Tampa Bay law agencies differ on bullet-resistant vests

Steve Stefanides, left, fits St. Petersburg police Cadet Brandon Salata for a bullet-resistant vest Friday at the St. Petersburg College Allstate Center.

LARA CERRI | Times

Steve Stefanides, left, fits St. Petersburg police Cadet Brandon Salata for a bullet-resistant vest Friday at the St. Petersburg College Allstate Center.

Back when Dade City police Capt. David Duff worked road patrol, the vests were hot, heavy and hard to wear.

"It was like taking a stove and cutting holes in it," he said. "It was stiff and heavy and you couldn't move. If you sat down, it just about ripped your head off."

And yet he never went on patrol without it.

"It wasn't mandatory. I still wore it," he said. "I was old school."

That, however, is not the only school of thought when it comes to bullet-resistant vests.

Tampa Bay's biggest agencies — the St. Petersburg and Tampa police departments, the Hillsborough and Pinellas County sheriff's offices — don't require officers to wear body armor.

Even though vests now are lighter and more comfortable, even though the agencies already pay for them, they simply "encourage" their use. They're required only when officers face "high-risk" situations.

The policy has come under scrutiny since the Feb. 21 death of St. Petersburg Officer David Crawford. The 25-year police veteran was not wearing his vest when a prowling suspect shot him several times in the upper body, police said.

There's financial incentive, too. A federal grant that helps pay for vests now requires agencies to adopt mandatory use policies to get the money.

The Hernando County Sheriff's Office has long required uniformed deputies to wear vests. "It can be uncomfortable," said Chief Deputy Mike Maurer. "But it is what it is. It's a dangerous job."

Experts warn that vests can only shield officers from so many dangers.

Crawford was one of six police officers shot and killed in St. Petersburg and Tampa in a span of 18 months. The other five — three from Tampa, two from St. Petersburg — all died while wearing their vests.

• • •

The Florida heat is the most common reason officers give for not wearing vests. While technology has made vests lighter and more flexible, they still don't breathe well and trap heat.

"You put the vest on in Florida's heat and humidity, and you can see why officers choose not to wear them and why departments struggle with policies about whether to wear them," said Roy Bedard, a tactical training expert from Tallahassee.

"Imagine chasing someone down the street and capturing them and getting into a fight with them," he said. "You're getting very hot all of a sudden … you could get delirious, you could become unconscious."

Pinellas sheriff's Chief Deputy Bob Gaultieri said his agency doesn't favor a mandatory policy because not every duty requires a vest. "It's very difficult to enforce a blanket rule," he said, "when people have varying assignments and varying degrees of risk and threat that they face."

• • •

Concealable vests are what most officers wear under their uniforms. Bulkier, stronger vests are worn by units like SWAT. They're bullet-resistant, not bulletproof. They're made of ballistic fibers weaved together to slow the bullet, absorbing its impact.

But they can't shield all of the body's vital areas. Three of the six Tampa Bay officers killed in recent months were shot where their vests could not protect them: in the head.

That's how Tampa Officers David Curtis and Jeffrey Kocab and St. Petersburg K-9 Officer Jeffrey Yaslowitz were killed.

Tampa Cpl. Mike Roberts and St. Petersburg Sgt. Thomas Baitinger were fatally wounded in the upper torso by bullets that pierced gaps in their body armor.

St. Petersburg Sgt. Tim Brockman, the department's trainer, always imparts this lesson to rookies: "There's no guarantee. They can improve the odds. But you never want to be overconfident in what you can or cannot do because you have the vest on."

• • •

Police agencies in Clearwater, Largo, Temple Terrace and Dade City have mandatory vest policies.

The Hernando sheriff's policy orders all uniformed deputies and plainclothes members of the warrants unit to wear vests at all times. Others, like plainclothes detectives, must keep their vests in their vehicles and be ready to put them on immediately.

"I've been here 23 years and I've never known any other kind of policy," said Maurer, the chief deputy.

Duff said the Dade City Police Department thought "long and hard" before switching to a mandatory policy seven years ago.

"The safety issue is the biggest issue," he said. "Cost is another. The vests aren't cheap. We're expending $600 per officer for their protection. So they're going to wear it, period."

Six years ago, when his son joined the Pasco County Sheriff's Office, where vests are optional, he gave him this order:

"I told him, 'You're wearing the vest.' He had no problem with that."

• • •

Some agencies are rethinking voluntary wear policies, spurred by the recent deaths and the new federal grant requirement.

The Bureau of Justice Assistance cited this reason for the change: 59 of the 160 officers who were killed in 2010 were shot — a 20 percent rise from 2009.

The Bradenton Police Department has already changed its policy to require vest use.

The Pasco County Sheriff's Office is likely to scrap its voluntary policy, too, said Maj. Maurice Radford.

The problem with requiring officers to wear vests only in "high-risk" situations is that they don't always know when they're going to get in one. "So wearing that vest increases your safety, without question," Radford said.

St. Petersburg also will review its policy, though support for change is uncertain.

The Suncoast Police Benevolent Association, which represents many St. Petersburg officers, said it supports the current voluntary policy.

St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster said he will let the chief decide the city's vest policy, but he has a preference.

"If my wife were a police officer, I would want her to wear it at all times," he said. "But I have to separate my personal feelings from what's practical."

The sheriff's offices in Hillsborough and Pinellas plan to keep voluntary-wear policies.

The Tampa Police Department, which received $43,000 in federal grant money last year, said officials are discussing what to do about the new requirement.

The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office has decided not to apply for federal grant money this year. Last year, it received $24,443.

"The amount of money that is involved is not significant and would not warrant a change in policy," Gaultieri said.

• • •

Officer Crawford was killed while attempting to question a prowling suspect, police said.

Crawford didn't know the teenager was armed, police said, and had his notebook out when he was shot.

St. Petersburg police have not said why Crawford was not wearing his vest. Police Chief Chuck Harmon said that will be answered by an internal review.

"I don't want anyone to think it was his fault for not wearing his vest," Harmon said. "We had a 16-year-old who pulled out a firearm and shot him multiple times without warning.

"He was just doing something any officer has done a thousand times."

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

Tampa Bay law agencies differ on bullet-resistant vests 03/22/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 23, 2011 12:00am]

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