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Bulletproof vest policies vary in area

November 30, 1999|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. ? Law enforcement agency leaders randomly surveyed in the Tri-State area last week said their officers are issued bulletproof safety vests, but some departments still don't require that the armor be worn.

"I wish it was mandated, to be honest with you," Martinsburg Police Department Capt. Barb Bartley said.

Though optional, Bartley said officers are encouraged to wear the protective gear, and the majority of the department's officers wear the vests on a regular basis.

"We've been pretty fortunate that we haven't had any officers shot," said Bartley, who was well aware of the Feb. 19 shooting of Jefferson County Sheriff's Department Cpl. Ronald Fletcher.

Fletcher last week said he regretted not wearing his vest, which is required by the department. His supervisor, Jefferson County Sheriff Everett "Ed" Boober had said he believes Fletcher's injuries would have been less serious had the officer worn a vest.

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Fletcher was shot inside a home at 74 Orchard Drive in the Orchard Hills subdivision in Ranson, W.Va., after responding to a call for a man ? later identified as Dorsey Cox ? trying to break into the house through a back door, police have said.

Fletcher was rescued from the house, but Cox would not leave. A six-hour standoff with police ended with gunfire, and Cox later died en route to Washington (D.C.) Hospital Center.

Autopsy results had not been released as of Friday to clarify whether Cox died from a self-inflicted gunshot or shots fired by a police officer.

Berkeley County Sheriff W. Randy Smith said deputies are provided with vests and most wear them, but it still is optional.

"I haven't any (deputies shot) since I've been sheriff," said Smith, who first was elected in 2000.

West Virginia State Police troopers assigned to Morgan, Berkeley and Jefferson counties also have the option to wear the safety vests, which are replaced every five years to ensure their effectiveness, First Sgt. E.D. Burnett said.

"It is pretty much up the troopers," Burnett said.

Among the law enforcement agencies that require vests be worn, all surveyed made exceptions for administrative staff and detectives, unless special or "high-risk" circumstances arise.

"Our policy is that patrol officers wear that vest anytime they're in uniform," Charles Town (W.Va.) Police Department Chief Barry Subelsky said.

"There's a penalty to be paid if you don't wear them," Subelsky added after crediting city residents for underwriting the cost of the department's "excellent safety equipment."

Though fully aware of the discomfort the vests sometimes cause officers, Washington County Sheriff Douglas W. Mullendore said the deputies have been required to wear the layered Kevlar vests for about 25 years.

"It's tradeoff for your safety ... by design, you're never going to get (a vest) that does not make you hot," Mullendore said.

Chambersburg (Pa.) Police Department Chief Michael DeFrank said patrol officers have been required to wear vests since 1992, and even officers who are not in uniform must have their vests readily available, if needed.

Hagerstown Police Department Chief Arthur Smith said not only are patrol officers required to wear the vests "at all times," but the city's undercover agents are likely to wear them, too.

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