Body armor troubles police

Use on streets hints it's too easy to buy

April 25, 2000|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

The shooting Thursday night was brazen, but not unusual by Baltimore standards. A teen-ager stood at a street corner and unloaded a semiautomatic handgun into a small crowd, hitting one man in the leg.

It was what the young man was wearing that astounded Baltimore's new police commissioner: His chest and back were protected with body armor.

"This incident speaks for itself," said an angry Edward T. Norris after the teen-ager was charged with killing an officer as he made a getaway in a Ford Bronco and plowed into a cruiser. "I need not say any more."

Police in at least one part of the city -- Southwest Baltimore -- said they are finding more and more suspects wearing or in possession of body armor. It is a problem that continues to alarm law enforcement officials.

"It's not something that should be in the hands of criminals," said Officer Gary McLhinney, president of the city's police union, which pushed unsuccessfully for state legislation in 1998 to restrict the sale of body armor.

How the 17-year-old, who has been charged with first-degree murder in the death of Officer Kevon Gavin, got the vest has not been determined by homicide detectives. Most vests have serial numbers, but this one has not yet been traced, officials said.

Body armor is available in gun stores throughout the Baltimore region and, although any citizen is legally allowed to buy one, most merchants say they choose their customers carefully: police, security guards, merchants or others who can prove a need.

"I've had people offer me three times retail, but I won't sell it to them," said Sam Walters, a retired city officer who runs the downtown Cop Shop, a police supply store. "Legally you can sell them. Morally, I don't."

Yesterday morning, Walters said, he turned down a man who said he ran a business out of his house and had been robbed several times. But a check found the man had never reported the robberies to police.

There are other ways to get a vest. The Internet is full of companies that offer them. Some cater to police, others to survivalists.

The International Association of Chiefs of Police has lobbied for years to put an end to the practice.

"The safety of law enforcement has often been compromised by body armor worn by criminals," the association's position statement says. "Sales should be conducted in person in order to make it more difficult for criminals to acquire and use while committing crimes of violence."

The issue gained publicity in Baltimore two years ago when a man started a business, 22nd Century Body Armor, and advertised with a billboard on Reisterstown Road: "Life Insurance for the 90s."

"I had to think of something that everyone needs and nobody is selling," the company's owner, Robert Abrams, said at the time. "I believe there is a market, since so many of us are being killed."

Abrams unsuccessfully sued the city, the police union and a billboard company after public pressure from the mayor led to the cancellation of his billboard contract.

The controversy prompted the introduction of two bills in the state legislature. One, which would have restricted sales of body armor to a select class of buyers, failed. Lawmakers enacted a provision that makes it a crime punishable by up to five years in prison to commit an offense while wearing a bullet-resistant vest.

How many suspects are showing up on city streets clad in body armor is difficult to determine. Most police commanders throughout the city said they had seen it rarely, if at all.

The head of the Southwestern District, Maj. George L. Klein, where Gavin worked, said his officers are finding the vests in raids on drug houses and being worn by street-level drug dealers and enforcers.

"You can order them from anywhere," Klein said. "You just got to get one of those police security catalogs."

Asked about body armor, groups of young men clustered on corners in southern Baltimore yesterday answered with bewilderment. "I know the police got them," said one man in Westport. "I don't know no one else who got one."

A young man in the Mount Winans neighborhood said, "That would be a once in a lifetime thing if I saw that."

Mike Long, 24, a friend of the teen-ager charged in the officer's death last week, said he knows of many people who have vests. He said the trend grew after a shooting on Mothers Day last year on Harlem Avenue.

"As far as that, you got to look at it like we are trying to protect ourselves out here," he said.

Police were unable yesterday to point to recent examples of criminals and body armor. But in 1990 and 1991, they tracked seizures throughout the city and came up with about a dozen cases. In May 1990, an officer stopped a man wanted on two murder charges who was wearing a vest.

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