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October 08, 2003
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Risks disclosed in safety vests used by Mass. police

By Andrea Estes
Boston Globe Staff,

Thousands of police officers across the state and the country are wearing bulletproof vests that may not protect them from gunfire, and the manufacturer has notified scores of departments, including the Massachusetts State Police and numerous urban and suburban forces, that it has stopped selling the popular models.

The disclosure, by Second Chance Body Armor Inc., was made three months after a Pittsburgh-area police officer was seriously wounded in the stomach while wearing one of the vests. The notice from the company has alarmed the law enforcement community because the vests, lightweight and flexible, are widely used.

Second Chance, a Central Lake, Mich., company that bills itself as the country''s largest body armor manufacturer and has sold "tens of thousands" of the vests, is now warning that they may "wear out faster than expected."

Last week, the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association, which estimates that at least 2,500 officers in the state wear the vests, voted to ask Attorney General Thomas Reilly to demand that the company provide free replacements or refund the $900-per-vest purchase price.

The company, instead, has offered two layers of additional protective fabric as a remedy, for free, or replacement vests at a discounted price of $329.

"We''re saying, `You have a product that''s not safe. What are you going to do about it?'' " said Plainville Police Chief Edward Merrick, president of the chiefs'' association. "We have an obligation to our guys. I won''t let Second Chance off the hook."

Added Reilly''s spokeswoman, Ann Donlan: "These bulletproof vests do not meet the specifications intended to protect law enforcement personnel who put their lives on the line every day. The company acknowledges these vests are faulty, and we fully expect that they will take the necessary measures to address law enforcement''s safety concerns."

Second Chance spokesman Gregg Smith said the company''s decision to stop selling the two models -- Ultima and Ultimax -- was unrelated to the June 23 shooting of Officer Edward Limbacher of Forest Hills, Pa.

Smith said the company has been testing used vests since 2001, when the Japanese manufacturer of Zylon, the material the vests are made of, indicated that the fibers can deteriorate under extreme heat and humidity.

"We tested over 200," Smith said. "In terms of the ones that totally failed? I don''t have the information. But the degradation was such that we don''t feel that some of the vests will fulfill their five-year warranty. The vests were inconsistent."

Dozens of local police departments use the vests including Newton, Waltham, Walpole, Cambridge, Wellesley, Lexington, and Quincy. The State Police has issued the vest to all 600 of its troopers. Boston police said they use a different company''s vest.

"Granted we don''t have a lot of shootings," said Marblehead Detective Sean Sweeney. "But that one time, I''d like to know the vest I''m wearing would stop the bullet. . . . Now you have it in the back of your mind that it may not. . . . I don''t want to be the one whose life wasn''t saved."

Some departments have already stopped using the vests and are asking municipal officials to pay for new ones. New vests are bought every five years, with state and federal grants covering all or some of the cost. But since they will be replacing the vests earlier than expected, cities and towns will have to pay the full cost.

Walpole police Chief Richard Stillman said he would ask selectmen and the town''s finance committee this week to approve the purchase of new vests.

"Communities may have to raise money to replace the vests that are defective and then sue Second Chance for the money," said Merrick, whose group will ask Reilly to file a class-action suit if necessary.

Smith said that the particular vests in question have saved 30 officers'' lives. He said vests sold by competing companies that also contain Zylon have the same problem. Several rival companies refused to comment, but have said their vests, which include Zylon and additional fibers, are safe.

Besides offering the free Kevlar inserts to reinforce the vests, Second Chance has also offered to sell the Monarch vest, which contains no Zylon and retails for $1,100, for $329.

The National Institute of Justice, which sets performance standards for vests, said Tuesday that the inserts would not meet its standards. "Members of the public safety community have been inquiring whether the upgrade pack, when used with the existing vest, meets our standard. We''re saying no, it does not," said spokeswoman Angela Harless.

Neither solution is acceptable to police in Massachusetts, who say they are incensed by the company''s refusal to provide refunds. "Their makeshift response is unconscionable," said Waltham police Chief Edward Drew.

One third of Waltham''s 150-person force wears the vest. "They should absolutely replace them. This is a consumer issue that has officers'' safety at stake. They should be handing out new vests as we speak."

But Kevin Watson of the Law Enforcement Alliance of America in Virginia said Second Chance is trying to do the right thing. Unlike some companies, Second Chance "is more likely to say, `We want to replace it,'' instead of holding out and playing the liability game," said Watson, a spokesman for the criminal justice advocacy organization.

Meanwhile, Limbacher, the Pennsylvania officer, is expected to sue Second Chance.

His injury "is serious," said his lawyer, Romel Nicholas. "We still don''t know how serious because they still haven''t removed the bullet."

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