Live 5 Investigates: Dozens of Lowcountry officers wearing expired bullet-proof vests

Updated: Apr. 25, 2019 at 10:57 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - A string of gunfire rained on a Berkeley County Sheriff cruiser in Huger for almost half-an-hour in February. The target was a deputy hiding behind the car to save his life.

"Knowing that body armor is there to help protect you does give you that little bit of peace of mind that there is that safety for you,” Tri-County Fraternal Order of Police President John Blackmon said.

Blackmon used to work as a deputy for the Berkeley County Sheriff's Office and as an officer with the Hanahan Police Department.

"We want to make sure our officers are protected and they have got the best equipment they can get,” Blackmon said.

But some of the vests that our officers are wearing are not the best they can get.

Records requested in February show Summerville has 26 expired bullet-proof vests and Berkeley County Sheriff’s Office has 18 vests that have expired.

"I don't really have the answer for that other than I just recently took over this program or this position about a year ago,” Berkeley County Sheriff’s Office Captain Bobby Shuler said.

Shuler is in charge of making sure those vests are replaced at Berkeley County Sheriff's Office.

Some of the vests in Berkeley County expired as early as 2012.

"You know, we have taken vests that have gone past the expiration, we've shot them and they still hold up,” Shuler said.

But some vests might not hold up if they are expired.

Companies that make bullet-proof vests say they should be replaced every five years because the vests can break down over time.

"They need to get those fixed as soon as possible,” Blackmon said. “We don't want to risk those officers lives."

Another concern about the Berkeley County vests is the company that makes them. Most of the department's new vests are made by the company Point Blank and almost all of the expired vests were manufactured by a company called Second Chance.

“A lot of it is just preference,” Shuler said. “One agency might like Second Chance, another might like Point Blank, another one might like whatever other companies are out there that are making them."

But a lawsuit against Second Chance claiming the company's bullet-proof vests were deficient was settled last year, according to records from the Department of Justice. The founder of Second Chance gave up 1.2 million dollars for that settlement after he allegedly said the vests were breaking down at a disappointing rate.

Shuler said identifying expired bullet-proof vests is the responsibility of both the sheriff’s office and the individual deputies wearing the vests, so deputies are not notified when their vest is expired.

"No, we have not reached out to them and told them that information as far as being expired,” Shuler said.

Officer-involved shootings are not uncommon in South Carolina.

In the last five years, 64 officers have been shot and six officers have died. In the Lowcountry, 15 officers were shot and one was killed.

That raises concerns about Summerville Police Department's vests. Records show 26 are expired and the department doesn't even know which company made 22 of its vests.

The expiration date on one of the vests was unknown.

"Even one is too many,” Blackmon said. “We need to get that fixed and I'm hoping that they'll be able to resolve that and maybe it's just a small oversight on their part and they're resolving it."

A spokesperson for the Berkeley County Sheriff's Office said most of the expired vests are worn by deputies who are not patrolling the streets.

But John Blackmon said as a former police officer, that still worries him.

"When you're wearing body armor... it needs to be good body armor. It doesn't need to be expired, it doesn't need to be outdated,” Blackmon said. “So, it doesn't matter who's wearing it. If they're wearing it, it needs to be good stuff."

But replacing expired bullet-proof vests costs a lot of money. Most vests in Berkeley County, for example, are about $800 each.

But Blackmon said departments should be looking for grant funding, if nothing else, because officers’ lives depend on it.

"Well, I truly hope these officers don't encounter any person with evil intent where they don't have to have a situation where that vest has to save their life,” Blackmon said. “So, hopefully they'll get them fixed before they have that situation and we don't have to go to a police funeral."

The Berkeley County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson also said all of the deputies with expired vests who patrol streets have been fitted for new ones, which have been ordered.

The spokesperson for Summerville Police Department declined multiple requests for an interview, saying the department was not interested in speaking with Live 5 News.

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