- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 6, 2003

Two senior senators want Attorney General John Ashcroft to investigate a Michigan company they suspect of knowingly providing faulty bulletproof vests to police agencies through a Justice Department grant program.

Sens. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Ben Nighthorse Campbell, Colorado Republican, said they were outraged that Second Chance Body Armor Inc. may have passed on defective equipment.

“Our police officers deserve to wear bulletproof vests that stop bullets. We count on the men and women of law enforcement to put their lives at risk in protecting our states and our communities, and they should be able to count on their government to make sure that none of these risks are needless,” Mr. Leahy said in a statement.

Justice Department officials yesterday said they were aware of the concerns and that the National Institute of Justice — the department’s research, development and evaluation agency — is currently testing the vests.

“The attorney general has a strong commitment to ensuring the safety of police officers and previously directed NIJ to provide prompt assistance to officers in the field and to investigate the causes of the vest failure as well as the issue of vest degradation,” said Justice Department spokeswoman Angela L. Harless. “The Attorney General’s Office is reviewing the letter and will respond to the senators.”

Mr. Leahy and Mr. Campbell are principal authors of the Bulletproof Vest Partnership Grant acts of 1998 and 2000, which allow police agencies to buy bulletproof vests. In the past two years, they said, Second Chance Body Armor of Central Lake, Mich., has retrieved from the field more than 200 of its vests from 37 different law enforcement agencies in 19 states because of safety concerns.

The senators said that in June, a police officer in Forest Hills, Pa., while attempting to arrest a drug suspect, was shot in the arm and abdomen while wearing his Second Chance vest and the vest’s front panel was penetrated by a .40-caliber bullet.

The vest, with a recommended life span of five years, was manufactured in December and issued in January, they said.

“Thankfully, the officer survived, but the bullet remains inside him,” Mr. Campbell said in a statement.

More than $7.3 million has been spent by officers and agencies on more than 8,300 vests since the Bulletproof Vest program began — partly with the program’s matching federal grants.

Mr. Leahy and Mr. Campbell also said the company refused to reimburse officers for the cost of faulty vests or to recall them. Instead, they said, it gave officers the choice of a free upgrade involving the insertion of untested additional pads or to purchase Second Chance’s top-of-the-line vest at a discounted cost of $329.

“It’s unacceptable for any police officer to be forced to pay from his or her own pocket to make sure the vests they wear will do the job,” Mr. Leahy said. “I’ve had police officers in my home state of Vermont call to tell me they can’t afford to buy these vests. I’m sure they are not alone.”

In their letter, Mr. Leahy and Mr. Campbell asked the department to make sure all of the company’s vests meet NIJ standards for body armor as required by the grant program. If the equipment fails to meet those requirements, they want the company barred from participating.

Mr. Leahy and Mr. Campbell created the program in response to a 1997 shooting on the Vermont-New Hampshire border, in which two state troopers who did not have bulletproof vests were killed.

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