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Cops Receive Body Armor Upgrade

The Capitol Police Department recently began distributing Kevlar inserts designed to supplement body armor worn by many of the agency’s 1,600 officers, as the Justice Department prepares to announce the initial findings in its investigation of the product.

The bullet-resistant vests used by Capitol Police officers, manufactured by Michigan-based Second Chance Body Armor Inc., came under investigation in mid-November, following a June incident in which a Forest Hills, Pa., law enforcement officer wearing the vest was shot and wounded.

The National Institute of Justice, the department’s research, development and evaluation branch, opened the investigation at the behest of Attorney General John Ashcroft following requests from Sens. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), as well as the Fraternal Order of Police.

“It was a big concern among the officers after they found out that the vests failed,” said Officer Ron Potter, who serves as first vice chairman of the Capitol Police Labor Committee.

Second Chance acknowledged in a statement on its Web site in September 2003 that Zylon, the material used in its vests, may “wear out faster than expected,” creating “a potential officer safety issue.”

The Japan-based Toyobo Co. Ltd, which manufacturers Zylon, denied in a December letter addressed to its customers that its product is defective.

But Masakazu Saito, general manager for Toyobo’s Zylon Department, acknowledged: “The fact is that like other fibers used for ballistic applications — over time and under certain conditions — Zylon’s tensile strength may experience degradation.”

In the meantime, Second Chance officials have discontinued two products, the Ultima and Ultimax vests, and began offering free Kevlar inserts to supplement the vests.

“The voluntary upgrade program was announced following a series of in-service vest tests performed by Second Chance that indicated the Zylon-based vests wear out sooner than expected,” the Web site states.

The inserts are not certified under NIJ standards, Second Chance acknowledges on its site, however, “We have engineered the panel based on our worst-case used vest testing results.”

While Potter said the inserts should raise the effectiveness of the vests, they also add significant bulk: “The inserts are nearly as thick as the vests themselves,” he said.

Capitol Police officials expect to complete distribution of the Kevlar inserts in the near future, although it remains unclear when or if the vests will be replaced. “In the future we’ll be looking for updated vests for the department,” said a police spokesman. Potter said the department is unlikely to replace its vests before NIJ completes its investigation.

The Justice Department expects to release its initial findings in March, a spokeswoman said Monday. The NIJ initiative is to focus on both new and used Zylon-based vests, as well as the Kevlar inserts, and the process used to determine how bullet-resistant vests are currently certified.

The Justice Department also plans to host a meeting of local, state, tribal and federal law enforcement officials, law enforcement associations, equipment manufacturers, and standards and testing organizations to discuss the results.

According to a Copley News Service report, there are lawsuits in at least six states (Arkansas, California, Massachusetts, Georgia, Illinois and Connecticut) seeking refunds from Second Chance.

The Capitol Police spokesman could not confirm whether the department or the Capitol Police Board would pursue similar measures.

Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), who chairs the Appropriations subcommittee on the legislative branch, said through a spokeswoman: “It’s a legal matter so it’s in the hands of the chief to determine.”

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