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New, outerwear bullet-resistance vests get more use by St. Petersburg police

ST. PETERSBURG — Chris Goodwin used to hear it from everyone: his wife, co-workers, people he met on the street:

Why doesn't he, a St. Petersburg police officer, wear his bullet-resistant vest while on patrol?

"It was uncomfortable, it was hot and you're married to it, to be honest," said Goodwin, 47. "The wife yelled at me about it. I have people at work who razzed me for not wearing it."

Not even the death of fellow Officer David Crawford, who wasn't wearing his vest when he was shot last year, could change Goodwin's mind.

St. Petersburg, like many Tampa Bay area law enforcement agencies, doesn't require its officers to wear vests. Several agencies only require their use in high-risk situations.

But now Goodwin, a veteran lawman, has changed his ways, along with other city officers who have long resisted the notion.

That's because St. Petersburg now offers a new, more comfortable option to encourage officers to voluntarily wear their protective gear: vests that can be worn over dress uniforms instead of under them.

So far, it's working. The agency estimated that 90 percent of the force now chooses to wear the vests.

While the agency can't say how many did and did not wear their vests before the new option, officials believe it's the most ever because so many officers who resisted them before don't anymore.

"I love it," said Officer Brian Prest, who always wore his vest before choosing the new option last month. "It's much more comfortable on top of the uniform. It's less restrictive."

Prest, 40, showed off his new dark green vest over his light green uniform shirt outside police headquarters on Monday afternoon. The temperature was in the high 80s.

"On a day like today," he said, "when you're on patrol, wearing all this gear on top, in the summer heat in Florida, it tends to get very hot."

That's the most common complaint among Florida officers who regularly choose not to wear vests.

Goodwin, for example, wears his tactical vest while on SWAT duty, as required by policy. But when he was on patrol he kept his regular vest in his trunk until he thought he needed it. It was too uncomfortable, he said.

Outer vests have long been an option for St. Petersburg officers in special units like K-9 and the Street Crimes Unit. They wear their vests over their fatigues and polos. To stay cool, they can open the side panels when they're driving, or take them off while working at the station.

But until recently, regular patrol officers in dress uniforms didn't have that option. For decades they had to stuff their vests underneath their button shirts.

The new vests give patrol officers an option for dressing professionally without sacrificing comfort. The city pays for a new vest for each officer every three years. Now officers can slip the bullet-resistant panels into each $75 dark green outer carrier and wear their safety gear over their uniforms. The city purchased 446 outer vests for its 537 officers, or 83 percent of the force.

The new vests are the most visible policy change made by the St. Petersburg Police Department after three officers were lost in the line of duty in 2011. The agency has committed to spending $500,000 in forfeiture money on the new vests, new sidearms, new tactical shields and the city's first armored vehicle.

"A strong majority of the officers who didn't wear them are now wearing them," said Officer Robert Lord, who works in research and planning. "We got the result we were looking for."

Officer Scott Chapman, 26, has law enforcement friends in Daytona Beach who ask him about the new vests. "I tell them it's easier wearing it out than underneath," said Chapman, who has always worn his vest. "Especially in Florida."

Prest said the new vest really paid off after chasing down and arresting a fleeing suspect last week.

Even the newest vests don't breathe, and they trap heat. Wearing one underneath a shirt is still stifling. And when they itch, officers can't scratch.

"In the old days you just had to deal with it," he said. "All you could do was stay in your sweat."

But after last week's foot pursuit, Prest said: "It was so easy to undo the flaps and take off the vest while (the suspect) was handcuffed in the back of my car."

Goodwin said he takes a lot less heat now because he wears his vest.

"I love them," he said. "I mean it's got me wearing it.

"That says a lot."

Jamal Thalji can be reached at thalji@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8472.

New, outerwear bullet-resistance vests get more use by St. Petersburg police 04/17/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 17, 2012 6:31pm]
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