CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The shooting deaths of two state troopers in Clay County last month has prompted talks about whether police cruisers should have protective screens to separate officers from suspects in custody.
But what's not being discussed -- at least not publicly -- is this: The West Virginia State Police ordered 550 security screens in 2006, but never used the bulk of them, according to records and interviews.
State Police started installing the barriers in cruisers in late May that year, but abruptly stopped after former Gov. Joe Manchin ordered then-Superintendent Dave Lemmon to reverse a previous directive to put in the security screens, Lemmon confirmed this week.
"My goal was to put them in all patrol cars," Lemmon said in a telephone interview. "[Manchin] wanted them to be optional. I didn't agree, but he was the governor."
Manchin, now a U.S. Senator, said Tuesday he had a good reason for allowing troopers to decide whether to use protective screens, which were not bulletproof.
"When it came to the barriers, I heard far more complaints than positive comments," Manchin said in a prepared statement. "Troopers told me they obstructed their vision and ability to operate in the car, and that they didn't provide sufficient additional safety benefits."
Before Manchin intervened, Lemmon had authorized the purchase of the 4-gauge, vinyl-coated wire screens and issued a notice to install them. "It was a blanket order," Lemmon recalled.
But weeks later, after some troopers complained, Manchin called Lemmon and directed the superintendent to make the protective screens optional.
"He made the decision on it," Lemmon said. "I tried to talk him out of it. But he was the governor, and that was his way of doing things."
Most state troopers subsequently elected not to have the barriers put in their vehicles. Officers had complained that the screens impeded their view while backing up their cruisers. Others said the protective screens didn't allow the front seat to slide back far enough, limiting leg room.
"We had some complaints filtering up," Lemmon said.
Two state troopers died last month after an Oak Hill man, who sat in their cruiser's back seat, shot them in the back of the head. The patrol car did not have a security screen.
The security barriers purchased by State Police in 2006 likely wouldn't have stopped the bullets that killed the officers. The screens weren't made of bulletproof material. The barriers also had 2-inch gaps between the wires, enough space to stick a gun through and fire a bullet.
In bid documents, State Police also requested clear, plastic shields that would cover at least two-thirds of the protective wire screens. But it's unclear whether the state purchased the polycarbonate "hocker stopper" shields.
In his statement, Manchin said he made it a priority to ensure troopers "had the best equipment, the best training, the best of everything ... so they could protect themselves and the public."
"Working with the State Police, my administration made the barriers optional for troopers, based on personal preference and experience -- just like bulletproof vests," he said.