Seattle business owners are fearing the looming vaccine mandate deadline for police officers and firefighters will further lengthen response time to 911 calls, as the city that saw months of violent demonstrations last year already grapples with police staffing shortages and surging crime.
Maher Youssef, owner of Youssef’s Pluto Organic Café in Belltown, told KING 5 News he’s dialed 911 several dozen times over the past few years, including for two separate break-ins which were captured by the coffee shop’s surveillance camera.
Seattle police responded to both robberies, but Youssef said response times were lengthy and staffing shortages expected to worsen with Monday’s vaccine mandate deadline for the city and state could worsen business.
"I feel like I’m on my own. I can’t get help from anywhere. I just open the door every day and don’t know if I’m going to go home safe and good to my family or if something is going to happen," Youssef said. "The tourists are not going to come, the people are not going to go out of their home to buy things. It’s going to be like a ghost city."
The extent of the vaccine mandate on police staffing shortages won’t be known until after Monday’s deadline. Oct. 18 is the date Seattle, King County and Washington State employees are required to submit proof of full vaccination, request an exemption or face termination.
Seattle Police Officers Guild President Mike Solan said officers won’t face immediate termination Monday, but instead, those who choose not to get vaccinated against COVID-19 will receive notice for a "Loudermill hearing," or a public forum where an employee can present their reasoning for going against the mandate before formal separation. An internal memo distributed by the King County Sheriff’s Office Thursday indicated deputies who don’t get vaccinated will also be affording similar hearings before being terminated.
As of last Wednesday, the Seattle Police Department activated its emergency three-stage mobilization plan, which involves sending detectives and non-patrol officers to emergency calls because of a shortage of patrol officers. The Seattle Fire Department canceled non-essential training and community events as part of its contingency plan.
"That’s what this contingency is in place for, so that we do have officers who are available to handle 911 calls, not knowing what our numbers are going to be on October 18th," Sgt. Randy Huserik told KING. "Our first concern is those priority one calls, those crimes in progress and whatnot, and having the staffing levels available to respond to those high priority calls first."
The union representing some 1,000 Seattle police personnel suggests that the COVID-19 vaccine mandate could worsen staffing shortages, which in turn could risk public safety. The union’s president, Mike Solan, said the city’s police force lost some 300 officers over the past 18 months and anticipates another "mass exodus" in the coming weeks.
"Crime is surging in this city. Our community is demanding more police officers to answer the 911 calls, and the fact we've already lost close to 350 police officers because of the politicians' political betrayal," Solan said. The union president said city officials described the Seattle Police Department as a "model" agency before George Floyd’s death when it came to police reform, but after Floyd’s death began calls to decrease its budget by 50%.
Solan said Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan is refusing to allow officers who prefer not to get vaccinated against COVID-19 to instead submit to regular testing and wear masks. As of last week, nearly 300 of the 1,000 uniformed officers in Seattle had either not turned in paperwork showing they were vaccinated or were seeking an exemption, the mayor’s office said. But scores more are believed to have been vaccinated since then.
"People believe in personal choice, and we as a union have to represent everybody," Solan said. "We’re not going to play the games of segregating between the vaxxed and the unvaxxed, It’s not about that. This is about saving jobs."
In response, Durkan’s office said, "COVID-19 is currently the number one cause of death for our first responders. Throughout the pandemic, we have seen dozens of firefighters and officers exposed with some hospitalized even with testing and PPE. This deadly disease puts our families, children, co-workers, and the community at risk, so Mayor Durkan sincerely hopes that anyone at risk of leaving the City or at departments statewide will make the decision to stay by getting vaccinated."
Durkan is not seeking a second term after a year of controversies related to pandemic-era lockdowns, anti-police protests and an eventual autonomous zone. During a debate last week, opposing Seattle mayoral candidates, Lorena González and Bruce Harrell, both said they would tell those interested in serving as law enforcement in Seattle that they must get vaccinated.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.