A Kansas City, Missouri, police officer walks back to his motorcycle in front of the East Patrol Division Station. (Zachary Linhares/The Beacon)

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No one knows how many Kansas City, Missouri, Police Department employees are vaccinated against COVID-19. Not the city, which relies on officers to interact with the public when responding to calls, or the department itself, which doesn’t require officers to get vaccinated. 

In a Tuesday meeting of the Finance, Governance and Public Safety Committee, KCPD Chief Rick Smith told Councilwoman Katheryn Shields that a survey indicated roughly 48% of the department’s employees had been vaccinated — below Kansas City’s overall vaccination rate of 52.1% as of Tuesday.

But the police survey, conducted several months ago, was voluntary. Of the respondents, 48% indicated they were vaccinated. The department did not check how many people responded to the survey compared with its total number of employees, making it impossible to determine the true vaccination rate.

“That survey was not scientific by any means,” Sgt. Jacob Becchina told The Beacon in an email. “KCPD does not track the vaccination status of our employees.”

KCPD’s reluctance to mandate or track officer vaccination is consistent with a national trend among law enforcement. Police unions have decried mandates as having the potential to scare off current and future employees. But so far, no mass departures have occurred over vaccine mandates in the U.S. 

“Of all the things I’ve had to deal with, in policing, this one may be the most puzzling because, you know, we now have a way to cut down hospitalizations and deaths,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum. “To me it’s more than just inexplicable, because it has tragic consequences, to see police officers dying needlessly, when the vaccine would have helped prevent hospitalizations and deaths.”

Overland Park, KCK report higher police vaccination rates

Other area police departments have reported greater success in vaccinating their employees. 

More than 75% of Overland Park Police Department employees are vaccinated, according to Public Information Officer John Lacy. The department does not have a vaccine mandate but requires unvaccinated officers to wear N-95 masks while working with the public.

As of September, more than 50% of Kansas City, Kansas, Police Department employees were vaccinated, according to Public Information Officer Nancy Chartrand. The Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas, has required unvaccinated city workers to get tested weekly since mid-August. 

Also in August, Kansas City, Missouri, City Manager Brian Platt reported a 66% vaccination rate among all city employees. That came after the city in June began requiring unvaccinated city workers to get tested monthly. The policy did not include KCPD, which is governed separately by the state-appointed Board of Police Commissioners. 

The Kansas City, Missouri, Fire Department has reached a vaccination rate of about 80%. It has been hit hard by infections over the course of the pandemic, resulting in many employees having to work long overtime shifts as co-workers isolate themselves. 

COVID-19 presents serious threat to law enforcement, first responders

The most common cause of death among police officers over the past two years wasn’t gun violence — it was COVID-19 infections. More than 540 U.S. officers have died from the disease since the start of the pandemic, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page, a nonprofit organization that maintains a list of those killed in the line of duty.

“It’s puzzling, there’s no other way to describe it,” Wexler said. “We know that more officers will die of COVID than will die from traffic accidents, from being shot or stabbed. And we know that being vaccinated can help cut down on hospitalizations.”

From 2017 through 2019, 36% of officer deaths were caused by a medical condition. In 2020 and 2021, medical conditions accounted for 72% of deaths — including two in the Kansas City area. 

 Overland Park police officer Freddie Joe Castro died of COVID-19 in August, after serving two years with the department. A KCPD veteran with 22 years of service died of COVID-19 in June; the name of that officer was not released. 

There is no national database tracking infections of police officers, making the total number of those affected unknown. Despite early access to vaccines, many law enforcement departments have reported lower vaccination rates than the city populations they serve.

“It has somehow taken on a political direction,” Wexler said. “When this is a medical issue, a public health issue. Period.”

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Emily Wolf is a local government accountability reporter with a focus on telling meaningful stories through data at The Kansas City Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member.