by Carolyn Bick
The Emerald’s Watchdragon reporting seeks to increase accountability within our city’s institutions through in-depth investigative journalism.
A King County Sheriff’s Office (KCSO) sergeant in charge of the department’s property management unit said that he would be willing to “lead the charge” — for the department against mandatory vaccination against COVID-19 — in a lengthy email sent to the entire department that the Emerald obtained. In the email, the sergeant claims that there are “thousands of us” who have requested vaccination exemptions and that KCSO Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht has “hinted” at an “ongoing process” of obtaining vaccination exemptions for KCSO officers who request it. He also threatens legal action against the County.
The sergeant, Cameron Lefler, sent the email on Monday, Oct. 4, in response to KCSO Chiefs Jeff Flor, Jesse Anderson, and Troy Olmsted, who had collectively sent an email to department officers to notify them that the department will “continue to plan for the possible separation” — meaning termination — “of employees due to the vaccine mandate” but that the chiefs hoped “that most of you [officers] will continue to be part of the KCSO, even if you do not agree with the mandatory vaccination decision.”
“Our planning process is hampered by lack of complete information because some have not yet provided evidence of vaccination,” the chiefs’ email reads. “Again, we are hopeful that you have the required information but have not yet shared it with HR. One of our goals is to plan for possible separation in a way that is least likely to disrupt your city or precinct and it is hard to do that without all the information.”
“We are asking, on behalf of Command, that you please turn in your evidence of vaccination now,” the email continues, before closing: “If you turn it in now, it gives us a clearer picture of how to plan for you, your partners, and the Community.”
Lefler opens his email reply thanking the chiefs for “the less threatening email than we are used to getting from command on this issue” and proceeds to inform the chiefs to “[p]lease count me as one of the people that refuses to obey an illegal mandate.”
As with other vaccination mandates in the United States, this particular vaccination mandate is not illegal.
“I have requested an exemption and have yet to hear what King County is going to do about the thousands of us who have requested medical and/or religious exemptions. The Sheriff last week hinted at the ongoing process of that,” Lefler continues in the email.
He is referring to an email Johanknecht sent on Friday, Oct. 1. In this email, Johanknecht advises officers to “be aware of the following vaccine mandate timeline.”
“October 18th is the final date to turn in proof of compliance to Christy Hammond (process outlined in previous communications). Proposed separation letters will be sent October 20th to any employee who has not shown they are in compliance,” the sheriff’s email reads. “If you are working through the exemption/accommodation process a letter will not be issued until that process is complete and will follow any agreed upon timelines outlined in recent labor group Memorandum of Agreement (MOA’s).”
The sheriff’s email continues, with the following sentence in bold type: “The exemption/accommodation process is conducted outside of the Sheriff’s Office so an exact timeframe of notice is not currently known. Pre-termination meetings will begin the week of October 25th.”
Johanknecht’s email closes by asking employees to “see the information below that was sent out yesterday in a generally [sic] communication to all King County employees for more information.”
The email she is referencing is a Sept. 30 email that reads in bold font, “Oct. 4 is the last date to get vaccinated to meet the Oct. 18 deadline” and goes on to state that all King County Executive branch employees are required to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 18.
Lefler’s Oct. 4 email continues, requesting an update about what exactly Johanknecht’s email meant — “Are we still coming to work on October 18th while waiting to hear on the approval or denial of that?”
Lefler goes on to state that he has “served my community, country, and family since I was 15 years old in some capacity or another. 28 ½ of those years serving the department that I love and the citizens of King County,” the email reads. “I have given blood, sweat, and many tears for the betterment of my fellow man. KCSO does not exist without the deputies who serve in it. No organization does.”
Lefler then invokes the image of policing as akin to being a soldier under constant siege in a war: “To have a County Executive” — King County Executive Dow Constantine — “who has never been in the trenches with us decide what is best for us goes against everything we stand for. On September 12th, 2001 I took a leave of absence to go back in the Marine Corps to fight the terrorists that attacked our country because the very foundation of America was under attack and it was my duty to do so. It was a privilege to represent the citizens we serve and take the fight back to the enemy. Sadly, our basics [sic] freedoms of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are under attack from within. I will not be victim to that.”
Lefler here fails to note that, in order to join the United States armed forces, it is mandatory for a person to be vaccinated. It is now also specifically mandatory for them — including the Marine Corps — to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
Lefler continues, suggesting that if every KCSO deputy resigned, Constantine would have to repeal the mandate: “Courage is not a noun, it is a verb. If the leadership of the KCSO had the courage and truly advocated for the welfare of every department member, they would unify in fighting the Executive on this mandate. If every Chief, Major, Captain, and Sergeant turned in a letter of resignation to the County Executive, he would be forced to rescind this mandate.”
“What we got instead is blind obedience for the sake of self-preservation,” Lefler’s email reads. He then once again uses war-like language and suggests that KCSO command staff have chosen their jobs over an unclear set of morals: “I will not be held hostage with the threat of losing my job or getting a vaccine that goes against my freedom and beliefs. My physical and spiritual health is more important to me. I have always stood by my principals [sic]. If you don’t stand by your principals, then you really don’t have any.”
