Texas Senate passed bill creating grant program for bullet-proof vests

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Thousands of law enforcement officers across the state could soon receive bullet-resistant vests, thanks to a bill passed by the Texas Senate last week.

Prompted by the ambush-style attacks on five Dallas police officers last July, Senate Bill 12, authored by state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, would create a $25 million grant program to provide bullet-resistant vests to 40,000 to 60,000 law enforcement officers in the state. The bill would allow law enforcement agencies to apply for a grant, buy the vests and then be reimbursed. 

“Although many of us may think that all police officers already have bullet proof vests, what we have found is that this may not be the absolute case,” West told the Senate Committee on Criminal Justice when he introduced the bill earlier this month. 

While the Legislature considered SB 12, the Austin Police Department began spearheading its own effort last month to amp up protection for its front-line officers. The department spent more than $300,000 from its general fund to purchase 958 ballistic vests for its officers, to be worn in addition to the lower-caliber vests officers are already required to wear.

In 2016, 135 officers across the country were killed in the line of duty — the highest number in five years — according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, a nonprofit honoring the service of law enforcement officers. The leading cause of these deaths was firearm-related incidents, accounting for 64 of the total fatalities, a 56 percent increase from the 41 officers killed by gunfire in 2015. Of these 64 deaths, 21 resulted from ambush-style attacks, the highest total in more than two decades.

More officers were killed in Texas than in any other state, with a total of 17 officer fatalities in 2016, according to the fund.

Interim Police Chief Brian Manley cited these statistics as proof of the significant need for APD to purchase the protective gear. 

“We all know that policing is a profession that can be dangerous at times,” Manley said as APD handed out the vests last month. “Although we will never be able to protect them from every danger they will face, we will continue to look for every reasonable mechanism to make the job that much safer.”

Senior Police Officer Christopher Irwin has utilized the ballistic vest twice since APD distributed them last month.  

“There isn’t a set policy guideline for when you need to wear the vest,” Irwin said. “But when I know I’m going to a call where someone has any sort of firearm, whether it’s a high caliber weapon or a small .22, I’m going to wear the heavy vest ... just for the added protection.”

Irwin said Austin is fortunate in its ability to independently purchase more protective gear, but officers across the nation should be afforded the same chance — something SB 12 would allow for. 

“Austin is a large city, so we have a bigger budget and can afford certain things that make the city and policing safer,” Irwin said. “But there’s been active shooting in small towns and major metropolitan areas ... so every officer should have the ability to have equipment like this ... and the same level of protection across the board.”

The bill is now awaiting a committee hearing in the House of Representatives before a full vote for final approval.