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Failure of officer's bulletproof vest shakes confidence

Sunday, October 19, 2003

By Michael A. Fuoco, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The June 23 wounding of a Forest Hills police officer through his bulletproof vest has become law enforcement's shot heard 'round the world.

Forest Hills police officer Ken Cooley stands by a bulletproof vest with the lining pulled out. Many officers are questioning the effectiveness of the vests following the shooting of an officer this summer. (Doreena Balestreire, Post-Gazette)
Click photo for larger image.

The .40-caliber slug that pierced Officer Edward Limbacher's body armor likewise has penetrated the sense of security of thousands of officers who, like the wounded patrolman, wear the Ultima/Ultimax bulletproof vest.

And that has created something of a backlash against the vest manufacturer, Second Chance Body Armor Inc. of Central Lake, Mich., the country's oldest and largest maker of body armor.

Working undercover as a member of the state attorney general's Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force, Limbacher, 33, a five-year veteran, was shot in the arm and abdomen through his bulletproof vest when he tried to arrest drug suspect Courtney Cox, 18, of the Hill District, in the parking lot of Forest Hills Plaza on Ardmore Boulevard.

Second Chance vests are made to withstand bullets under certain conditions, including the firing of a handgun at point-blank range. The company has said, however, that the vest might not be effective against unusual types of bullets, such as those coated with Teflon or containing steel cores.

The National Institute of Justice, which certifies bulletproof vests before they're put on the market, is investigating the Limbacher incident. But because doctors decided not to remove the bullet from his abdomen, it can't be studied to determine its characteristics.

Limbacher, who continues to recuperate at home, was wearing a vest manufactured in December and issued a month later. It has a recommended life span of five years.

Last month the 32-year-old company announced that it was discontinuing the Ultima and Ultimax vests from its product line. With hundreds of thousands sold worldwide, it had been the company's most popular seller during its two years of production because of the comfort provided by the lightweight, high-tech Zylon fiber, the world's strongest manmade fiber.

Initially, Second Chance wouldn't link such drastic action to Limbacher's wounding. Instead, the company said it discontinued the line because of two years of in-house testing it undertook after Toyobo, the Japanese manufacturer of Zylon, said tests had shown that the fiber degraded faster than expected.

Second Chance said Toyobo's testing was done under unrealistic conditions, so the company conducted its own tests on more than 200 vests that were in service. The tests were inconclusive -- in some cases older vests outperformed newer ones, for example -- but they likewise indicated some unexpected decreases in the fiber's strength.

Company spokesman Gregg Smith, who said the vest had been certified after rigorous NIJ testing, said last week that Limbacher's wounding "certainly ... focused our attention on the Zylon issue, but it's one of several different indicators" of a potential problem. Other manufacturers of Zylon vests, however, have issued statements indicating confidence in their models.

In conjunction with the announcement about discontinuing the Ultima/Ultimax line, Second Chance said owners of those vests, which cost about $875 each, can opt to receive free inserts of a different bullet-resistant fiber or major discounts on replacing them with non-Zylon body armor.

Still, those actions haven't eliminated officers' concerns.

Among the large departments still using the discontinued vests are Pennsylvania and Massachusetts state police and the Los Angeles and Boston police departments. The Pittsburgh Police Bureau uses a Second Chance model made of a different fiber.

Bill Johnson, executive director of the Washington, D.C-based National Association of Police Organizations, said officers who attended a quarterly board meeting Oct. 11 aired their concerns about the situation, sometimes angrily.

"This engenders a sense of worry. There's enough about police work that produces a certain level of concern every day ... [so] something like this is like a betrayal -- that this bulletproof vest you were relying on apparently might not save a life at all," said Johnson, whose organization represents more than 2,000 police unions and associations, 230,000 active officers, 11,000 retired officers and 100,000 civilians.

"I think it's like being betrayed by a spouse -- this has been going on the whole time and you didn't know about it. This isn't like a pair of uniform trousers where the inseam is too long."

"I would definitely say it is a hot issue," said Kevin Watson, legislative director of the Law Enforcement Alliance of America, headquartered in Falls Church, Va. It is the nation's largest nonprofit, nonpartisan coalition of law enforcement professionals, crime victims and citizens.

In light of Limbacher's shooting and Toyobo's and Second Chances' test findings, the group is gathering as much scientific information as it can about Zylon reliability, and some larger departments are even undertaking their own testing.

Everyone has been taken aback by Limbacher's wounding and the subsequent revelations about Zylon, Watson said, particularly because of Second Chance's pre-eminent position in the field. The company said its vests had saved 900 lives, including 32 Ultima "saves."

"[Second Chance] has been around forever. ... It's like hearing the Ford Crown Victoria [a popular police vehicle] has a gas tank explosion problem," Watson said.

"[Officers] know every time they do their jobs that their lives are on the line, so any issue of officer safety regarding equipment is always a concern."

Forest Hills police Chief William Fabrizi said it was his understanding that investigators had eliminated the possibility that the vest failed because of a "hot bullet" -- one that was coated with Teflon or otherwise altered from a standard round.

He scoffed at Second Chance's initial statement that its discontinuation of the Ultima/Ultimax models had nothing to do with Limbacher's wounding.

His 11-officer department is still wearing the Ultima model until their order for the Monarch model is delivered.

Fabrizi said Limbacher was "coming along, slowly but surely. He's a tough officer. He's in a mindset he wants to come back."

Moon police Capt. Leo McCarthy said his department had ordered replacement vests for 27 officers, while two others who are retiring at the end of the year are using the inserts. The new $1,100 vests are costing the department $350 each because of Second Chance's discount.

Nevertheless, McCarthy said, officers are concerned about Second Chance's actions and reactions.

"I wasn't there [when Limbacher was shot], so I don't know what happened, but when a major, multimillion-dollar company has a recall like this, there's obviously a problem. Obviously, something is wrong here, whether they admit to it or not.

"We are concerned, but we still have a job to do every day. ... We had confidence in these vests, and now we just don't know. I hope we get the new vests soon and get this behind us."

Johnson said many officers were angry because "the company sold a product that doesn't do what it was advertised to do. ... Providing a coupon or a discount for another product just doesn't cut it."

Second Chance's Smith said customer representatives had fielded "mixed" reactions from officers.

"We certainly, as well, share their concerns," he said. "We're certainly concerned about the reaction and are doing everything we can to respond to it."

Fabrizi said members of his relatively small department were shocked at Limbacher's shooting and at becoming the center of such an emotional controversy about officer safety. His department has been contacted by police departments from Maine to California, seeking information about the incident while expressing their concerns about vest safety.

"It's attracted quite a bit of attention, but it's attention we'd rather not have under the circumstances. I would rather it wasn't my department, believe me.

"But if this is going to save someone else's life somewhere by being brought to light, [that's good]. But I'd rather not have had to sacrifice one of my officers for it."


Michael A. Fuoco can be reached at mfuoco@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1968.

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