police car

Los Angeles police department (LAPD) employees have sued over requirements they get vaccinated for Covid-19, alleging that the department has created a “hostile work environment” for the unvaccinated and that the mandate violates employees’ privacy and civil rights.

The suit is one of several aggressive challenges to vaccine mandates by police unions and officers across California, some of whom have threatened mass resignations in response to new rules. It comes as staff at law enforcement agencies remain unvaccinated at disproportionately high rates.

LA’s vaccine mandate requires city employees to be vaccinated by 20 October unless they are approved for a specific religious or medical exemption.

Six LAPD employees over the weekend asserted in a federal complaint that that policy and its implementation infringed on their rights to “bodily integrity” and constituted “coerced medical treatment”. The complaint says that officials have threatened to lay off thousands of officers who refuse to get the jab.

The lawsuit comes amid increasingly fraught debates over employer vaccination mandates in America, which escalated last week after Joe Biden announced the government would temporarily mandate that employers with more than 100 employees require workers to get vaccinated or be tested weekly.

The federal government and California have had public sector mandates in place for months, but some cities have adopted stricter requirements – that employees must be vaccinated and cannot submit to regular testing as an alternative.

The LA suit, which was brought against the city, the police chief and several other government officials, claims that weekly testing is “highly intrusive”. It alleges that officers have not been given enough time to apply for exemptions, after a Monday deadline.

It suggests that police should be able to submit antibody tests showing their immunity given high infection rates in the department and that masks and other “non-pharmaceutical” interventions allow unvaccinated officers to safely do their job. However in past months, officers have repeatedly been documented not wearing masks on duty, including while indoors and in close proximity to civilians under arrest.

“We have a city that overall believes in vaccinations and believes in wearing masks, and we have first responders that don’t,” said William Gude, an LA activist who has filmed police without masks and filed complaints. “The lawsuit reflects the culture of the department.”

An LAPD spokesperson declined to comment on the suit on Monday, but said that as of 3 September, 47% of LAPD staff were fully vaccinated, and 54% had received at least one dose. Those figures are significantly lower than the rates among the general population in LA county, where 76% of eligible residents have had at least one dose. Covid has killed 10 LAPD employees, including an officer who died last month amid Delta outbreaks within the agency.

Last month, a Guardian investigation found that police and correctional staff across the state had significantly lower vaccination rates than their surrounding communities. Since then, the California highway patrol (CHP), the largest state police agency in the US, has shared records with the Guardian showing that, as of mid-August, only 47% of employees had confirmed they were vaccinated.

LA is not the only California city where law enforcement unions are fighting vaccine requirements. In San Jose, police and firefighter unions are fighting a vaccine mandate similar to the LA policy, warning that the rule could lead to worker shortages. A city spokeswoman said Monday that 82% of sworn police staff were vaccinated, roughly in line with community rates, and that the city had consulted with union leaders in crafting the policy.

The police union in San Diego said last week that its internal survey found that 45% of employees would rather be fired than comply with the vaccination requirement the city is pursuing. The resistance comes weeks after a post on an online forum allegedly written by a San Diego officer made headlines in the state. “Myself and another God-fearing Patriot on this Department are building up a coalition of cops who will stand up for our God-given freedoms and are willing to risk it all,” the author wrote, adding that they refused to get vaccinated or be tested.

San Diego spokespeople said on Monday that roughly 50% of police officers had confirmed they were vaccinated as of last week, and that the city was investigating whether that officer’s post violated policy.

California prison guards – which have some of the lowest law enforcement vaccination rates in the state, despite their close contact with vulnerable residents – are also now fighting new strict vaccination requirements.

Christina Ramirez, a University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) biostatistics professor and public health expert, said she was not surprised to learn of low vaccination rates among police. Other first responders, including some nurses, had argued against mandates by pointing at high levels of infections last year, she explained. Research had shown that infections have led to strong immunity, she noted, though the CDC recommends people get vaccinated regardless. Last month, LAPD said there were nearly 1,600 employees who were not vaccinated but had “natural immunity” from infections.

Legal experts have said vaccine mandates are generally lawful as long as there are religious and medical exemptions, and the courts have recently upheld policies. Health officials have also noted that vaccine mandates have long been in place for other infectious diseases.

Mike Feuer, the LA city attorney, said he was confident the city would win the legal battle, adding in a statement: “It cannot be the case that the health of anyone’s child, anyone’s grandma, anybody in our city could be put at risk because they come into contact with a first responder who hasn’t been vaccinated.”

Vickie Mays, a UCLA professor of psychology and health policy and management, said that mandates could help increase vaccination rates and that she suspected physicians would resist signing off on medical exemptions that were not justified.

The low rates among police would probably fuel additional mistrust in police in communities of color, she said. “Now, when having encounters with police, it’s not just a matter of, will they shoot you? It’s a matter of, if they’re unvaccinated, is there now an additional risk of infection? We know a Black male can be walking down the street and next thing you know is in a scuffle with the police.”

She added: “Are you really dedicated to protecting and serving, if science says [vaccination] would be a great way to serve … but you’re determining you don’t want to do it?”