WASHINGTON — A program that has supplied more than 1 million bulletproof vests to police departments around the country is facing a holdup on Capitol Hill.
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., has blocked reauthorization of the 15-year-old Bulletproof Vest Partnership Grant, arguing that the federal government has “no role” in funding local police departments
But Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and author of the program, said at a hearing Wednesday that “the law enforcement community has spoken with a single voice on this issue. They understand the unfortunate reality that life-saving vests can be extremely expensive, particularly for smaller jurisdictions, and that they can wear out too soon.”
Local police officials testified that the vests, which on average cost between $800 and $1,000 apiece, can be life-saving tools in a dangerous job.
Ann Carrizales, an officer with the police department in Stafford, Texas, was shot in the face and chest during a routine traffic stop last October.
“I remember the muzzle flash, looking directly at the weapon and taking a mental note of its caliber, and then there were his eyes,” Carrizales told the senators Wednesday. “I will never forget his eyes.”
Carrizales testified that while she feels fortunate to work for a department that provides officers with the equipment they need, others “are forced to choose between what is most important to officer safety and how much money to put into ensuring their officer’s safety.”
Since 1999, the federal government has spent $375 million to reimburse more than 13,000 local law enforcement agencies to help pay the costs of more 1 million bulletproof vests, according to the Department of Justice, which runs the program. It estimates that the vests saved the lives at least 33 law enforcement and corrections officers in fiscal year 2012.
“I have heard of and known numerous (Fort Worth Police Department) officers who have avoided serious injury because of the ballistic vests they carry,” Sgt. Raymond Bush, a department spokesman, said in an interview. “Their importance cannot be overstated.”
Terry Grisham, executive administrator for the Tarrant County, Texas, Sheriff’s Department, told the panel that funding for equipment is a “challenge.”
Despite submitting hundreds of applications, many large police departments didn’t receive federal funding for vests in 2013. Larger agencies, characterized as serving populations of more than 100,000, are not as high a priority for the grant program as smaller departments.
The Medill News Service is a Washington program of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.