By Mannix Porterfield
When a criminal squeezes the trigger, the gun aimed at a law enforcement officer doesn’t have a mind of its own, and the jurisdiction he serves makes no difference once the bullet is in flight.
Mindful of that, Sen. Bill Laird, D-Fayette, is moving to make sure that all law enforcement officers across West Virginia have access to bulletproof vests.
One bill, advanced with the support of the West Virginia Sheriffs Association, would compel counties to furnish their deputies with the body armor.
A second proposal, likewise authored by Laird, would extend the same protection to others in the law enforcement profession — state and municipal.
A close brush with disaster for two police officers in Oak Hill inspired Laird to broaden the scope of his proposal so that municipalities are included.
“Whether your uniform is green, gray or blue, bullets do not discriminate,” Laird said Monday.
“Those vests are essential equipment for people in the field.”
Laird served four terms as sheriff in Fayette County and is closer to the issue than the majority of his legislative colleagues.
Through a system of grants, Laird said all his onetime deputies were equipped with the protective equipment.
“I think we have seen several instances here recently where the importance of body armor and bulletproof vests for our police officers was demonstrated,” the senator said.
“More specifically, in Oak Hill. Two officers were shot at and if it were not for their bulletproof vests, they could have been seriously injured or killed.”
Laird acknowledged that some smaller municipalities and less prosperous counties might struggle to meet the costs.
“But I feel it’s something that is essential, given the increased dangers associated with the law enforcement profession,” he said.
Laird couldn’t say what it would cost to outfit every law enforcement officer in the state, but said funds are available on a cost-sharing basis.
When it comes to human lives, he emphasized, “You can’t put a price tag on that.”
“In Oak Hill, we had two near misses, and those officers are here today because they had body armor,” he said.
Rudi Anne Kidder, executive director of the West Virginia Sheriffs Association, said her group has a fund that could be used to help counties defray the costs.
“After the tragedy last year in Clay County, we at the Sheriffs Association realized it’s vital to make sure our men and women on duty have ballistic armor,” she said.
“Right now, it’s nowhere in the code that the counties buy body armor for their deputies.”