Police Feel Squeeze of Demand for Body Armor A recent decision by the nation's largest supplier of police body armor to urge law enforcement agencies to replace 100,000 bulletproof vests presents an operational quandary for many police forces. Second Chance Body Armor said its vests made with Zylon can suddenly deteriorate, causing a loss of protection from bullets. Police agencies, already faced with an order backlog for body armor because of the military's demands, now must reassure officers on the street that the equipment they have is safe.
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Police Feel Squeeze of Demand for Body Armor

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Police Feel Squeeze of Demand for Body Armor

Police Feel Squeeze of Demand for Body Armor

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There's been a frightening warning from one of the country's largest manufacturers of body armor. Second Chance Body Armor says that tens of thousands of bulletproof vests it sold to police departments might not actually stop bullets. The vests are made with a material called Zylon. Second Chance is already in bankruptcy and faces a dozen lawsuits because of problems with these Zylon vests. NPR's Chris Arnold reports.

CHRIS ARNOLD reporting:

At an outdoor shooting range in the Boston suburbs, police officers from several departments in the area are getting firearms training.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

Unidentified Man: Look to your left, look to your right. One hand back.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

ARNOLD: One of the ways police officers get shot is when a suspect wrestles their own gun away from them, so it's important that these officers' bulletproof vests are rated to stop the rounds they use in their handguns. But vest makers have always had to balance good protection with comfort. Detective Robert Dyer, who's in charge of the training, says you can see why today since it's 85 degrees and humid.

Detective ROBERT DYER (Training Officer): You know, the average officer has anywhere from 14 to 18 pounds of equipment on their duty belt, and then depending on the weight of the vest. So that you could have anywhere from 20 to 24 pounds of additional weight on your person that you're expected to climb fences, to, you know, scale obstacles.

ARNOLD: So in the late '90s, there was a lot of interest from police when body armor companies began making vests using a new lighter and more flexible material called Zylon.

Det. DYER: Zylon was supposed to be the--was the next breakthrough material that was much lighter than Kevlar but gave you the same stopping capabilities.

ARNOLD: Detective Dyer's police department in the city of Lowell bought around 250 of the vests--one for every officer--at about $800 apiece. One company alone called Second Chance Body Armor sold around 100,000 Zylon vests across the country. But now the company is warning that those vests may, quote, "fail to perform and result in serious injury or death." Doug Wagner is an attorney representing Second Chance. He says Zylon vests have saved dozens of police officers' lives, but he says the vests are degrading very quickly, especially in heat and humidity, and so failures are possible.

Mr. DOUG WAGNER (Attorney): The company can't be sure that this underlying Zylon fabric is going to offer any significant bullet-stopping capability.

ARNOLD: It's note the first time the company has had this problem. Back in 2003, a police officer in Pennsylvania was shot and the bullet penetrated his Second Chance Zylon vest. The officer was paralyzed. Second Chance soon after issued a massive recall that ended up driving it into bankruptcy. Back then, the company provided upgrade kits to beef up the faulty vests. Now Second Chance says even those upgraded vests might fail. Many police officers say this series of problems is disturbing and negligent.

Lieutenant KEVIN SOMMERS (National Fraternal Order of Police): I think everything that Second Chance has done on this has been pretty irresponsible.

ARNOLD: Kevin Sommers is a police lieutenant in Michigan and chairs a safety committee for the National Fraternal Order of Police. He says for years, Zylon was one of the best-selling types of body armor.

Lt. SOMMERS: Now these officers are stuck with a vest and they have to go out and hit the streets with a vest that maybe won't stop a bullet, probably not even the bullet that they're carrying in their own sidearm.

ARNOLD: As to who's to blame for all this, there's a lot of finger-pointing. Second Chance says the fault lies with the Japanese company called Toyobo, which manufactures the Zylon fiber. Toyobo denies any wrongdoing. The Department of Justice is investigating problems with Zylon body armor made by Second Chance and other companies, some of which still stand behind their vests.

Det. DYER: Shooters, on the command of draw...

ARNOLD: But back at the shooting range outside Boston, Detective Dyer has heard enough already.

Det. DYER: There's enough that we have to worry about when we go out on the streets. The last thing we have to be worrying about is whether or not our equipment is going to function properly.

ARNOLD: Dyer says even though his officers use a different brand of Zylon vests, not Second Chance, his department is planning to get rid of all those Zylon vests sometime in the fall. They'll replace them with Kevlar.

Second Chance and Toyobo are now facing a dozen lawsuits from various states and police departments. Last week, the federal government also sued both companies, alleging they knew that the Zylon vests were defective long before Second Chance issued its recall. Toyobo and Second Chance have denied that they knowingly sold the defective products. Chris Arnold, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

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