The Chief
October 11, 2002

State Cites NYPD Over Vest Defects

Pose Danger to Cops

By Mark Daly

Already faced with the task of replacing thousands of bulletproof vests that apparently fail to stop bullets, the Police Department has now been cited by the State Labor Department for failing to ensure that its officers use the vests properly.

During a visit to a Bronx precinct in April, a Labor Department investigator saw an officer wearing a vest held together with masking tape and met other officers who had cut off safety flaps from the bottom of the vests to make them more comfortable to wear, according to a recently issued report.

Torsos Exposed

The state agency cited the NYPD for issuing “defective and damaged equipment” because many of the older vests had begun to “curl up”, leaving officers’ torsos exposed. The city has known about the problem for at least two years, according to the report.

NYPD officials, through the department’s public affairs office declined to comment on the report.

Last month, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly ordered officers to return 1,000 Point Blank Body Armor vests after tests at the Police Department firing range showed that at least a few of the vests purchased in 1999 from the Florida-based manufacturer could not withstand the impact of a bullet.

Point Blank, a subsidiary of DHB Industries of Carle Place, L.I., is standing by its product and has challenged the validity of the department’s ballistic tests, saying they did not conform to U.S. Justice Department standards. The NYPD and the company have been in negotiations for weeks to resolve the issue.

The NYPD now believes at least 5,000 vests will need to be replaced, according to department sources. Point Blank donated 1,000 new vests to the city when the issue first surfaced, and has reportedly offered additional vests at a discounted price. The company and the NYPD are still working on identifying groups of vests within selected ordering lots that may need to be replaced.

The Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, which asked the Labor Department to investigate the safety of the curling-up vests, has called on the NYPD to be more vigilant in spotting worn-out vests.

“Our needs regarding vests are very simple. They need to fit and they need to work,” PBA President Patrick J. Lynch said. “We’ve asked the Police Department to develop a procedure whereby all makes of vests and all ages of vests are regularly sampled to make sure they work properly.”

In the meantime, the uncertainty over the vests is threatening to take a toll on police work in the field, police union officials said.

Danger in Caution

“Our members are losing a little faith in their vests,” said Michael Palladino, the vice-president of the Detectives Endowment Association. “You have police officers out there that could be acting tentatively. And an officer who acts tentatively could leave themselves or civilians at risk.”

The Point Blank vests cost about $400 each and are made of Kevlar, a material 20 times stronger than steel, with pockets for plates of boron carbide, which is almost as hard as a diamond. The vest is known in law-enforcement parlance as “bullet-resistant body armor,” and are intended to help an officer survive a gunshot wound.

NYPD cops are required to wear their vest when they are on patrol. In addition to handing out the new vests donated by Point Blank, the NYPD has told officers who have vests with certain lot numbers to return their vest and share a different vest with a cop on another shift. A different model vest for women has not had any reported problems.

The Labor Department’s investigation began after officers complained to the PBA about ill-fitting vests that began to curl up at the base when the officers sat in a patrol car for long periods of time.

Warnings Ignored

An investigator from the state Public Employee Safety and Health Bureau (PESH) visited the 52nd Precinct in The Bronx and walked around the roll call area, asking the officers there about problems with the vests.

The officers said supervisors knew about problems with the vests but did nothing to help, according to the report. Some said that supervisors and patrol officers alike cut off the tuck-in flaps at the bottom of the vests to make them easier to wear, even though the flaps were meant to provide protection.

Follow-up visits to the 112th Precinct in Forest Hills, Queens and the 81st Precinct in Brooklyn uncovered similar problems, the investigator said. Vests that were five years old or older seemed to have the greatest problem with wear and curling. Many officers said they didn’t know the procedure for replacing their worn-out vests, and some said even the supervisors didn’t know what to do.

At the same time, the department’s Firearms and Tactics Unit was investigating a complaint by an officer that his recently issued vest seemed to have lost resiliency after it became wrinkled.

Bullets Got Through

During ballistics test at the NYPD firing range, bullets penetrated some of the vests. The problem also surfaced during follow-up tests done by a laboratory in Maryland. But the results were reportedly inconsistent, with different vests from the same lot stopping some types of bullets but not others.

The PESH inspector reported some friction with NYPD officials when he tried to get the results of the ballistics tests. During a meeting at the firing range, he wrote, Deputy Inspector Steven Silks, the unit’s commander, questioned whether the Labor Department had a right to the information.

PESH cited the Police Department for failing to train officers in the proper use of the vest. The only training provided at the Police Academy, the investigator found, was when the manufacturer visited to measure the cadets for their body armor and gave instructions on how it should be washed.

The city knew in late 2000 that the ballistic panels in the vests bunched up at the center of an officer’s chest when he sat in a patrol vehicle for a long period, said the investigator, citing correspondence between the manufacturer, the NYPD and the Department of Citywide Administrative Services, the agency that handled the purchasing of the vests.

Based on a review of the letters, the investigator said, “The NYPD and DCAS did try to resolve this problem, but apparently did not appear to have done much in resolving this problem.”