By JEREMIAH MARQUEZ
Associated Press Writer
LOS ANGELES- California's state government is moving too slowly to replace hundreds of bulletproof vests that the federal government has warned could put law enforcement officers' lives at risk, a union official charged."It's despicable," said Chuck Alexander, vice president of the prison guards' union, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association. "It's already a dangerous job. With defective equipment, it just makes it that much more dangerous."
Earlier this month, the California Department of General Services began collecting the suspect vests after notifying state agencies in September of the potential danger, said department spokesman Matt Bender.
The move came after an August advisory from the U.S. Department of Justice. Body armor with the Japanese-made fiber Zylon might degrade faster than expected and allow bullets to penetrate, "creating a risk of death or serious injury," federal officials cautioned.
About 5,890 vests containing Zylon were purchased by California agencies in recent years. Although they didn't have precise figures, state officials estimate that hundreds remain in use.
The California Highway Patrol, which began buying new gear before the latest advisory, has replaced "the majority" of its 4,390 Zylon vests and ordered a final batch of substitutes in November, spokesman Tom Marshall said.
The state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has replaced 1,300 of its 2,100 Zylon vests, worn by parole agents and other officers.
Alexander said he voiced concerns about the equipment to state officials last year.
Corrections spokeswoman Elaine Jennings rejected the union's claims, saying the agency started buying the replacement equipment early this year, long before the U.S. Justice Department's latest warning. With police agencies across the country also looking to exchange vests, manufacturers can only deliver so many at once, she said.
"As soon as we found out there was a problem with the quality of the vests we made a move to replace them," Jennings said. "It wasn't a matter of funding ... We have moved to replace them as a fast as humanly possible."
Questions about the safety of Zylon vests arose in 2003 after a Pennsylvania officer was wounded in the stomach when a .40-caliber bullet pierced his vest. The same year, an Oceanside, California officer, Tony Zeppetella, was shot and killed while wearing a vest made with Zylon.
Those vests were made by Second Chance Body Armor Inc. The Michigan-based company is the target of lawsuits by various state and federal officials. The U.S. Justice Department is investigating allegations that the company sold defective bulletproof vests for President George W. Bush and others, then waited nearly two years to alert customers of a possible hazard.