BATON ROUGE — A bill providing funding for bulletproof vests for all peace officers in the state has stalled in a Louisiana Senate committee after unanimously passing the House.
House Bill 442, sponsored by Baton Rouge State Representative Rick Edmonds and backed by more than 50 lawmakers, essentially establishes an $8.5 million fund to provide body armor for police officers, sheriff’s deputies and all law enforcement across the state.
‘Disturbing to watch’
Former Baton Rouge Police Chief Pat Englade has been a champion of this bill. He believes that the reason the bill is stalling is because state senators want to add an amendment to the bill, which would include pay incentives for police recruitment.
“I really thought this bill was a no-brainer,” Englade told UWK. “I know this is the time of the legislature when unexpected things happen, but there’s nothing more important than the safety of our police officers.”
James Tullier, whose son Nick died six years after being critically wounded during an ambush attack on law enforcement in 2016, says he’s disappointed that the bill has stalled. Tullier has just returned from Washington, D.C., where his son’s name was inscribed on the Wall of Fallen Officers.
“It’s been very disappointing and also disturbing to watch HB 442 languish in the Louisiana Senate after passing with a unanimous vote in the House,” Tullier told UWK. “Our son died due to the lack of using a premium-grade bulletproof vest. It’s high time the state comes up for air and provides sufficient body and safety protection for our law enforcement officers.”
“They need all the protection they can get”
The bill received a glowing endorsement from the house appropriations committee before getting overwhelming support from the full house.
“When our law enforcement officers leave their home, they don’t know if they’re returning,” state representative Jason Hughes said. “We should do all we can do to keep them safe.”
Englade, Baton Rouge’s police chief from 2001 to 2005, has been pushing to get funding for what he believes is a critical tool officers need.
“Police are outgunned, and (criminals are) shooting rifles at everybody,” he said. “(Bulletproof vests) are the only thing we have that can stop them right now.”
‘Vests they were wearing…weren’t sufficient to save their lives’
During his career, Englade led the Baton Rouge Police Department through the serial killing investigations in the early 2000s and has seen a lot during his seasoned career. However, it was what happened during one of the city’s darkest days in 2016 that has fueled his passion to get HB 442 passed.
On July 17, 2016, six law enforcement officers were shot in an ambush attack. In that attack, two Baton Rouge police officers and an East Baton Rouge Parish sheriff’s deputy were killed. EBR Deputy Tullier took three bullets that day but survived until he passed in May 2022.
“Law enforcement changed completely in July of 2016,” Englade told the committee. “They vests that they were wearing, or not wearing, were not sufficient to save their lives.”
Englade, who started the Capital Area Law Enforcement Foundation, or CALEF, after the 2016 ambush, works with departments all over the state to provide life-saving vests. Since the non-profit’s inception, they have bought and given law enforcement over 2,500 vests.
Finding the money for vests
There are six grades of body armor vests. Most are made to shield against bullets from handguns or shotguns. However, few are made to stop a bullet fired from a high-powered assault rifle, and those vests cost departments more money.
According to Englade, HB 442 specifies that the vests purchased by police departments around the state be at least a level IV, a step above what officers were wearing in 2016.
Those high-quality body armor vests come with a hefty price tag. There are only a small number of vests on the market that Englade believes will protect law enforcement and they can cost upwards of $2,500 to $3,000 per vest.
“The larger departments typically have a vest allowance that they build into their budget,” Englade said, noting that he had a similar line-item in his budget when he was police chief. “But it’s the departments in smaller communities that don’t have any money allotted to that. A $2,000 vest can run up a pretty high bill.”
One of those departments that have benefited from Englade and CALEF is the Denham Springs Marshal’s Office, who also advocated for HB 442.
“I’m one of those smaller agencies with about five people, and thanks to Mr. Englade, he bought vests for my people,” Joe Shumate, a Denham Springs Marshal said. “I’m also retired from the DSPD. While there, we had two officers shot. The vest saved both of them.”
Biggest threat against officers
Firearms continue to be the most dangerous threat that law enforcement face on the streets. According to the National Institute of Justice, 92 percent of all felonious deaths of officers in the line of duty were due to firearms.
Since 1987, the International Association of Chiefs of Police says that some 3,100 officers have been saved from death or serious injury by wearing body armor. It’s a life-saving tool that a number of states, including neighboring Texas, have mandated for all law enforcement in their states. Texas passed their mandate in 2017, a year after a similar deadly police ambush that Baton Rouge experienced.
Englade says for anyone skeptical of whether the state should fund these vests, they should pay attention to Police Memorial Week in May.
“Watch these departments write the names on the wall of officers killed in the line of duty, and if that doesn’t make you change your mind I don’t know what will. In over seven years with CALEF, I’ve not had one person, black, white, green or yellow, tell me they don’t need (a vest).”
“The problem is, it all boils down to money. And you know what, you got small departments and their budgets are on manpower and paying for things like people and cars. It leaves very little else to pay for. And that’s where we’ve kind of come in and tried to fill in the holes.”