MIAMI — Of the 33 law enforcement officers in South Florida who lost their lives in the line of duty over the past two years, three were killed by gunfire, one died in a car crash and another lost his life to a work-related injury.
The other 28 were felled by COVID-19.
The deadly virus did not discriminate. It attacked law enforcement agencies from Miami to West Palm Beach. It killed corrections officers and federal Customs and Border Patrol agents. It took the life of a U.S. Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms officer in West Palm Beach. Statewide, there were at least 53 deaths in the ranks — with Florida accounting for more than 10 percent of all COVID-19 law enforcement deaths across the country, according to statistics compiled by a website that tracks policing fatalities.
“It is the number one killer of police, hands down,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based national policy group Police Executive Research Forum. “More cops will die of COVID than will be shot, stabbed or die in traffic accidents. And it’s an equal opportunity killer.”
Most victims were in their 40s and 50s. The majority of the deaths were White and Hispanic males. The Miami-Dade Department of Corrections suffered the most, losing seven officers. The Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office lost five. Three Miami-Dade Corrections officers died over a six-day period just two months ago. Three Customs and Border Protection officers at Miami International Airport died of COVID-related illnesses within 15 days of each other.
Since the start of the pandemic, the Broward County Sheriff’s Office has lost three police and corrections officers to the disease. Two Fort Lauderdale and two West Palm Beach cops have died. A Florida Highway Patrol trooper from West Palm Beach with a 4-month-old daughter also was a pandemic victim.
South Florida is not unique.
COVID-19 is now far and away the leading cause of death for on-duty law enforcement officers across the country, according to statistics compiled by the Officer Down Memorial Page, a nonprofit online publication that gathers information from agencies across the nation. Still, its numbers likely do not reflect the full impact of COVID-19 on law enforcement.
For this story, for instance, the Miami Herald combined statistics from the Officer Down page with local announcements and media stories to gather a more complete regional picture. Several deaths in Miami-Dade Corrections were not listed on Officer Down, which suggests the site may be missing other victims as well both in Florida and across the country.
It’s also difficult to compare law enforcement losses to other fields that interact daily with the public like healthcare providers, because those numbers are not widely available. Law enforcement agencies agree the toll was significant by any measure — and not just by the number of deaths.
Before the vaccine became available earlier this year, it was not uncommon for some police departments to be missing 10 percent or more of its sworn staff to the illness or quarantines. Miami Beach Police Chief Richard Clements sent a memo to officers about enhanced staffing in the summer of 2020 — while more than 40 of his 380 officers were forced to stay home because of the virus.
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Steadman Stahl, president of Miami-Dade’s Police Benevolent Association, which represents more than 3,000 officers in Miami-Dade, said some officers were hesitant about getting vaccinated in the early days of the virus. The union and department don’t provide exact figures but Stahl, based on anecdotal reports, believes that now as much as 60 percent of the department is vaccinated.
“The younger ones are more fearful, and it’s because of the unknown,” Stahl said. “But now we’re not seeing as many people exposed.”
Dave Magnusson, a former Miami police commander and current chairman for Miami-Dade Chiefs of Police COVID-19 committee, doubts even half the cops in South Florida have been vaccinated. Most who are, Magnusson said, are older and in senior leadership positions.
“Cops are a skeptical bunch to begin with,” said Magnusson, who retired two weeks ago as chief of El Portal. “Everybody thinks they’re invincible, until they’re not invincible. Age and experience has a funny way of making you change your outlook on life.”
The availability of vaccines also does not appear to have reduced fatal infections. Of the 28 officers from Miami, Miami-Dade and Broward who have died of COVID-19 complications the past two years, 18 of them lost their lives after the vaccine became widely available to first responders in February of 2021, about two months before it became available to everyone. It’s not clear how many of those victims were unvaccinated.
Nationwide, the virus has taken the lives of at least 542 law enforcement officers since the start of 2020. That’s 66 percent of all those who died in the line of duty, according to the website. The next leading cause of death, gunfire, claimed 100 lives over the same time period. Another 180 officers were also killed in traffic accidents, by heart attacks and from 9/11-related illnesses.
In Florida — where Gov. Ron DeSantis has gone to court to lighten mask restrictions and fight vaccine mandates — COVID-19 accounts for a higher percentage of law enforcement deaths, more than 85 percent of the total fatalities. The Officer Down website shows that of the 62 statewide line-of-duty deaths the past two years, 53 of them were due to COVID-19.
Those percentages are the same in South Florida, where according to statistics gathered by the Officer Down page and the Herald, 85 percent of the line-of-duty deaths in Miami, Miami-Dade and Broward counties the past two years have been attributed to COVID-19.
Only the state of Texas, with 151 of its 160 line-of-duty deaths over the same two years, lost more sworn officers to COVID-19 than Florida. After those two states, Georgia lost 44 officers, North Carolina and California lost 25 each to the pandemic.
Delta a big blow
As the delta variant spread, August of this year proved a particularly bad month for local law enforcement.