With regard to physical health, it should be noted that unvaccinated people currently make up the highest number of those hospitalized and of the COVID-19 death toll both in King County and nationwide, particularly as the significantly more contagious and pernicious delta variant has taken hold. A significant number of these are young people.
Lefler says that once KCSO command opens “Pandora’s Box” by complying with this vaccination mandate, they “won’t be able to close it.”
“What is the next mandate going to be? The boosters they are already speaking of? Gun control? Take away our CPOs?” Lefler says, apparently negatively contrasting vaccines and booster shots to firearms, the use and mishandling of which cause thousands of deaths every year. It is immediately unclear what “CPO” stands for, but it could stand for Car Per Officer.
“Anything goes once the precedent is set. I will fight for what is right and you reading this know in your gut that I am right,” Lefler continues. “It’s not just about a jab in the arm. It’s about our very freedoms. This is about our right to self-determination and choice. God gave us these rights, but only if we are willing to fight for them.”
Lefler then says that he doesn’t want the KCSO “to become the police we see in Australia, committing unthinkable oppression against the citizens they serve, at the order of their executives decreeing what is best for all. That is not America, but it will be if we allow it.”
Presumably, Lefler here is referring to recent clashes between Australian police and anti-lockdown protesters. The Australian government recently instituted a lockdown in the face of spiking delta infections.
Lefler’s email continues, saying that “[i]f need be, I will lead the charge for the department. Since the KCPOG [King County Police Officers Guild] does not seem to be providing adequate representation for us, I will gather every employee adversely effected [sic] by this mandate and together we will litigate this in the courts. I am not here for my chain of command. I am here for my fellow deputies and the citizens we serve.”
Vaccine mandate challenges in courts around the country have already been struck down, including in Texas and Rhode Island. However, some challengers have at least temporarily won, as was the case with a handful of healthcare workers in New York State. On the whole, however, it has been precedent for more than a century that one person’s personal ideals do not take precedence over the safety and well-being of all.
Lefler begins to close the email, saying, “Times are hard. It is time for good men and women to do the right thing and lead us out of these hard times,” Lefler’s email continues, apparently suggesting that those employees who refuse to get vaccinated are “good men and women” who will “lead us out of these hard times.”
Lefler then closes, thanking the chiefs for reading the email and throwing what appears to be one last appeal for their courage or jab at a supposed lack thereof: “I hope in your hearts that you will find the courage needed to do the right thing. This could all go away if leadership shows courage.”
Lefler is not alone in his anti-vaccination sentiments. Both national and local law enforcement officers have expressed similar feelings since vaccines became mandatory. Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz said in a letter to officers last week that the department believes it has “hundreds” of unvaccinated officers within its ranks. Today marks the deadline for SPD officers to submit proof of vaccination, with Oct. 4 being the last day for officers to get vaccinated in order to reach full vaccination by mid-October.
The Emerald reached out to the KCSO, but did not initially hear back from the office before publication. However, Sgt. Tim Meyer emailed the Emerald back about an hour after the original story was published. His email suggests that the vaccine mandate presents a difficult challenge with which the KCSO’s members are struggling.
“KCSO appreciates Sgt. Lefler’s years of service and the difficult decision he is trying to make for himself and his family,” Meyer’s email to the Emerald reads. “We do not have ‘thousands’ of deputies, rather we employ roughly 750. We hope we don’t lose any of them. As our members struggle with the decision to comply with the Executive’s mandate, we know some would like to believe that the Sheriff and her command staff have the power to get the mandate rescinded. That is not possible.”
“King County employees are able to apply for medical accommodations from the vaccine or exemptions based on sincerely held religious beliefs. King County Department of Human Resources, not the Sheriff’s Office, will decide whether employees qualify for accommodation/exemption,” Meyer’s continues, before closing with, “We encourage you to direct those questions to Executive Constantine’s office.”
Meyer did not answer the Emerald‘s original question to him and Johanknecht about how many of the KCSO’s deputies have applied for such an exemption. He also did not answer how many command-level staff are considering termination or resignation, rather than vaccination.
The Emerald also reached out to Executive Constantine’s office. Chase Gallagher wrote back to the Emerald on behalf of the office, saying in an email that “[t]he Executive knows our Sheriff’s office employees take their commitment to protecting and serving our community seriously, and that’s made clear by the fact that the vast majority of employees have already been vaccinated.”
“Of the around 1100 KCSO employees, we’ve received fewer than 100 requests for religious or medical exemptions and accommodations,” Gallagher’s email reads. “Those requests are being evaluated on a case by case basis. This mandate is intended to ensure the safety of both of our employees and the public we serve, and is within the county’s rights to require as a condition of employment.”
Carolyn Bick is a journalist and photographer based in South Seattle. As the Emerald’s Watchdragon reporter, they dive deep into local issues to keep the public informed and ensure those in positions of power are held accountable for their actions. You can reach them here and can check out their work here and here.
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