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Colorado Springs Police Chief Vince Niski speaks at a press conference last summer.

Colorado Springs Police Department leadership and about 150 employees are at odds over a mask requirement that went into effect on Monday, according to a statement drafted by employees and emails sent by department leadership. 

Employees who submit proof of vaccination or can prove religious or medical exemptions don't have to wear masks, according to the policy. The department hasn't required employees to be vaccinated, though it has encouraged them to do so. Colorado Springs Police Department's policy is less stringent than mandates implemented at other police departments, including in Denver, and suggests less masking than recommended by the federal Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention. 

Employees who don't comply with the mask order face discipline up to firing, Colorado Springs police leaders told workers in emails. 

The Colorado Springs Police Protective Association, which has not taken a stance on the mask policy, posted on its website a letter signed by "Employees of CSPD."

The letter asks department leadership to provide "the scientific basis for issuing directives that require employees to provide personal medical information or be discriminated against in a punitive manner." The letter's unnamed authors allege employees can determine a colleague's vaccination status by who wears a mask.

A statement published along with the letter says, “At the request of the authors and approximately 150 additional members opposed to the mandate, the (association) did bring this letter forward" to department leaders last month.

The discord comes amid a glut of open positions in the agency and as COVID cases in Colorado are the highest they've been since December of last year, some of the darkest days of the pandemic.

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Police department spokesman Lt. Jim Sokolik said the mask policy was not discriminatory, in part because some department employees who are vaccinated have opted to continue to wear masks. 

Of the department's roughly 1,120 employees, 634 are exempt from wearing masks, Sokolik said. 

He said that more police may be vaccinated. “I expect some people are not going to want to share their status,” he said.

The new policy

On Sept. 10, Heather Edwards, the department's human resources manager, informed employees of the mask policy.

The email asked employees to provide a copy of their vaccination card to the human resources department. The information, she said, would "simply indicate whether the employee is required to wear a facemask.”

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Another email said department workers could also ask for a medical or religious exemption to the mask requirement.

Enforcement of the mandate was left to managers provided with a list of workers required to wear masks, according to Sokolik and an email outlining the policy.

Employees who do not comply with repeated orders to wear a mask could be terminated, according to Sokolik and the emails.

“Each situation regarding a refusal to comply with the mask mandate will be evaluated on a case by case basis,” Chief Vince Niski wrote in an email last week.

Officers speak out

Officer Pete Tomitsch, one of two employees listed as a point of contact on the public letter on the mask policy, said he's had conversations with Niski, including one on Tuesday, about the mask policy. Tomitsch on Wednesday called those conversations "very productive, very professional." 

Tomitsch, who is not vaccinated, echoed the criticism levied in the public letter and said, "I strongly believe that it's a moral issue."

Positive antibody tests should also exempt employees from the mask requirement, he contends. Federal guidance cited by the police department says people who have recovered from COVID-19 and have antibodies should still get vaccinated because research hasn't shown how long antibodies last and because vaccine offers extra protection.

A Denver Police Department officer spoke to a group that included Colorado Springs officers earlier this week, Tomitsch said. The Denver officer claimed he lost the ability to walk after getting vaccinated, and his story has been embraced by Fox News. The CDC states, "People can experience health problems following vaccination that would have occurred even if the person was not vaccinated. These health problems are not related to the vaccine."

The other point of contact listed with the public letter, Mareshah Duncan, has posted claims about the vaccine on her personal Facebook page including one linking the vaccine to female infertility. The federal government has debunked the infertility claim, and the social media site Facebook flagged her post as "false information."

In an email she said "we are following all laws, rules and policies on all matters" and did not respond to further questions about her Dec, 9 2020 Facebook post, which she appears to have deleted after The Gazette asked about it. As of last year, Duncan was a sergeant in the department's internal affairs section.

A Sept. 28 email from Chief Niski to police points to efforts to quell the tide of dissent among the ranks. Niski lamented rising coronavirus deaths among police officers nationwide and said safety of employees and the community “plays a very important role” when the department makes decisions about coronavirus.

“I fully understand each of us has our own opinion about mask mandates, vaccinations, etc.,” he wrote. “My decisions regarding any of these issues is not based on personal beliefs but an attempt to keep each and every one of you as safe as we can. Please try and take emotion out of the equation when you judge our decisions.”

In the email, Niski said he opposed vaccine mandates "and there are no plans to implement that nor have there been any discussions to do so."

In the letter, police employees also opposed a vaccine mandate, calling the practice "medical tyranny." Employees "have bodily autonomy and will make medical decisions as deemed best by ourselves, our personal doctors and our given faith and beliefs," the letter states.  

"We defend the individual rights and individual liberties of the members of our community on a daily basis," it continues. "We will not stand idly by and watch our own individual rights and freedoms be taken from us."

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Federal courts have ruled that employers can require vaccinations, and the U.S. Supreme Court has declined to overturn those rulings. The federal government is finalizing a rule that would require private employers with more than 100 workers to require COVID-19 vaccinations. 

Sokolik said the department would follow any vaccine requirements from city, state or federal officials.

"We follow the law. We do not make the law," he said. 

Internal emails show department leadership on Sept. 1 sent employees a link to sign up for COVID-19 booster shots.

“We strongly encourage our vaccinated employees to take advantage of this opportunity, especially if you received your first vaccinations at the beginning of 2021."

Reporter

Evan covers justice and public safety for The Gazette. He is a Colorado Springs native and graduate of The Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

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