Police snap up US offer of body armour

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HUNDREDS of British police officers are applying for free second hand bullet proof vests donated by American enforcement agents concerned at the lack of protection offered to their colleagues overseas.

In less than a week about 700 officers from most forces in the country have requested the American body armour, which protects the wearing from all handguns and most knife thrusts, despite some of it being more than five years old.

The clamour for the vests highlights the growing demand among rank and file police officers for better protection against the growing number of gun and knife attacks. The move has also revealed a rift between officers and their trade body, the Police Federation, who have refused to back the initiative because of fears that the American cast-offs may be substandard or damaged.

The first shipment of body armour is due to arrive at Heathrow next week where it will be stockpiled and later distributed. Individual officers in different forces are acting as liaison officer to run the schemes, which have no official backing. There has been a particularly strong demand for the vests from officers in the Metropolitan Police, Merseyside and Greater Manchester.

Accusations that the untested vests may provide false security have been dismissed by the schemes organisers and rank and file police officers.

PC Steve Ilott, from Thames Valley police force, in a letter to the magazine Police Review, wrote: '. . .I'm sure most officers would agree that a second hand vest is certainly better than no vest at all. This offer is a kick in the teeth for the (Police) Federation and the Government who have failed to give us adequate protection. If this has come in the form of hand-me downs from the States then so be it. We should feel ashamed.'

Another officer said: 'At the moment you are asked to go out on the street to face guns and knives with nothing more than a long piece of wood to protect you.'

The initiative was started several weeks ago by Detective Constable Jum McNulty of Strathclyde police who told a lieutenant in the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police via an international computer noticeboard that body armour was not standard issue for British officers. Within days DC McNulty was inundated with offers from officers in America and Canada to send their vests and in some cases those of their whole departments when they were replaced. The 400 vests have a recommended life span of about 10 years but are usually replaced at three to five year intervals.

Each British police officer who accepts the gift of a vest in the Partners in Safety scheme has to sign a disclaimer which states: 'I understand. . .the vest is designed to provide some measure of protection from firearms but guarantees no protection against other weapons, including knives. . .' The vests have not been approved by the Home Office or any police force.

Some of the equipment is being given in response to a promotion by a US armour manufacturer that has offered to give a dollars 100 credit against a new vest to every American officer who sends his or her current one to the scheme in Britain.

DC McNulty said: 'I have had hundreds of calls from officers wanting the vests - there's obviously a huge demand for extra protection. American officers I have spoken to cannot understand why we do not already have them.'

The use of body armour by police officers is gaining support. The Metropolitan Police is already testing bullet and knife proof vests at 10 police stations in response to the growing number of attacks on officers and Sir Paul Condon, the forces' Commissioner, has said he would provide body armour once a suitable model has been identified. Vests are already available for officers who want them in the Northumbria force.

The Home Office does not recommend a single type of vest and a spokeswoman said it was up to individual Chief Constables to provide their officers with protection.

Officers are already able to privately buy protective clothing, including bullet proof vests, which cost from about 400, and gloves, costing about 25, from companies which often advertise in police magazines.

A spokeswoman for the Police Federation, which represents officers up to and including Chief Inspectors, said: 'We should not be in the business of using second hand body armour which has not been officially approved. More resources should be made available for new equipment to protect officers.'