When the city of Columbia announced a fundraising campaign to buy bulletproof vests for its police officers, it raised the question of why a metropolitan city could not afford to provide its officers with such a crucial piece of equipment.
Well, it can.
The Columbia Police Department has enough money in its $30.2 million budget to purchase new bulletproof vests, said Deputy Chief Ruben Santiago. But the department will not decline an offer from civic groups and local businesses that offer to buy the vests. In turn, the department will spend the money originally allocated for new vests on other needs, he said.
It saves money for us that we can use in other sensitive areas, Santiago said.
Its a typical strategy for police departments, which always want more equipment, said Michael Letts, founder of InVest, a Columbia nonprofit that purchases vests for police officers across the country.
Larger law enforcement agencies use fundraisers for vests to draw community support, Letts said. If they can get public donations for vests, they can spend their regular budget dollars on other equipment, he said.
Quite frankly, vests are an emotional issue that people will support, he said.
On Monday, Mayor Steve Benjamin, Columbia Police Chief Randy Scott and John H. Sykes, founder of JHS Capital Advisors, held a press conference to announce the creation of the JHS Shield Program, a fundraiser to buy bulletproof vests for the citys police officers.
Sykess Tampa, Fla.-based company will donate a vest for each one bought by another local business. The company says it will buy up to 58 vests, which cost $545 each.
After the press conference, emails asking for donations were sent to businesses and organizations across the city. Benedict Colleges Student-Athlete Advisory Council and its athletic department were among the first to respond by donating money for one vest.
This year, the police department needs to replace 215 bulletproof vests because they are expiring. Already, a federal grant has paid for 84 new vests, and another 15 were purchased through a partnership between Wal-Mart and InVest, Lettss nonprofit.
The JHS Shield Program would fulfill the needs for this year if it successfully raises money for an additional 116 vests.
All 405 Columbia police officers have bulletproof vests, Santiago said. But the warranty, and the $1 million liability policy that goes with it, expires after five years.
Ballistic tests have proven that vests withstand bullets for 10 or 15 years, Letts said. But no police chief or sheriff wants to be the one who lets a warranty expire and then have an officer killed in the line of duty, he said.
Santiago said most police departments rotate the vests out after five years.
Even if they can stop bullets, they suffer from constant wear and tear. And a persons body shifts and changes.
The Columbia Police Department isnt the only major law enforcement agency asking for public assistance to buy bulletproof vests, Letts said. His group has bought vests for large metropolitan departments, including those in New York City and Los Angeles.
Smaller agencies often are truly strapped for money and cannot afford to buy them, Letts said.
The bottom line is they have cuts in their funding, and they have a choice, Letts said. Do they eliminate an officer? Or do they eliminate equipment? Nine times out of 10 they cut equipment.
Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said his deputies bulletproof vests are purchased through his regular operating budget, which is about $35 million annually.
I dont feel like the public should be buying us a piece of equipment when the responsibility should be mine, Lott said.
So the department doesnt solicit money for vests. But the Richland County sheriff does accept donations from people who want to buy vests. Most recently, fundraisers were held to purchase ballistic vests for the dogs in the K9 department after one was killed in the line of duty.
Eileen Canady, a spokeswoman for JHS Capital Advisors, said police fundraisers are near and dear to the company founders heart. Sykess father was a police officer in Charlotte.
JHS has a four-person office on Main Street in Columbia, and its employees decided they wanted to contribute earlier this year.
Were supporting the community, she said.
Reach Phillips at (803) 771-8307.