LOS ANGELES (CBSLA) — Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva has found himself in a precarious situation. 

Although he is in favor of the COVID-19 vaccines and getting his employees vaccinated, Villanueva is wary of imposing a vaccine mandate, fearing it will cause deputies to resign from his already understaffed department. 

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“We have to provide public safety and right now I’m severely understaffed as it is, as the most understaffed agency in the entire nation, to throw this on top of that you’re really tempting the hand of fate,” Villanueva said in a press conference on Tuesday.

As of Nov. 2, 51.7% of Los Angeles County Sheriff Department employees are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. According to the LASD, 655 people have already left or plan to leave the department. Villanueva also argued that deputies not in favor of the vaccine may go into early retirement which is already 20% more than a year ago. If a vaccine mandate was enacted 4,185 LASD personnel, 3,137 of whom are sworn officers, would be let go. 

“That is the size of almost our entire patrol operation right there,” he said. “I think the board needs to actually start doing policies based on facts… and understanding what they’re doing and asking the impact first before committing themselves.”

Following the press conference, LA County Board of Supervisors Chair Hilda Solis and Supervisor Janice Hahn criticized the Sheriff’s comments. 

“We now have over a year’s worth of data that overwhelmingly show that these vaccines are safe, effective, and can help reduce transmission — they are our key to ending this pandemic,” Solis said in a statement. “This summer I issued an Executive Order, which was unanimously ratified, requiring vaccines because our County workforce serves our most vulnerable residents, and our Sheriffs are no exemption to that.”

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She also criticized the department for posting a statement denouncing the mandate. 

“Since then, I have heard from constituents, including within the Sheriff’s department, expressing disappointment with the Sheriff and calling for enforcement of the mandate as they want to stay healthy and protect their loved ones from this virus and its variants,” she said. 

Hahn focused on the protection the vaccine provides to law enforcement. According to the Officer Down Memorial page which tracks law enforcement deaths counted 476 deaths were related to COVID-19. That is more than the 398 deaths related to 9/11 and five times more than gunfire, 94. In fact, the number of officers who have died because of COVID-19 is more than all other deaths in the past three years. 

“The number one killer of law enforcement officers nationwide this past year has been COVID,” said Hahn. “Instead of implementing LA County’s vaccine mandate (like every other County department has done successfully), he is putting both his deputies and the public they come face-to-face with every day at unnecessary risk.  What we need from the Sheriff right now is leadership, for once.”

Solis ended her statement calling on Villanueva to cooperate and help get deputies vaccinated.

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“Instead of being an obstacle, I encourage the Sheriff to work with us and help provide education and outreach to those who remain unvaccinated, so we can ensure their safety and the health of those around them, and finally put this pandemic behind us,” she said.