- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 8, 2006

Thousands of immigration and customs officers at the nation’s air and sea ports do not have body armor, or are using defective or outdated sets, placing their lives at risk, said an official complaint to the federal labor safety watchdog.

The complaint to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration of the U.S. Department of Labor says the Department of Homeland Security “is exposing employees” to risk of serious injury by failing to provide or replace body armor.

Charles Showalter, president of the National Homeland Security Council of the American Federation of Government Employees, the labor union that filed the complaint, said federal regulations and departmental policy require that any officer issued a firearm also should be issued body armor.

He said the problem appeared to be most prevalent among Customs and Border Protection (CBP) employees working at ports of entry as inspectors.

“This is … doing homeland security on the cheap,” he said, “and the guys on the front lines are being forgotten and put in danger.”

The National Homeland Security Council represents about 16,000 employees in three elements of the department: CBP, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS).

The complaint says the union has tried several times to raise the issue with management, but had received “no appropriate response.”

Officials from ICE and CBP said they had not seen the complaint and could not comment on it directly.

ICE spokeswoman Jamie Zuieback said agents were issued body armor upon graduation from the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, and that agency regulations prohibited uniformed personnel from taking part in law-enforcement actions unless they were wearing it.

Lynn Hollinger, a spokeswoman for CBP, said the agency was “working to ensure that all officers have effective body armor.”

But e-mails from union members across the country that Mr. Showalter provided to UPI show that in several places employees had been measured for armor, sometimes more than once, but not issued it.

“We were required to turn in our [old] body armor because it was supposed to be ‘deficient,’” one wrote. “I have not yet received replacement armor and go on duty everyday on the northern border with no body armor.”

In 2003, armor made by Central Lake, Mich.-based Second Chance Body Armor Inc. had to be recalled after it was found that the artificial fiber from which it was made was degrading much faster than expected.

Miss Zuieback said ICE operated a national tracking system, through which officers could order replacement armor in advance of a forthcoming expiration date.

Neither Mr. Showalter nor the agencies was able to offer exact figures on the extent of the problem, but UPI was shown e-mails from dozens of officers complaining about delays or nonissuance.

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