The case for bulletproof vests

March 16, 1994

The case for requiring Baltimore County police officers to wear bulletproof vests might best be made by recounting the last two times county officers were shot in the torso. In September 1992, Officer Peter Hanlon was shot in the back at close range, but his standard issue, six-pound Kevlar vest stopped the bullet. Thirteen months later, Officer James Beck was shot twice in the chest, also at close range. Officer Beck, who was not wearing his vest, almost died from severe lung damage. He ultimately recovered during a lengthy hospital stay.

The Beck shooting, plus an incident last month in which a county officer was shot in the leg, has prompted Councilman Donald Mason to propose a resolution that would mandate county police to wear their vests. The resolution has no statutory clout; even if it did, this proposal oversteps its bounds by dictating how a department head should run his agency. For these and other reasons, Mr. Mason's colleagues will probably kill the resolution as it is worded. It nonetheless has focused attention on the department's vest policy.

The current philosophy of the department stops short of a mandate, though it urges officers to wear their vests on duty. An increasing number are doing that: According to figures compiled by the department, 79 percent of county officers wear front and back protection, compared to 50 percent in 1992 and about 40 percent in 1982.

Police officials say a mandate would be unreasonable because it would be difficult to enforce. Yet the Maryland State Police and the departments of Baltimore City and Howard County require the wearing of vests. They back up the regulation with a progressive code of discipline ranging from a friendly admonition for the first offense to removal from duty for continuous infractions. Moreover, officials of those departments say they have rarely had to resort to discipline over the vest issue.

Baltimore County police officials also worry that if an unprotected officer were shot, the county government might argue it wasn't liable for the medical bills. It's hard to imagine any elected politician giving such callous treatment to a wounded police officer. Still, this matter could easily be resolved before a vest mandate were instituted.

A police committee recently voted to continue the policy of voluntary vest wear, while leaving open the possibility of a mandate in the near future. The time for such a mandate could be closer than department officials might acknowledge, lest another officer meet the fate of James Beck.

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