What's A Life Worth? Law Enforcement Agencies Struggle to Buy Bullet Proof Vests
By Colleen Chen, NEWS 9
OKLAHOMA CITY -- The Oklahoma Association of Chiefs of Police say 40 percent of all city police departments do not have bullet proof vests because they can’t afford them.
Out of Oklahoma’s 77 sheriff’s departments, the overwhelming majority have to depend on grants. The grants generally only cover half the cost and are not always available.
Seminole County Sheriff Shannon Smith knows that pain. The moments his two deputies were shot and killed in July replay like nightmares he can’t shake.
“I think about it at least once a day, at least once a day,” said Sheriff Shannon Smith.
Neither Captain Marvin Williams nor Deputy Chase Whitebird were wearing bullet proof vests the day they were ambushed by a gunman. They would have been wearing them, but they didn’t have vests of their own.
“Budgets just don’t allow for this type of safety equipment. It’s just too expensive,” Sheriff Smith said.
It’s a problem a young officer from Porter knows all too well. He patrols the streets for the town of 550.
“They don’t generate enough revenue to purchase every officer a bullet proof vest,” said Officer Renfro.
The fact that officers like Renfro have to walk the streets without the insurance needed weighs heavily on Travis Yates. The Tulsa officer has helped start what’s called The Armor of God Project.
“It’s a matter of life and death. I mean I’ve never been a part of something like this where it’s literally a matter of life and death,” Yates said.
The project is shared with a lieutenant named Clint Reck in Alabama. That’s where the program’s warehouse holds hundreds of bullet proof vests that are just waiting to save a life.
“We’ve had departments tell us we burn our vests or we turn them into tires. Those departments need to say ‘We’ve got to help others,’” Yates said.
That’s what the Armor of God project is about. A bullet proof vest costs anywhere from $500 to thousands of dollars, but departments that are lucky enough to have funding for vests have to get rid of them after the five year manufacturer warranty expires.
“Everybody’s worried about liability in this country and we’ve got officers here working without vests,” said Clint Reck.
The project collects the vests that would otherwise be thrown away and gives them to guys like Officer Renfro who has no qualms about accepting a hand-me-down. It’s more protection than he’s ever had or likely will.
“They are giving me a chance to come home to my family every single night no matter what happens. This is a relief. I feel relief. That goes for my wife, my new baby, my mom, and my dad,” Officer Renfro said, holding back tears.
The chance to fight for life is very real. Two lives have already been saved by the project that is still in its infancy.
“About 70 percent of the vests given to us are in better shape or the same shape that I wear every day. Often times, the vests we get are from guys that have desk duty in big departments. They are brand new,” Yates said. “Think about it. Everything has a warranty. Your TV has a warranty. Our cars have warranties. They don’t stop working the day the warranty expires. We’ve taken these vests. We’ve shot them. They work. Like I said, two lives have already been saved.”
Without help, small departments have to rely on grants to get vests. The grant pays half and the department pays half. That was the case with Seminole County. The department had been approved. The deputies had been measured. However, the money did not arrive in time.
“I would give anything for those guys to have had good vests on that day. If we could’ve gotten it the day of, it may have been different,” Sheriff Smith said.
His department’s vests have finally come in, but Smith had to make the difficult call of canceling the ones that were supposed to go to the two men who lost their lives in July. He considers Captain Marvin Williams’ and Deputy Chase Whitebird’s families and grieves for them every day. Although it’s unclear if vests would have made a difference, Smith said he would’ve liked them to have had the chance.
“That’s the one thing I would like to come out of this whole deal is something to be done to help other officers so these guys don’t die in vain. I wouldn’t want anybody to have to go through the grief we’re going through…the grief now and in the years to come,” said Sheriff Smith.
Funding levels are unlikely to change for Oklahoma law enforcement, especially in the currently tough economic situation. It’s why law enforcement leaders say they hope communities will take charge. It’s believed most people don’t realize that their officers and deputies may be going to work without the protection they need.
Some communities have gathered to host fundraisers to help buy their departments vests. Others will likely turn to the new option the Armor of God Project provides. The project is a non-profit and ships the vests the next day after paperwork is processed because they know what the difference of a day can mean on the job. It costs $11 to ship a vest and donations are appreciated.
Often times, Yates and Reck dip into their own pockets to ship the life savers. Learn how you can help the Armor of God Project.
The project actually started as a church project to help law enforcement in the Philippines. That was before they realized so many officers in our own country have to go unprotected. Any officer that gets a vest from the program does have to sign a liability waiver.
The Oklahoma Association of Police Chief also runs a surplus program to help departments.