In March, citing an uptick in mass shootings and terrorist events, the Miami-Dade Police Department upgraded its officers' gear to powerful AR-15 rifles and the most up-to-date bulletproof vests on the market.
Now, eight months later, the force is clearing out thousands of its expired bulletproof vests that have piled up in storage. The old equipment won't be tossed into the garbage, though; it'll be sent to officers in the Caribbean. Last week, MDPD received approval from county commissioners to ship 2,300 expired vests to the Association of Caribbean Commissioners of Police, which represents officers in 25 Caribbean countries.
Bulletproof vests expire after about five years because heat and moisture — two things that are difficult to avoid in South Florida — break down the synthetic fibers that makes the vests effective in blocking bullets. Over time, the vests crease and become looser, leaving officers more exposed to gunfire.
So although giving expired bulletproof vests to poorer, less developed countries isn't exactly the same as donating tattered underwear to Goodwill, it's not exactly different. Still, there are entire charities dedicated to the idea that "a used vest is better than nothing."
The Armor of God Project is an Alabama-based organization that sends outdated bulletproof vests to agencies within the U.S. and abroad. Although the charity makes no guarantees, its founder says the donated vests have saved the lives of at least two officers who were shot in the chest.
"If the program saves one life, and it already has, then it's worth it," Clint Reck, a police lieutenant in Muscle Shoals, said in an interview.
Still, the practice has been somewhat controversial. Some police chiefs fear the vests won't properly fit a secondhand user, while others worry about liability.
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"I would not give, sell, or offer any used body armor, for I would fear a claim of the vests being out of date or of our providing less than safe equipment," William L. Harvey, a police chief in Ephrata, Pennsylvania, told Police Magazine .
Besides the fact that outdated vests are no longer covered by the manufacturer's warranty, in a worst-case scenario, they can lead to officers being injured and killed in the line of duty. And in some instances, widows can be denied life insurance money if their officer spouse was wearing a vest that he or she knew was expired.
A single bulletproof vest can cost $500 to $3,000, and most agencies that use outdated vests do it only because they can't afford to replace them every five years. Federal funding for vests was cut in 2012, but the president reauthorized $25 million to the program just this past May (thanks, Obama!).
New Times was unable to reach coordinators at the Association of Caribbean Commissioners of Police, but the county says in a statement that the association "has expressed its appreciation to collaborate with Miami-Dade County and the MDPD."