats they face in their daily duties. Most or all of that training and equipment is mandatory, not optional. Vaccines should be mandatory as well.

Police were identified as one of the first groups to be given the COVID vaccine because of their close interaction with the public. But SOME of these officers and SOME of their association representatives are choosing not to accept that protection. It doesn’t make sense in my view. If they all wanted the vaccine but their chiefs decided they didn’t need it, there’d be no end to the justified uproar that would follow.

Even if one buys the argument that the officers can choose their fate as far as their own protection, it’s not just about them but about others they come into contact with.

Although I firmly believe that most Ontario communities greatly trust and respect their police officers, that critical trust has undoubtedly been tested over the past several years through a number of events in North America that have put a negative spotlight on police – sometimes earned and sometimes not.

The vast majority of public health experts across the globe agree that vaccination is the only thing that will stop this deadly menace. This is a golden opportunity for police to demonstrate leadership in their communities in terms of the safety and trust of the people they are sworn to serve.

My message to Ontario’s police officers: Please be safe and get vaccinated to keep others safe.

Chris Lewis served as Commissioner of the Ontario Provincial Police from 2010 until he retired in 2014. He can be seen regularly on CTV and CP24 giving his opinion as a public safety analyst.