Address On Passage Of The Bulletproof Vest Partnership Grant Program Reauthorization Of 2019

Address of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.)
On Passage of the Bulletproof Vest Partnership
Grant Program Reauthorization of 2019<
Senate Floor
May 16, 2019

Moments ago the Senate passed legislation to permanently reauthorize the Bulletproof Vest Partnership grant program.  This is the sixth time I have worked to reauthorize this lifesaving program since Republican Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell and I authored legislation establishing it more than 20 years ago.

My role in authoring this program — and my commitment to it ever since — was in part motivated by a horrific incident a year before Senator Nighthorse Campbell and I created it. On August 19, 1997, a man named Carl Drega went on a killing spree along the Vermont and New Hampshire border. After hours of pursuit, federal, state, and local law enforcement authorities in Vermont and New Hampshire cornered Drega. In the ensuing exchange of gunfire, Drega was killed.

During the shootout, all of the federal law enforcement officers involved were wearing bulletproof vests. That includes John Pfeifer, a Vermonter and a longtime friend. John was seriously wounded while serving as a U.S. Border Patrol Agent; he later became the Chief Patrol Agent of the sector. I have always feared that had it not been for his bulletproof vest, the outcome for John and his family may have been much worse.

Some of the state and local officers involved were not as fortunate. Two New Hampshire state troopers were killed. They were not wearing bulletproof vests. I do not know whether vests would have saved their lives. Perhaps not. But I do know that no officer should have to serve without the benefit of wearing one.

That is what this program is about. I am immensely proud of it. It is the most tangible support that Congress can provide to our nation’s law enforcement officers.

To this day, for far too many jurisdictions — especially rural and smaller agencies — vests cost too much and wear out too soon. This program fills in the gap. It has provided more than 13,000 law enforcement agencies with 1.35 million vests. It has saved the lives of countless officers, several of whom have shared their stories with the Judiciary Committee during previous years. According to the Government Accountability Office, more than 3,000 officers’ lives have been saved by vests since 1987.

Just yesterday, my office received a call from the Union City Police Department in Georgia. Last month, one of its officers, Officer Jerome Turner, Jr., was shot multiple times while responding to a call. One round hit him directly in the chest, but it did not get through his bulletproof vest. When back up arrived they found Officer Turner lying on the ground. He underwent six hours of surgery, but he lived. His department called yesterday to tell me that the vest that saved his life was purchased through this program.

My staff also had a chance to talk with Officer Turner. He is still recovering. He said he is happy to be home with his family. He also said what we all know to be true: The Bulletproof Vest Partnership program is critical to ensuring officers around the country return home to their families every night.

Officer Turner knows a lot about this program — he previously served as the Chief of Police in a small town in Florida. He used this program to outfit his officers with protective vests. To keep his officers safe.

This week is National Police Week, a time for the nation to honor the many brave men and women in law enforcement who have lost their lives serving their communities. That includes 163 officers lost last year, 52 killed by gunfire. The fact that Congress has passed legislation to permanently reauthorize this program places real meaning behind our words of tribute. The legislation also increases funding for vests, as year after year only a fraction of the need is met.

This program is not now, and has never been, partisan. I am especially grateful to Senator Graham for being the lead cosponsor for both this and the last reauthorization. Last week, when our bill was being considered by the Judiciary Committee, I was humbled and more than a bit surprised when Chairman Graham offered an amendment naming the program after me. This program is personal to me, and I will always be thankful.

I also want to thank my many staff who have worked on this program for 22 years.

I am also thankful to the entire law enforcement community, which has long spoken with a single voice on this issue. In particular I would like to thank Chuck Canterbury, Jim Pasco, and Tim Richardson with the Fraternal Order of Police. The FOP has strongly supported this program from the beginning, and has been extremely helpful over its six reauthorizations.

I would also like to thank for their support the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the National Association of Police Organizations, the National Sheriffs’ Association, the Major County Sheriffs’ Association, the Major Cities Chiefs Association, the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, the National Tactical Officers Association, and the Sergeants Benevolent Association. Lastly, I would like to thank the sponsors of the House companion legislation, which the Senate just passed, Congressmen Bill Pascrell and Peter King.

Without this legislation, the Bulletproof Vest Partnership program would expire next year. Once this legislation is signed into law, it will never expire. It has already saved the lives of so many, and placed vests on the backs of well over one million officers. Now, we know that millions more officers will be protected. Millions of officers, just like Officer Turner, will be able to come home to their families.

This is the least Congress can do on behalf of our nation’s law enforcement officers. And I am glad we have done it. Now this legislation heads to the President for signature. I trust he will sign it without delay.

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