Three Arizona police officers die of COVID-19 in one week

Three Arizona police officers lost to COVID-19 in one week
Posted at 9:33 AM, Aug 12, 2021

PHOENIX — As Arizona's COVID-19 cases continue to climb, the law enforcement community in the state is reeling following the deaths of three officers in less than a week.

All three officers served their communities for decades.

Officer Mathew Hefter worked the front desk at Phoenix police headquarters for years, but it did not define him.

"He was a family man, he was a father, and really in the community. I've seen how personally he got involved with helping people and how serious he took it," said Sgt. Vincent Cole, who worked the front desk with Hefter.

Hefter was a man of many passions. He was an actor, a martial artist, an aspiring author and months away from retirement.

"Everyone was super excited for him," said one colleague, who asked to remain anonymous. "I think that he was just ready to live. He saw a few people that he worked with retire, and he was excited to be able to join that life."

Instead of celebrating his retirement in a few months, colleagues are mourning and planning to celebrate his life.

Hefter died this weekend following a weeks-long battle with the delta variant.

"I couldn't believe how fast he succumbed to it," said Leslie Finkle, a former colleague and close friend. "I was heartbroken for him and his family. He had such a love of life. He was very much a spiritual man, and you could see it in how he spoke."

"I knew that he was sick because he posted that he had COVID on Facebook," said one colleague. "He said it was a beast, and he really wanted people to be vaccinated."

It is an important message given the vaccine hesitancy that exists in law enforcement. As of Aug. 11, 34% of the roughly 4,000 Phoenix Police Department employees have reported to the city that they are vaccinated.

A city spokesperson says that 21% of the employees have already been infected with the virus.

"They are going into situations where they may have hands-on an individual that may or may not have COVID," said Angela Harolle, CEO of the 100 Club. "So they're receiving constant exposure."

Harolle and the 100 Club work to supports officers' families after a tragedy. This past week she has been in touch with three families.

"If we lost them all in one critical incident, there would be so much attention to this. But unfortunately, COVID is somewhat of a silent killer," she said.

Lt. Nick Sessions was an Army veteran before becoming a police officer. He joined the Bullhead City Police Department in 1999 and went on to hold several leadership titles.

His son, Aaron, left to serve with the Air Force just three days before his dad passed away on Aug. 6.

"He had a huge heart. He and his wife were really big in the community," said Chief Robert Trebes, holding back the emotion. "You knew Nick was in the room. And just the way he would joke around and made you laugh. He was just fun to be around."

Days before Sessions passed, Glendale Officer Lonnie Durhamdied of the virus with his wife and brother by his side. His brother was also a detective with Glendale PD, and they followed in the footsteps of their father. Durham, like the other two, leaves behind children.

Vaccine hesitancy is not unique to police — other first responders in Arizona are also expressing hesitancy about the vaccine.

Phoenix firefighters and paramedics have an even lower reported vaccination rate, with just 31% telling the city they had gotten shots.

It is important to note that while there is a $75 incentive for reporting a vaccination, employees are not required. Also, even more fire employees already have antibodies, with 31% having already recovered from the virus.

MCSO, meanwhile, estimates that 37% of their deputies are vaccinated and reports 25% have already had the virus.

According to the Officer Down Memorial Page, 198 officers have died in the line of duty across the country in 2021. Of those deaths, COVID-19 is the leading cause, claiming the lives of 96 officers.

This story was originally published by Zach Crenshaw on Scripps station KNXV in Phoenix.