Long Island police departments are facing a reduction in federal funding for bulletproof vests, just as demand for the lifesaving equipment surges because of the growing number of illegal guns on the streets, authorities said.
More than 3,000 officers nationwide have survived shootings since the mid-1970s thanks to body armor, according to the Department of Justice, including some from Nassau and Suffolk. But congressional funding for the grant program that helps police departments buy vests has dropped by about 30 percent over the past three years, from $30 million in 2010 to $21 million in 2013, government data show.
In 2010, Long Island's two county police departments received roughly $360,000 in grants, compared with about $54,000 in 2013, records show.
The program once reimbursed police departments for half the cost of each vest. Today, the same program covers one-third of those costs and approves fewer requests, with total reimbursements dropping from 8,149 vests in 2011 to 2,621 in 2013, records show.
Local police officials and lawmakers said they are calling for a return to previous funding levels because the vests, which cost anywhere from $350 to $850 each and last about five years, are vital to officer safety.
"This critical piece of equipment is too often . . . a luxury for our police departments," said Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who called Wednesday for passage of legislation that would increase funding for bulletproof vests by a third over the next few years. "It's a recipe for keeping cops and communities safe."
The legislation, known as the Bulletproof Vest Partnership Grant Program Reauthorization Act, recently passed the Senate Judiciary Committee but was blocked on the Senate floor. Schumer said he plans to again bring it to the floor for a vote next week.
The bill, authored by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), would renew the program's charter through 2018 and increase its funding by a third. The bill also would make it easier for departments to get funding for custom-sized vests, including those for female officers.
"The Suffolk County Police Department is committed to ensuring that our officers have the best equipment available and endorses Senator Schumer's request for restoration of funding for these lifesaving vests," Suffolk County Police Deputy Chief Kevin Fallon said in a statement.
Bulletproof vests are credited with saving a number of officers lives, including one Island resident in the NYPD. In July 2012, NYPD Officer Brian Groves, 30, of Patchogue, was struck by a single bullet that nearly penetrated his protective vest during a confrontation with a gunman in a Manhattan housing project. He survived what officials said would probably have been a fatal gunshot wound had he not worn the vest.
Though wearing bulletproof vests is mandatory, Nassau County Police Officer Arthur Lopez, 29, of Babylon Village, was shot and killed during a traffic stop in Floral Park in October 2012. Officials said he was struck in the chest and was not wearing his vest.
The vests have evolved to become lighter and more effective since being developed for widespread use after the 1960s. They are made of synthetic fiber that absorbs and disperses the energy of a bullet's impact.