Program that pays for police vests is under fire

05/14/2014 11:18 PM

05/15/2014 7:53 AM

A program that has supplied more than 1 million bulletproof vests to police departments in Texas and around the country is facing a holdup on Capitol Hill.

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., has blocked reauthorization of the 15-year-old Bulletproof Vest Partnership Grant, arguing that the federal government has “no role” in funding local police departments

But Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and author of the program, said at a hearing Wednesday that “the law enforcement community has spoken with a single voice on this issue. They understand the unfortunate reality that lifesaving vests can be extremely expensive, particularly for smaller jurisdictions, and that they can wear out too soon.”

Local police officials testified that the vests, which average $800 to $1,000 apiece, can be lifesaving tools in a dangerous job.

Ann Carrizales, an officer with the Stafford Police Department, was shot in the face and chest during a routine traffic stop in October.

“I remember the muzzle flash, looking directly at the weapon and taking a mental note of its caliber, and then there were his eyes,” Carrizales told the senators Wednesday. “I will never forget his eyes.”

Carrizales testified that while she feels fortunate to work for a department that gives officers the equipment they need, others “are forced to choose between what is most important to officer safety and how much money to put into ensuring their officers’ safety.”

Saving lives

Since 1999, the federal government has spent $375 million on reimbursements to help more than 13,000 local law enforcement agencies pay for over 1 million bulletproof vests, according to the Justice Department, which runs the program.

It estimates that the vests saved the lives of at least 33 law enforcement and corrections officers in fiscal 2012.

“I have heard of and known numerous [Fort Worth police] officers who have avoided serious injury because of the ballistic vests they carry,” Sgt. Raymond Bush, a department spokesman, said in an interview. “Their importance cannot be overstated.”

Terry Grisham, a spokesman for the Tarrant County Sheriff’s Department, told the panel that equipment funding poses a challenge.

Despite submitting hundreds of applications, many large police departments didn’t receive federal funding for vests in 2013.

Larger agencies, characterized as serving populations over 100,000, are a lower priority for the grant program than smaller departments.

The Medill News Service is a Washington program of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

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