The Absurdity of Police Comparing Vaccine Mandates to Nazi Germany

Law-enforcement officers’ unions are rebelling against the possibility of required vaccinations in a way that reflects their own distorted view of their power in society.

Illustration of two Band-Aids and a police-uniform hat
Getty; Adam Maida / The Atlantic

About the author: Adam Serwer is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covers politics.

It was after Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced that she would pursue a COVID-19 vaccination mandate for all city employees that the local Fraternal Order of Police president, John Catanzara, finally understood what it was like to be a Jew in Hitler’s Germany.

“We’re in America, G-ddamn it. We don’t want to be forced to do anything. Period,” Catanzara said, as transcribed by the Chicago Sun-Times. “This ain’t Nazi f---ing Germany, [where they say], ‘Step into the f---ing showers. The pills won’t hurt you.’ What the fuck?”

A few tiny holes weaken this metaphor. Public employees being compelled to take a lifesaving vaccine that will prevent them from spreading a deadly virus is not quite the same as being subject to genocide. The comparison manages to be even more strained than the one in the film Office Space, when the protagonist compares TGI Friday’s requirement that employees sport “flair” to the Nazis forcing Jews to bear symbols identifying themselves as Jews—and that was meant to be a joke about terrible Nazi analogies.

Police unions all over the country have been rebelling against the possibility of vaccine mandates. In New York City, the largest police union is threatening to sue over a potential vaccine mandate, calling immunization a “personal medical decision.” The national Fraternal Order of Police is “recommending” vaccination but is against mandates, because “you cannot tell people what to do. It’s still an individual and personal choice.”

In a nation where police themselves argue that defiance of their directives can justify fatal force, it is more than a little bizarre to hear police officers analogizing vaccine requirements to Nazi Germany or insisting that the state cannot dictate their behavior. The police are an arm of the state; their job largely consists of using their authority to force people to do things in the name of public safety.

That is also the goal of vaccine mandates, which, unlike policing, do not bear the same risk of potential physical harm to the public. Vaccination is not a “personal decision,” because eschewing vaccination puts others at risk. I cannot catch your bad haircut or your ugly tattoo. Your preference for Game of Thrones’ final season or the Atkins diet are not contagious. Another person’s devout adherence to a different faith does not prevent me from committing to my own.

Immunization should be required for government employees because people should not be forced to risk contracting the coronavirus in order to access public services. This is true of workers including teachers and firefighters, but it is even more significant when it comes to law enforcement, because the public often does not have a choice about whether to interact with police. As Eric Reinhart and Amanda Klonsky have written, the fact that prisons, jails, and detention centers have been important vectors for outbreaks makes the issue that much more urgent. Even if one is callous enough to disregard the safety of the imprisoned, the officers who administer these facilities go home to their communities and can spread the virus there.

If officers want to sacrifice their salary and pension because they’d rather indulge their politics than take a basic measure—one that 200 million other Americans have already taken—to protect the public they are sworn to serve, they should find a different line of work.

That so many feel this way, even though the coronavirus has killed scores of their fellow officers, is remarkable. It has been the foremost killer of police officers in 2020 and 2021, by the FOP’s own numbers; nearly 600 police officers have died from coronavirus-related complications. By contrast, the FOP has counted about 35 officers killed by gunfire this year. To its credit, the FOP sought early access to the vaccine for police officers, which the federal government granted.

On a regular basis, the FOP raises the tragic deaths of officers killed in the line of duty to advocate for its causes. The far larger number of officers felled by COVID-19 is less politically salient, and police unions haven’t been as strident in seeking to protect their members from the pathogen. COVID-19 deaths of police cannot be blamed on Black Lives Matter protesters. They cannot be deployed to argue against reform measures. They cannot be used to unseat politicians who oppose the unions’ prerogatives, or to insist that any limits on police authority would result in more violent crime. Although most of the leaders of these organizations would surely prefer that their members get the shots and protect themselves, mandates interfere with the police unions’ implicit philosophy, which is that policing should come with few if any restraints on officers’ behavior, regardless of the circumstances. Or as Catanzara put it, “We don’t want to be forced to do anything, period.”

Vaccine mandates not only protect the public, but they protect the officers themselves. Unfortunately, conservative political identity has become intertwined with opposition to measures that would end the coronavirus pandemic, and these unions are acting in ways that likely reflect the political preferences of much of their membership.

Police unions are entitled to do that. But there’s no good reason for elected officials to listen to them. Their obligation is to the public. It would be better if those officers threatening to sue or resign over vaccination mandates understood that theirs is as well.