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On heels of a Calif. shooting, Willmar police officers receive new body armor

WILLMAR -- A defective ballistic vest that failed to protect a California police officer in 2003 has resulted in new body armor for most of the Willmar police officers.

The new vests arrived this week.

The vests sell for about $700 each but the shipment of 22 vests didn't cost the city a penny.

The city's supplier for the body armor vests, American Body Armor, provided the vests for free as part of an exchange program to replace potentially defective vests with ones that are safer. After the death of the California officer, studies showed that body armor made with a fibers called Zylon degraded prematurely, reducing the level of expected ballistic resistance. In some cases, bullets penetrated older vests. On Aug. 24, 2005, the United States Department of Justice decertified all bullet resistant vests containing any amount of Zylon. Although the vests were not recalled, some distributors voluntarily initiated an exchange, replacing old vests that contain Zylon with new ones that don't have Zylon.

Willmar Police Chief James Kulset said the said 22 of the department's 32 officers had vests containing Zylon. Some of the vests were less than one year old. Others were as old as four years.

He said just because the vests contained Zylon "doesn't mean our old vests weren't going to protect our officers." He said hundreds of officers wearing Zylon vests have been shot without being injured or killed.

But Kulset said it made sense to take advantage of an offer to get the new vests to "make sure" the Willmar officers are protected. He said even if the company hadn't provided the vests for free, the department would have found the money to buy new armor to ensure the safety of the officers. "You always want them to have good equipment," he said.

Kandiyohi County Deputy Sheriff Randy Kveene said he is one of five officers with that department that had a vest made with Zylon. "It didn't bother me to be wearing the vest in the least," he said. All the same, he placed his order for a new vest on Friday. The exchange will not cost the county extra money.

Kulset said the officers are "pleased" to get the new vests, even though they are a little heavier, and not quite as comfortable, as those made with Zylon.

Also, the city replaces an officer's vest every five years, but usually staggers the purchases to spread out the cost. With 22 of the officers getting new vests this week, he said there will be a hefty bill five years from now when those vests are replaced. He said grants might be available to help off-set the expense.

Although many of the vests cost around $700, depending on the type of team an officer is working with, some protective armor costs around $1,800.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for more than 30 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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