Thursday, October 30, 2003

Police vests
flunk tests

The maker plans to reinforce
armor worn by more than
1,800 Hawaii officers

More than 1,800 Hawaii police officers are guarded by protective vests being recalled by the manufacturer because they may not be bulletproof.

The vests, made by Michigan-based Second Chance Body Armor Inc., use Zylon, a synthetic fiber that is advertised as stronger, lighter and more flexible than Kevlar.

Second Chance announced the recall in September after vests failed during in-house testing, the company said. Second Chance performed the tests after Zylon maker Toyobo Co. of Japan released studies showing the fiber weakens much faster than earlier studies indicated, especially when exposed to heat and humidity.

A Pennsylvania police officer was injured in June when a .40-caliber round penetrated his Second Chance Zylon vest. The officer's vest was manufactured in December. Vests are under warranty for five years.

About three-fourths, or 1,515, of the Honolulu Police Department's uniformed officers have the Zylon vests, said Michelle Yu, department spokeswoman. The rest have vests made of Kevlar.

The Hawaii County Police Department has 200 Zylon vests, said Capt. Paul Ferreira. All 128 of the Kauai Police Department's uniformed officers have Zylon vests, said Lt. Paul Kanoho. None of the Maui Police Department's vests are made of Zylon.

Second Chance is offering its customers the opportunity to trade in the Zylon vests for new ones made of a different material and a new five-year warranty.

Next year, HPD will go back to the Kevlar-based vests it had before it switched to Zylon, said Honolulu police Chief Lee Donohue. The department is hoping to begin issuing the new vests, also purchased from Second Chance, in January or February.

In the meantime, the company is sending the department Kevlar inserts for the vests. HPD will receive both the new vests and the inserts free of charge, Donohue said. The inserts could arrive as soon as a month or as late as the end of the year.

Until the inserts arrive, officers are worried they are not getting the protection they need, said Kimo Smith, chairman of the Oahu chapter of the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers.

"It's disturbing knowing what's happening on the mainland," said Smith.

Donohue said the vests have saved officers' lives in Honolulu and have protected officers not only in shootings, but also in accidents involving motorcycle officers.

"Any protection is better than none," Donohue said.

The police union took part in the decision to switch from Kevlar to Zylon in 1999, Smith said, despite other body armor manufacturers' decision not to use Zylon because of Toyobo's warning that the fiber can degrade quickly.

"That information had not been made privy to us," he said.

The union also took part in the decision to go back to the Kevlar-based vests and to insert Kevlar panels in the Zylon vests in the interim.

"If we said no, there's no way we can get 2,000 vests right away," Smith said.

Hawaii County police have also decided to install Kevlar panels into their Zylon vests, but the department is negotiating with Second Chance on how much the county will pay for new vests, Ferreira said.

Kauai police are weighing their options and meeting with SHOPO and county finance officials, Kanoho said.


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