TAMPA, Fla. — Funerals for Florida law enforcement officers who have died from complications related to COVID-19 have become a familiar scene for officers in the state.
Last week, at least two funerals were held in the Tampa Bay region for two officers who died as a result of the virus.
These officers committed their lives to protect others but couldn't protect themselves from the ultimate consequence of the deadly disease.
COVID-19 is now considered the single highest cause of death among law enforcement officers, according to the National Law Enforcement Memorial Fund mid-year 2021 report.
According to the Fraternal Order of Police, which tracks reported deaths, more than 630 officers nationwide have succumbed to the virus. In Florida, 57 officers are known to have died from COVID-19, second only to Texas.
Across the state, leaders in law enforcement agencies have started speaking up to encourage officers to roll up their sleeves.
"I need to get them vaccinated for their own good," Palm Beach County Sheriff Ric Bradshaw said.
"Quit paying attention to the politicians who think they know what they're talking about but don't," Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, who's known for his frank soundbites and conservative views, said.
He's a staunch supporter of vaccines.
Still, few if any agencies require officers to be vaccinated. WPTV discovered it's not necessarily because sheriffs and chiefs don't want mandates, but because police unions won't support it.
"As a union head we don't like being mandated or pushed into anything," said John Kazanjian, head of Florida’s Police Benevolent Association, the largest police union in the state.
Kazanjian is vaccinated and encourages officers to take the vaccine, but he said younger officers remain reluctant.
"Those 45 and under, a lot of them say there's not much data on it. 'So we'll wait. We'll wait. We'll wait.' It's freedom of choice. That's why we live in this great country," he added.
When asked if the freedom of choice was worth the expense of the health and livelihood of officers, Kazanjian replied, "That's up to the individual. They're rolling the dice."
In a national statement, the Fraternal Order of Police, another police union that represents 23,000 officers in Florida, also encourages officers to roll up their sleeves but added "individuals should maintain the freedom to make that decision for themselves."
It's a sentiment even agencies that appear to be on board with mandates are fighting to preserve.
Tampa is among a growing list of cities mandating shots for city employees. According to the city mayor's office, city employees must be vaccinated by Sept. 30 or must agree to weekly testing and wear an appropriate mask while at work. City police are no exception to these new mandates.
Danny Alvarez is an attorney for the Tampa Police Benevolent Association and explained though the police union reached a tentative agreement with the city on the impacts of vaccination mandates on city police, it's not a done deal since members of the police union still have to vote.
When asked if officers were happy about the new mandates Alvarez replied, "Well, I guess we're going to find out."
The union vote is expected to happen in the coming days.
It's not clear how many law enforcement officers in Florida remain unvaccinated. Most agencies don't track the numbers of vaccinated or unvaccinated employees. Agencies believe the increase in officer deaths and the recent FDA approval of the Pfizer vaccine will encourage more officers to take the vaccine.
In Palm Beach County, where John Kazanjian also leads the local police union, he said 60% of employees within the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office are vaccinated. He’s working to increase those numbers but said he won't force it in an industry hired to serve and protect the health, safety and personal freedom.
"I don't think mandated vaccines will happen in South Florida or Florida, especially with our governor," Kazanjian said. "We'll go to court and we'll do whatever we have to to protect the individuals that decide they don't want to get vaccinated."