In mid July, Gulfport Police Chief Rob Vincent tested positive for COVID-19, taking a required 10-day leave while Commander Joshua Stone stepped in to head the department. The chief made a full recovery, but at the time told the Gabber he was unvaccinated for “personal reasons.” In an email he sent to the department on Wednesday, September 1, Chief Vincent explained that he had been waiting for full FDA approval to get vaccinated, but had since gotten his first shot.
Officer Deaths and Mandates
“Because it’s been made public that I had COVID and that I had chosen to not get vaccinated, I’ve received a lot of feedback from my staff, the community and my colleagues…I feel it was important the people who work for me know why I did what I did,” Vincent said. “Since it’s been approved, I have begun the vaccination process.”
Vincent told the Gabber on September 7 that he had received his first Pfizer shot, and encouraged others to follow suit. Encouragement stops short of a mandate, however, and the GPD leaves the subject of masks, vaccines and testing to the individual.
“Any employee who might be in a position to interact with the public is trained in the use of personal protective equipment…that includes masks,” Vincent said. “We don’t outright ask; if the employee reports to us that the employee believes they have [COVID], that’s when we get involved.”
Department policy requires the officer or staffer to take a 10-day leave of absence once a COVID diagnosis is confirmed.
COVID-19 is currently the number one killer of law enforcement officers in Florida, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page, which shows nearly 40 Florida law enforcement officers have died of COVID since the pandemic began – more than twice the average yearly officer deaths for 2020 and 2021. The Fraternal Order of Police, which also tracks officer deaths, puts the total number of officer deaths even higher at 59. Fourteen of those deaths have occurred within the last month, according to ODMP, including St. Petersburg Police Officer Michael Weiskopf, a 17-year veteran of the force.
Chief Vincent calls the surge of officer deaths due to COVID a “wake-up call.”
“Florida Police Chiefs Association put out a statement recognizing that as well. I feel for their colleagues and families, and I hope that other officers will see this as a wake up call and get vaccinated as I did,” Vincent said.
However, since the governor’s order outlawing pandemic-related mandates by local governments, there are severe limits – and occasional confusion – about what cities and police departments can require. There is no specific mandate for Gulfport Police to wear masks.
“If there’s a business that says ‘in order for you to come into my business, you need to have a mask on,’ and [officers] go into that business without a mask – and there’s obviously no circumstances that would prohibit it – and someone complains to me about that, then yeah, that would be something I would deal with,” Vincent said.
In St. Petersburg, officers are encouraged to wear masks when possible and required to mask while in the city headquarters at 1301 1st Ave. N., according to SPPD Public Information Officer Yolanda Fernandez.
“In the building, yes,” Fernandez said. “Because there are no [mask] restrictions in the State of Florida we can’t impose additional restrictions.”
“At present, you can’t mandate masks. Even if you could, if someone in the police department doesn’t do it, you can’t do anything about it,” Gulfport City Manager Jim O’Reilly told the Gabber. “Theoretically we could, but the city would have to look into how that looks legally. I don’t know at this time.”
While masks are left to the individual, vaccines have become the new battlefield.
The City of Tampa recently moved to require city employees get vaccinated; Mayor Rick Kriseman said St. Petersburg may consider following suit.
However, the situation for local governments is a precarious one, as Governor DeSantis feuds with the federal government and the will of many of his municipalities.
On Monday, September 13 in a press conference in Alachua County where officials are looking to impose a similar employee vaccine mandate, DeSantis announced that the state would fine local governments $5,000 per employee, potentially resulting in millions of dollars worth of penalties, according to the Miami Herald.
That’s a difficult situation for a small city like Gulfport.
“We are in the process of determining what we can do, due to the fact that the governor and the president have taken a different stance on this,” O’Reilly told the Gabber on Tuesday. “We have taken requiring vaccinations into consideration…but we are not taking any action until the conflict between the federal and state government is resolved.”
Since he’s begun the vaccination process, for now Gulfport’s Police Chief is looking to lead by suggestion – saying that officers should get vaccinated “if it is safe for them to do so.”