Thursday, May 26, 2022

One layer of Kevlar between life and death: Local police get money for bulletproof vests

Williamsburg City Council approved a budget amendment accepting a $4,078 grant to pay for bulletproof vests. (WYDaily/Sarah Fearing)
Williamsburg City Council approved a budget amendment accepting a $4,078 grant to pay for bulletproof vests. (WYDaily/Sarah Fearing)

It’s been decades since a Williamsburg Police officer has been shot while on the job.

But city police still aren’t taking any chances.

All 41 police officers with the city are equipped with a bulletproof vest, complete with Kevlar ballistic panels, two breathable blue carriers and fabric fasteners.

All 41 of those vests also need to be replaced at the end of their five-year lifespan, each costing $700 to $800.

It’s a costly — and necessary — cycle, one that has saved more than 3,000 law enforcement lives nationwide over the past three decades, according to the National Institute of Justice.

On Thursday, Williamsburg City Council approved a budget amendment accepting a $4,078 grant to pay for bulletproof vests.

The grant, which requires a 50-percent match from the city and helps buy 10 vests, is administered by the Department of Justice. The police department will pay for their portion using the police supply budget, spokesman Maj. Greg Riley said.

“We want them to have some type of protection,” Riley said.

A cost worth paying

The last time a Williamsburg Police officer was shot happened long before Riley started the job at the department 28 years ago.

That officer survived.

A person also fired shots at an officer about 10 years ago during another incident — they were not hit — but every officer is still required to wear their bulletproof vest while on the job outside of the office.

Sitting in a sleek black box in the corner of his office, Riley has a brand new Safariland bulletproof vest. He doesn’t need to wear the vest often, as his job is mostly administrative, but he still has one on-hand for when he’s out in the field.

The inside of the box is red, bearing a phrase in all-capital letters: “TOGETHER, WE SAVE LIVES.”

Across the country, some police departments have been accused of letting officers wear outdated body armor while on the job, according to news reports.

In Williamsburg, Riley said none of the vests in use are outside their warranty.

“We stick to that schedule,” Riley said, adding that each officer receives a brand new, custom-measured vest when they are hired on the force.

Some years, there is greater turnover on the police force, meaning the department needs to buy more vests that year.

Other localities

This year, Williamsburg wasn’t the only local agency to receive grant funding for bulletproof vests.

The James City County Police Department was awarded $13,546 to buy 24 vests this year. The Board of Supervisors is slated to vote Tuesday on whether to accept that grant funding.

The York-Poquoson Sheriff’s Office received a $8,850 grant to buy 19 vests this year, spokeswoman Shelley Ward said.

Last year, Williamsburg received $2,400, James City County received $13,545 and York County received $8,550, according to the Office of Justice Programs. James City and York Counties have 97 and 87 officers, respectively, state police data shows.

Maj. Greg Riley holds tactical gear with metal chest and back plates. The plates weigh "easily" 10 or 15 pounds, Riley said. (WYDaily/Sarah Fearing)
Maj. Greg Riley holds tactical gear with metal chest and back plates. The plates weigh “easily” 10 or 15 pounds, Riley said. (WYDaily/Sarah Fearing)

As of July 2017, the DOJ’s Office of Justice Programs has awarded more than $430 million to more than 13,000 law enforcement agencies — purchasing nearly 1.3 million vests.

Riley said the police department does not go to military surplus stores to purchase bulletproof vests or other equipment at discounted rates because that equipment is more heavy duty than Williamsburg’s officers require.

The military gear often is more like tactical gear, Riley said, which the police department already keeps in each patrol vehicle. Those tactical items include 10-plus-pound chest plates, rifles and helmets.

“You also have to think about what these officers do daily,” Riley said. “They’re not always in tactical situations… but we need to give them some type of protection.”

Sarah Fearing
Sarah Fearing is the Assistant Editor at WYDaily. Sarah was born in the state of Maine, grew up along the coast, and attended college at the University of Maine at Orono. Sarah left Maine in October 2015 when she was offered a job at a newspaper in West Point, Va. Courts, crime, public safety and civil rights are among Sarah’s favorite topics to cover. She currently covers those topics in Williamsburg, James City County and York County. Sarah has been recognized by other news organizations, state agencies and civic groups for her coverage of a failing fire-rescue system, an aging agriculture industry and lack of oversight in horse rescue groups. In her free time, Sarah enjoys lazing around with her two cats, Salazar and Ruth, drinking copious amounts of coffee and driving places in her white truck.

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