PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – As many as 80 Providence police officers face potential termination in less than two weeks as a vaccine mandate deadline looms in the city.
Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza enacted the mandate last week, requiring all city employees — excluding those in the state-controlled school department — to be at least partially vaccinated by Jan. 14 or else face “separation from city employment,” according to the new policy.
Providence Public Safety Commissioner Steven Paré told Target 12 that city leaders are encouraging all officers to get vaccinated but said he estimated “70 to 80” have refused to get a shot so far. There are about 450 sworn personnel in the department.
Just 76% of officers were vaccinated as of late November, Target 12 reported at the time, when the city was allowing unvaccinated workers to get a weekly PCR test in lieu of a vaccine.
“Hopefully we don’t lose any police officers at the end of the process — that’s my goal and we’re going to work toward that,” Paré said. “But it is a requirement and there are deadlines set in place and I don’t expect them to be moved.”
Paré said they faced the same situation with the fire department following a state mandate in August requiring all health care workers to be vaccinated or lose their licenses. A legal challenge brought by firefighters against the mandate failed in September.
Paré said in October, the city had dozens of firefighters who were unvaccinated. Ultimately most of them got the shot, but the city terminated five firefighters who refused.
Derek Silva, president of the Providence Firefighters Union Local 799, said the individuals who were fired had less than five years on the job and the union is planning to file a grievance to fight the terminations.
Michael Imondi, the union president for the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge #3, said all options are on the table, and he would not rule out a legal challenge to the new mandate.
“We are talking about the same people who worked the pandemic and protests without vaccinations, pulled more guns off the street, curbed more crime with less officers,” Imondi said. “You are going to tell those same people who put their lives at risk, who still came to work, and tell them, ‘thanks for the service, now screw’?”
“It’s just ridiculous,” he said.
Joe Pezza, the police union’s lawyer, said the union has sent a demand letter to the city to negotiate over the requirement.
“We are definitely exploring any other legal actions we could take,” Pezza said. “We just haven’t decided yet.”
If any terminations do go through, Pezza said he thinks the job action would trigger the state’s controversial Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, which regulates how officer discipline can be handed out.
“It definitely triggers LEOBOR,” Pezza said. “It is not that the union is anti-vaccination; the union is anti-mandate. These officers have worked diligently the entire time and now may lose their job without offering other solutions or recommendations.”
Paré disagreed, arguing the termination is not disciplinary but because the officer failed to meet a requirement of the job.
“These are tough times,” Paré said. “We’re in homes, we’re interacting with community probably more than any other government entity. I think the community has a right to be protected from this virus.”
The tension over the mandate follows a year when Providence saw a significant uptick in violence, including more than 20 homicides. It also comes amid controversy over mandates for other professions, including health care workers.
As of Monday 15 police officers had tested positive for the virus, according to Paré, with around 45 testing positive since the beginning of last month.
“We’ve certainly had a jump since Dec. 1,” he said, adding that the department is relying on overtime but the situation has not had a critical impact on operations.
Imondi said one of the officers who stands to lose his job because of the vaccine mandate was recently called by the mayor personally to congratulate the officer for saving someone’s life.
“He is praising this guy and now this person is one of the same people who he is looking to terminate,” Imondi said. “From hero to zero in one day.”