Fort Lauderdale road patrol officer Jennifer Sepot was only 27 when she lost a battle with COVID-19 on Aug. 14. The four-year veteran was married and had a young child. That same day, Florida Highway Patrol Trooper Lazaro Febles, 42, was claimed by the disease. He too was married and had two young children.
When 20-year veteran Robert Alan Williams, 47, of the West Palm Beach Police Department died on Aug. 16 after contracting COVID-19, he was the second police officer in his family to die of an illness in the line of duty. His brother, a former New York City cop, died in 2015 from complications stemming from inhaling toxins at the World Trade Center site on 9/11.
Aug. 19, Miami Beach Officer Edward Perez, a motorcycle cop and softball enthusiast, lost a two-month battle to the disease. A day later, the illness took the life of Coral Springs Police Officer Patrick Wayne Madison, 43.
The first sworn officer in South Florida to die from complications due to COVID-19 was Shannon Bennett. The 39-year-old was active in the LGBTQ community and marched in the Stonewall Parade. He joined the Broward Sheriff’s Office as a detention deputy in 2007 and was a school resource officer in Deerfield Beach on April 3, 2020, when the virus took his life.
Shannon’s brother Darren Bennett, a pastor at the Calvary Chapel in Miami Gardens, gave a sermon three weeks ago at a Broward Sheriff’s Office memorial for the nine BSO employees who lost their lives to COVID. Three of them, including Shannon Bennett, were sworn officers. He laid no blame on his brother’s employer of a dozen years.
“None of us really wanted to be here today,” he told the crowd, before addressing God. “We don’t understand you. And we’re not supposed to. But I pray that we can trust you... because, where else can we go.”
Lakeisha Jordan got vaccinated, she said, because her 15-year-old son suffers from sickle cell anemia, a genetic disorder that could make him more vulnerable to COVID-19. Her husband, one of three Miami-Dade County Corrections workers who died of the disease two months ago and within a week of each other, chose not to.
Despite his sudden death, Lakeisha Jordan said she has no hard feelings toward his employer or how they have handled infected employees.
“I honestly believe it’s the new normal. We just have to protect ourselves,” said Jordan. “Like any job, you can get COVID from anywhere. I know the department was cooperative when my husband passed away. They really did good by me.”
No agency untouched
The pandemic hit almost every agency in South Florida. Today, with vaccines and better treatments, the disease is less feared. At the onset in early 2020, when Americans were just learning about the airborne virus and still wiping down delivered groceries on front stoops, the virus swept through police departments, often leaving them short-staffed.
In March 2020, for example, all 21 members of Miami’s motorcycle patrol unit self-quarantined for two weeks after the press secretary for Brazilian President Jair Balsonaro tested positive for the virus. The unit was part of a dignitary protection group assigned to the Brazilian leader who was visiting Miami.
Also choosing to quarantine were Miami Mayor Francis Suarez and Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez. Both had been in close contact with the press secretary. The isolation was too late for the Miami Mayor, who tested positive the next day. By the end of the year, Gimenez and his wife also contracted the virus.
With little knowledge on how the disease spread or how to fight it, many departments struggled with new rules for public engagement.
“That element of it was incredibly stressful. It was trial by fire without a doubt,” said Jorge Colina, Miami’s police chief through February of this year, who also contracted the virus a month after his patrol unit’s isolation. “It was crazy. When an officer went to a call and later discovered that someone in the home was ill, what do you do?”
Still, convincing some officers to get vaccinated remains difficult. And even suggesting mandates for police hasn’t gone over well — especially with state political leaders led by DeSantis campaigning against them.
When Miami Police Chief Art Acevedo insinuated his officers might be forced to get a shot, the backlash was immediate. The police union belittled him for denying officers’ rights. And the city manager — who would later move to fire Acevedo for other reasons — said the chief’s stance would have created a clash with the governor.
It’s impossible to get an exact handle on just how many of South Florida’s close to 15,000 law enforcement officers have been vaccinated. Police union presidents estimate the number is probably between 60 and 70 percent. Miami Fraternal Order of Police President Tommy Reyes says he polled the department last summer and it was around 50 percent.
“But I think the numbers are up. I talk to a lot of people now who are vaccinated,” he said.
Stahl, the Miami-Dade union chief, said he thinks the county mayor’s claim that as many as 84 percent of Miami-Dade’s 30,000 employees are vaccinated is slightly high — at least in part because of holdouts among the county’s 3,000 sworn officers. His guess for the force is 60 percent but the trend of reported infections has improved.
“I’m not seeing as many people exposed,” he said.
Remarkably, the county’s two largest agencies, Miami and Miami-Dade, have not lost a single officer to COVID-19. No one can say for certain if it’s due to luck or extraordinary safety measures. Stahl believes it’s a little bit of both.
“We had limited engagement with the public,” Stahl said. “We used to respond to heart attacks at nursing homes or to cruise ships if there wasn’t a doctor aboard. We stopped doing that. But one of the things I was a little startled by at the start of the pandemic was how we had so much hand sanitizer, gloves and masks. Turns out they were a surplus in preparation for the Ebola virus.”
- By Charles Rabin, Miami Herald