Police and senators spoke out today during National Police Week on behalf of a federal program that pays up to 50 percent of the costs to shield state and local law enforcement officers with bulletproof vests.
Since its inception in 1999, states and localities have received $234 million dollars under the Department of Justice's Bulletproof Vest Partnership, which has helped purchase approximately 818,000 vests, according to Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and also an original sponsor of the program.
Leahy criticized the Bush Administration for not requesting funding for the program when the president's budget includes money for training and equipment for Iraqi police.
"If we can afford to pay for training and equipment for Iraqi police," he said, "we can afford bulletproof vests for the officers who protect Americans here at home."
Lawmakers heard from Detective David Azur of the Baltimore Police Department, whose bulletproof vest saved his life in the summer of 2000.
As part of an auto theft task force, Azur pulled over a car, which he suspected had been stolen. While arresting the car's passenger, the suspect shot Azur point blank in the chest with a .38 calibar handgun stowed away in the waistband of the passenger's pants.
The blast knocked Azur back, but he was able to keep his footing.
"I ripped off my vest and asked [another responding] officer 'Where's the blood?' He told me that the bullet didn't go through the vest..." Azur told the senators.
Azur was later told at the hospital that if it wasn't for his bulletproof vest, he would probably be dead.
Leahy said the bulletproof vest program was as important as it ever has been, noting that 181 police officers died in the line of duty in 2007.
"Each death is a tragedy," he said, "but this is the largest yearly total since the extraordinary losses of 9-11 and in its aftermath."
Set to expire next year, Leahy introduced a bill today to extend federal bulletproof vest assistance for another three years. He also recently introduced another piece of related legislation to waive the program's matching requirement for cash-strapped jurisdictions.
"At a time when too many police departments are already facing cuts to essential programs and crime fighting initiatives," Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) said, "this is a sensible step."
Lieutenant Michael Macarilla of the Vermont State Police said waiving the matching requirement will go a long way to continuing the effectiveness of federal bulletproof vest assistance.