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St. Petersburg may revisit police body armor rules after officer's death

ST. PETERSBURG — Officer David S. Crawford wasn't wearing a bullet-resistant vest Monday night when a gunman shot him several times in the chest.

It's unclear whether a vest would have saved the veteran police officer, who was shot at close range.

"Would it have averted tragedy? It may or may not have," said police Chief Chuck Harmon, who added that while department policy requires officers to have a vest, it's at their discretion whether to wear it.

Body armor is "highly encouraged," the policy states, but required only when officers face "high-risk" situations.

"(The policy) is worth looking at again," Harmon said during a Tuesday news conference. "I'm not going to say David did anything wrong."

The vests, which can be bulky, are uncomfortable, especially in warm weather, Harmon said.

After the briefing, at least three St. Petersburg City Council members said the vest policy should be reconsidered.

"It's a policy I'd change today," said Karl Nurse. "It seems that if you're outside of headquarters, you should have a vest on. As we've learned, routine work can turn deadly within seconds."

"I understand … that it's hot to wear it," said Jeff Danner. "But most of the officers I've seen have them on. I'm not sure if that's something you can mandate, but we should look at it."

"We don't mandate it, and perhaps that should be revisited," said Wengay Newton. "But we still don't know if it would have mattered."

The policy was tweaked for the department's undercover surveillance unit after two officers were shot while arresting robbery suspects in 2008 and 2009. The new policy said those officers "should" wear vests but stopped short of a mandate. St. Petersburg reimburses officers about $600 for a new vest every two to three years.

Vests aren't infallible.

On Jan. 24, St. Petersburg police Sgt. Thomas Baitinger died after Hydra Lacy Jr. shot through an attic floor at an angle that allowed a bullet to pierce his body without hitting his vest.

In August 2009, Tampa police Cpl. Mike Roberts was wearing a vest but died after a bullet burrowed into his shoulder at a downward angle and pierced an exposed area below his armpit.

St. Petersburg isn't alone in making vests optional. The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, for instance, issues vests but also leaves it up to patrol deputies to decide whether to wear them, said sheriff's spokeswoman Debbie Carter.

Tampa police also aren't required to wear a vest on a regular basis — unless they know they are going into a high-risk situation, said Lt. Ruben Delgado.

Times staff writers Waveney Ann Moore and Meg Laughlin contributed to this report. Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or mvansickler@sptimes.com.

St. Petersburg may revisit police body armor rules after officer's death 02/22/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 23, 2011 11:05am]
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