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AG to sue maker of police vests

Defects put officers at risk, Reilly says

Saying 5,000 police officers statewide may be "at risk of physical harm or even death," Massachusetts Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly plans to file suit today against the manufacturer of a popular bulletproof vest that may not stop gunfire.

"Officers who put their lives on the line every day must be able to trust the equipment they use to protect themselves," Reilly said yesterday in a statement. "We are taking this action to correct the problem with these vests and assure that our officers have the best possible equipment."

Reilly said he intends to file suit today in Suffolk Superior Court against Second Chance Body Armor Inc., of Central Lake, Mich., which in September notified its customers that it had stopped selling two widely worn models, the Ultima and Ultimax, because they could "wear out faster than expected."

An estimated 600 Massachusetts state troopers wear the $900 vests, which come with a five-year warranty. Officers in dozens of local police departments, including Newton, Waltham, Walpole, Cambridge, Wellesley, Lexington, and Quincy, also wear them. Boston police wear a different vest.

In the 15-page suit, Reilly is asking the company to replace the vests or make "full restitution." He also is seeking damages of up to $5,000 per violation, court costs, and legal fees.

Meanwhile most officers are still wearing the vests because their communities lack the money to replace them, according to the Massachusetts State Police Chiefs Association.

"You have a defective product here," said Plainville Police Chief Edward Merrick, president of the 60-member group. "We want the vests replaced, or we want our money back so we can buy new ones."

Second Chance disclosed the potential problem with its vests within months after two police officers -- one in Pennsylvania and another in California -- were killed or seriously injured when shot with their vest on.

Oceanside, Calif., officer Anthony Zeppetella was killed June 13 after being shot 14 times -- three times in the vest. Two bullets penetrated the vest. One of those shots was likely fatal, according to an autopsy performed by the San Diego medical examiner.

Ten days later, on June 23, Officer Edward Limbacher of Forest Hills, Pa., was seriously wounded in the stomach while wearing his vest. He is still home recovering from his wounds, said his lawyer, Romel Nicholas.

"This is frightening," said Plainville's Merrick, who suggests that many officers do not know that at least two vests have failed. "There are so many still out there. The cleanest thing would be for municipalities to bite the bullet and appropriate thousands of dollars for each (new) vest."

Second Chance won't say how many of the lightweight, easy-to-wear vests it has sold. But some competitors estimate there could be as many as 150,000 worn nationwide by officers every day.

Meanwhile, Second Chance has been deluged with requests by officers across the country for refunds or replacements.

A class action suit has already been filed on behalf of officers in Georgia, according to Reilly's office.

But so far, Second Chance has offered only partial restitution. The company has offered two layers of additional fabric as a remedy, or replacement vests at a discounted price of $329. They also have offered a rebate that varies with the vest's age.

"Second Chance supports anything that will ensure officers' safety," company spokesman Gregg Smith said in a recent interview. "That's what we have maintained all along."

Smith could not be reached yesterday for comment on the lawsuit.

Nearly two weeks ago, two US senators asked Attorney General John Ashcroft to investigate and possibly ban the vest. Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy and Colorado Republican Ben Nighthorse Campbell, who in 1998 started a program to reimburse officers who purchase bulletproof vests, said they were outraged that police officers' safety may be on the line.

"Our police officers deserve better than this," Leahy said in a statement to the Globe. "I expect the attorney general to take this just as seriously as we do."

Department of Justice spokeswoman Angela Harless said the US attorney general's office is already investigating the matter and will respond to the senators.

Second Chance insists that it is the only manufacturer to acknowledge a problem that affects not only their vests but those sold by other companies. The problem, they say, is with Zylon, the material the vests are made of and which the company has been using for at least 10 years. The material supplanted Kevlar as the primary component of several manufacturers' vests several years ago because the fiber could be molded into lighter, thinner body armor.

Smith said Second Chance started testing used vests in 2001 after the Japanese manufacturer of Zylon acknowledged the fibers can deteriorate under extreme heat and humidity.

The Japanese company, Toyobo, last month said it stands behind its product and is "deeply concerned" that some Second Chance vests wear out before their 60-month warranty expires.

Reilly also plans to sue Toyobo, whose officials couldn't be reached yesterday for comment.

Other companies that sell Zylon vests have refused to comment publicly but have told their customers their vests are safe.

The president of one body armor company, however, said he refused to manufacturer Zylon vests -- even though it cost him major contracts -- because he feared the material was unsafe.

"We did our own testing," said Stephen Armellino, president of California-based US Armor Corporation. "We never had consistent test data. Every once in a while, you have a situation where you have trauma or penetration in something that consistently stops bullets. When we worked with Zylon, we saw much too much of that."

"The fiber degrades, whether it's being used in ballistics or not. In good conscience, I couldn't sell it."

In January, US Armor explained its position to the Los Angeles Police Department, which was buying new vests. LAPD bought the Second Chance vests, he said.

Reilly said yesterday that while the lawsuit proceeds, cities and towns should take their own steps to protect their officers. He did not make specific recommendations.

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