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Vests May Not Be Bulletproof

October 04, 2003|Richard Winton | Times Staff Writer

Nearly 3,000 Los Angeles police officers and tens of thousands of cops across the country are wearing bulletproof vests that might not be bulletproof.

The manufacturer, Second Chance Body Armor Inc., has notified hundreds of departments that it has stopped selling two widely used models of vests after random tests showed that the core material was degrading before their five-year warranties expired.

The disclosure by the Central Lake, Mich., company, which bills itself as one of the nation's largest body armor manufacturers, comes three months after a Pennsylvania police officer was wounded in the stomach when a .40-caliber bullet penetrated one of its vests.

LAPD Asst. Chief George Gascon on Friday said Second Chance had agreed that, within a month, it would replace the ballistic material, Zylon, with Kevlar in all the vests it has sold to the department.

"We are being very careful and replacing all this body armor," Gascon said. "We don't want to compromise officer safety."

Chief William J. Bratton recently advised officers to continue to wear the vests until they were upgraded. In the last six years, the vests have saved two LAPD officers, officials said.

Second Chance's Ultima and Ultimax models have Zylon, a high-tech, lightweight fiber. Second Chance officials said that, in 2001, the fiber's maker warned that it had the potential to degrade.

Gregg Smith, a spokesman for Second Chance, said subsequent tests by the company of 200 vests from 37 departments across the country showed an unexpected decrease in strength. The company began issuing warnings in August.

Age, exposure to heat, humidity, sunlight and wear can affect the armor's performance, Paul Banducci, Second Chance's president and chief executive, wrote in a Sept. 15 letter to customers.

The role the company's vest may have played in the wounding of the Pennsylvania officer in June is still under investigation.

Smith said the vests are worn by "tens of thousands of law enforcement officers nationwide," and are the industry standard for lightweight, concealed body armor. They have saved at least 30 lives, he said.

The company plans to send all customers nationwide two Kevlar inserts for the existing vests as additional protection. The company also is offering a discount on new models to Ultima owners.

But the National Institute of Justice, which sets performance standards for vests, said inserts like those distributed by Second Chance would not meet its standards. Company officials acknowledge that, under the testing standards, there is no provision to alter an existing vest. "We are being proactive here. There's an industrywide problem with Zylon vests," Smith said.

Other manufacturers, however, insist that their Zylon vests are not encountering the same problems because the percentage of Zylon is different.

Information obtained by the Los Angeles Police Department shows that the Department of Defense was aware of the problems with Zylon more than a year ago and stopped using such vests.

Gascon said that as soon as the LAPD learned of the potential problem last month, the department and the city attorney negotiated to replace all the Zylon material in every vest with Kevlar -- not just to add a second layer of material.

He said no other manufacturer had been able to come up with a faster solution, and with the vests being custom-made for each officer, Second Chance already had all the officers' measurements.

The Zylon vests in recent years have been issued to every new LAPD recruit, Gascon said. Officers also receive vouchers from the city every five years to buy a vest. That allowance paid for the less-expensive, basic Kevlar vest, not the more expensive Zylon lightweights. Officers who wanted the latter had to chip in extra from their own pockets, officials said.

What has not yet been resolved is whether the department and those officers who paid more to upgrade from Kevlar armor will get money back from Second Chance, Gascon said. The LAPD also recently canceled an order for Second Chance vests for its special weapons team, he said.

California Highway Patrol and Long Beach police officials said Friday that none of their officers use the Ultima or Ultimax vests. The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department has a few.

Across the country, however, more and more departments have been using the vests. The Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Assn. is asking the state attorney general to force the company to provide free replacements or a refund to at least 2,500 officers. Others using the vests include 1,800 state troopers in North Carolina and 700 sheriff's deputies in Maricopa County, Ariz.

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