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Posted: October 27, 2012 9:44 p.m.

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Sheriff’s debate: Bulletproof vests funds

Did the Newton County Sheriff's Office buy Level III bulletproof vests and did it spend all the money on vests that it said it would?

Those questions have been raised by Republican sheriff's challenger Philip Bradford in the race against Democratic incumbent Sheriff Ezell Brown, who said he will not give out information about the level of bulletproof vests out of safety concerns for his officers, but did provide documentation showing how money has been spent on vests.

Level III vests
On Aug. 3 2009, deputies James Trent and Wesley Atha were both shot while responding to a standoff situation on Parker Road.

Following the shooting in which both deputies were injured and Atha was shot in the back, Atha's parents began a fundraising campaign to purchase Level III vests for deputies.

Articles from the time said that deputies were equipped with Level II bulletproof vests, but the campaign (alternatively known as the Help Protect the Ones Who Protect You and InVEST in the NCSO campaigns) was designed to purchase Level III vests. The campaign's fundraising goal was $113,000 to pay for Level III vests, which cost around $500 to $700 depending on the size, for 166 deputies. The average assumed price based on those numbers was $680.

However, in quotes from the time, it does not appear Sheriff Brown ever used the words "Level III vest."

"We can only serve and protect when properly equipped," Brown said at the time. "They are ensuring that our department has the best protective gear that money can buy. They have advocated, collected funds from neighbors, relatives, businesses and community leaders to purchase state-of-the-art safety equipment."

According to local public safety officials and online sources, Level II vests can offer similar impact protection to Level III vests, while remaining thinner and more comfortable to wear.

In a recent forum held by The Covington News and Chamber of Commerce, Bradford said the Newton County Sheriff's Office did not buy Level III vests because it bought 170 vests for around $84,548, paying $401 a piece, according to financial records. The additional cost is for vest accessories, but the vests themselves cost $401.

The total amount raised by the public campaign was $89,582.23, according to the ledger from the "Safety Vest and Equipment" fund. A purchase of $4,847 was pending as of last week for more vest-related supplies, which will leave a balance of $186.43 in the fund.

"...all of a sudden it gets where we can't talk about it anymore," Bradford said at the forum, noting that Brown did not release the level of the vests even though the level was mentioned in at least 10 newspaper articles.

"That's just like turning the dog gone fox loose in the hen house if you're going to tell every citizen what to kill your officers with," Brown responded at the forum.

Brown said he would not release the level of the vests unless a judge was to tell him he had to release that information. When asked again in a Monday interview, Brown reiterated that stance.

"All the money was used for state of the art, federally approved vests and as to the level of the vests we're not going to get in to that for the safety of the officers. I take full responsibility of that. This is not a political stunt for me or against everyone else," Brown told The News.

However, Bradford still said there was an accountability issue.

"Be transparent. Why didn't he just tell us he didn't buy Level III because they were too bulky and uncomfortable," Bradford said. "(His response) made it appear something shady was going on... I don't want to put any deputy in danger, but there should transparency and accountability."

How much total money spent?
The second issue that Bradford raised was whether all of the money raised for vests was spent on vests.

The answer is yes, but there are two separate funds at work. The $89,582.23 is comprised purely of funds donated by the public. In addition, the sheriff's office routinely receives federal Bulletproof Vest Program grants.

In 2009, the sheriff's office received a grant for up to $28,770.50 from the U.S. Department of Justice. The grant was technically for up to $57,541, but the sheriff's office had to pay for half of that cost, hence only half would be coming from the federal government.

In addition, the sheriff's office has received a $43,617 federal bulletproof vest grant in 2010 and a $7,725 one in 2011 (those are the amounts that would actually be provided by the justice department).

Lt. Keith Crum said the sheriff's office used the public money to cover its share of the cost for purchasing bulletproof vests which allowed the public money to be stretched further.

Grant records from the 2009 grant show that 150 vests were purchased with that money, but it's unclear exactly how many total vests have been purchased in the past few years, though the documents that would spell that out were not requested.

In any case, though many vests have been purchased to date, more are always being purchased because vests can generally not be reused, Crum said. Not only are vests usually tailored to fit specific officers, but they are also very personal gear. Officers frequently sweat in the vests, and it would be unsanitary to pass them on to other officers.

Finally, the reason all of the grant vest money has not been spent is that vests have a limited shelf life of three to four years, Crum said. The grant funds don't have to be used for three years, so the sheriff's office buys vests when needed instead of all at one time.

The sheriff's office did not get a Bulletproof Vest Program grant in 2012, because it still had money left over from previous grants, but Crum anticipated it would be eligible again in 2013.

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