The real story is not that one state cop held a made-for-TV event in her driveway—it’s that the vaccine mandate is working.
The same day that the state opened COVID-19 booster shots up to everyone 18 and older, NBC Boston ran a story about Samantha Cila, a state cop who will soon be fired for violating the governor’s vaccine mandate for state employees.
Before the story was broadcast, the reporter, Abbey Niezgoda tweeted that “it was especially tough for this trooper to give up the badge.” Niezgoda continued: “She was given the same badge as her father, who was killed in the line of duty in 2005. But today she handed it in because she is defying the state’s mandate by refusing to get the vaccine.”
If this soon-to-be-former trooper had just stopped resisting and complied with a lawful order, she’d still be drawing her taxpayer-funded salary—which, with overtime, netted her $86,620 in 2020, her first full year.
While the hypocrisy of “public safety” employees refusing to do something simple to keep the public safe from a deadly virus is a story worth reporting, NBC’s choice to frame it around an individual cop’s “especially tough” decision is embarrassing. Let’s not confuse “especially stupid” for “especially tough.” Unless you are a small child, there’s nothing particularly difficult about getting a couple of shots.
The backlash to Cila’s desperate bid for sympathy, and Niezgoda’s tweets about it, was swift. The general theme: It’s good that Cila is being fired.
Others mocked Niezgoda for pointing out that “[o]nly @NBC10Boston was there” as Cila handed in her badge and gun. “Simultaneously filing reports on ‘publicity stunt doesn’t work’ and ‘I personally fall for publicity stunt’ in my capacity as a reporter,” one person tweeted.
As for the report itself … In less than a minute, it’s twice mentioned that NBC Boston was the only news outlet to give Cila the attention she craved. Cila, we are told, is losing her “dream job.” A bunch of dudes who look very much like off-duty cops do their best to look solemn as she hands over her badge and gun. There’s also B-roll showing a portrait of Cila’s father as Niezgoda explains that he died on the job. And the exiting trooper’s mother sobs as she watches her daughter experience the predictable consequences of her actions; “I am heartbroken,” the parent says.
Cheryl Cila, the mother, is vaccinated and tried to convince her daughter to get the vaccine to keep her job. But the elder Cila still believes it’s unfair and “just surreal” that her daughter isn’t being allowed to endanger the public.
Samantha Cila hasn’t even been fired yet—she can still get the vaccine before her disciplinary hearing plays out. According to NBC, she wouldn’t speak on camera, citing the pending hearing, which just raises more questions about why anyone thought it was worth putting her staged pity party on TV.
About two-and-a-half hours after Niezgoda posted her Twitter thread, which by then had been ratioed to kingdom come, she added a fourth tweet in an apparent effort to save face: “Bottom line – not getting the vaccine will cost you your job. Gov. [Charlie] Baker’s administration has made it clear they are following the science and the mandate is in place to keep people safe.” Talk about burying the lede.
In March, the Boston Globe reported that 845 state cops—about 30% of the department—declined to be vaccinated at department-run clinics that were set up to give them early access. After Gov. Baker announced a vaccine mandate for all state employees in August, the State Police union sued in an effort to block it. In September, a Superior Court judge declined to block the mandate from taking effect. At the time of the judge’s decision, about 20% of state cops were still unvaccinated. (Ed. note: Read our article about the reluctance of Mass corrections officers to get vaccinated here.)
Now that the mandate has taken effect, about 95% of state cops are vaccinated, according to Niezgoda’s reporting. Only about 100 remain unvaccinated, and they will be given disciplinary hearings and ultimately be fired if they continue to hold out. The real story is not that one state cop had her feelings hurt and held a made-for-TV event in her driveway to commemorate the occasion—it’s that the vaccine mandate is working. That’s how NBC should have chosen to frame this story in the first place.
Derek Monette, an emergency physician at Mass General Hospital, tweeted that the state cops defying the vaccine mandate are a “loud and overly recognized minority who receive far too much media attention.” He continued: “As we move into flu season it’s increasingly important that media avoid a ‘good people, both sides’ approach to the COVID-19 vaccine. Ultimately, even if good intent, it’s detrimental to public health.”
Indeed, while Twitter’s reaction to this story was universally negative, the comments under NBC’s Facebook post were mixed. Some defended Cila’s actions and regurgitated vaccine misinformation, showing the importance of covering this issue carefully.
Not mentioned in the NBC piece is that COVID-19 has been the number-one killer of police officers since the pandemic began. Pre-pandemic, police deaths had been trending downward for decades. But data from the Officer Down Memorial Page shows that the annual number of police deaths, which averaged at 175 in the five years preceding the pandemic, jumped to 384 in 2020. That virus caused 253 of the deaths—meaning it killed nearly twice as many cops as all other causes combined.
This year, despite the availability of vaccines, the number of cops killed by COVID is even higher, at 282. That number is certain to rise by the year’s end. Again, COVID has been responsible for nearly twice as many deaths as all other causes combined.
Here in Mass, COVID killed four of the seven cops who have died since 2020.
Police officers who refuse to get vaccinated are not just endangering the public they claim to protect—they are putting their own colleagues at risk. The media shouldn’t allow them to present themselves as sympathetic figures when they’re nothing but selfish.
Abbey Niezgoda defended her framing of the story in a tweet to me, reiterating that Cila’s badge number was the same as her father’s and that this made her decision “tough.” Niezgoda later deleted that tweet and did not respond to a subsequent interview request. NBC Boston executive producer Michael Kelly also did not respond to a request for comment.
Andrew Quemere has been making public records requests in Massachusetts for more than a decade. He writes The Mass. Dump Dispatch, a newsletter about public records. Subscribe to read about the latest developments in government transparency. Follow him on Twitter @andrewqmr.