‘Blue Flu’ has Memphis police calling in sick as form of protest

Posted at 4:28 PM, Jul 09, 2014
and last updated 2014-07-09 16:28:07-04

(CNN) — Police officers in Memphis, Tennessee, are sick — sick of having their healthcare benefits cut.

Nearly a quarter of the city’s 2,200-member police force called in sick on Monday. That’s 522 officers, according to Police Director Toney Armstrong.

“We’re in a crisis mode,” he said. “We’re going to do absolutely everything we have to do to make sure that public safety isn’t compromised.”

Last month, the city council voted to eliminate the city’s 70% subsidy of health insurance premiums for members of the force. Premiums were also increased, apparently prompting an onset of the “Blue Flu” since June 30.

That’s when the number of officers out sick began to escalate.

“The police association has not sanctioned nor orchestrated a Blue Flu,” said Michael Williams, president of the Memphis Police Association. “I would characterize it as officers that are stressed out, and they are very concerned about their futures.”

The public finds itself caught in the middle.

“We’re in a Catch-22 as citizens because, yes, we want the protection, we need the protection, we deserve the protection, but they need their rights protected, too,” Memphis resident Harriet Stanton told CNN affiliate WMC-TV.

Armstrong said it’s not hard to figure out why officers are upset. The changes are hitting them in the pocketbook.

“I certainly understand their level of disappointment and their level of hurt,” he said, stopping short of calling recent developments a strike.

“You have to respect the process, and certainly we have a certain percentage of our force that has chosen to take another action.”

For the officers who remain on the job, there are no vacation or off days. Shelby County Sheriff’s deputies are supplementing the force. Tennessee Highway Patrol officers may pitch in too, if needed, Armstrong said.

One Memphis resident called for disciplinary action.

“I think they should be fired because it’s a responsibility for us that we have to be protected,” Helen Fulp said.

Yet, there was sympathy from others.

“Let’s start up on top. Let’s cut the mayor’s salary. Let’s cut some of his assistant’s salaries, then let’s cut from some of those making these decisions,” said Calvin Harris. “Then, we see where we need to go from there.”