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Body armor to be required for Kanawha sheriff's employees

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Starting Friday, almost all employees of the Kanawha County Sheriff's Department will be required to wear body armor while on duty.

"Anyone who carries a firearm for the Kanawha County Sheriff's Department is going to be required immediately to start wearing body armor," Sheriff Johnny Rutherford said.

Department personnel were expected to get a memo Friday informing them of the new policy, which requires all armed employees to wear a ballistic vest while working.

Rutherford said 80 percent or 85 percent of the department's road deputies already regularly wear their body armor. The new policy applies to deputies and personnel who have not traditionally been accustomed to wearing a vest. The list includes legal process servers, day report officers, home confinement officers and the county's three mental hygiene officers.

The policy also will apply to deputies providing security at the courthouse annex on Virginia Street. "The courthouse can be just as dangerous as anywhere else," Rutherford said.

The department already has enough vests to supply the county's 99 deputies, the sheriff and Chief Deputy Mike Rutherford. But the sheriff said he will need to buy new vests to replace some of the older vests, which must be replaced every five years.

Johnny Rutherford also said he will need to buy some vests for process servers and other personnel who have not traditionally worn body armor.

Rutherford said the vests cost about $500 each. He estimates it will cost about $16,000 to supply all the new vests the department needs.

But Rutherford said he will not ask the Kanawha County Commission for money to buy the new vests. "We'll find it in the existing budget," he said. "We have the money, it's just about putting it in the right place."

Earlier this month, deputies were involved in a shootout with a man in Pinch. The suspect opened fire on deputies, and was killed by return gunfire.

No deputies were injured in the incident, but the shootout reinforced the danger that deputies face while working. Rutherford said all the deputies on the scene of the shootout were wearing their body armor.

Rutherford said that, according to the International Association of Chiefs of Police, more than 1,200 police officers have been killed in the line of duty since the mid-1980s. They estimate 30 percent of those would have survived if they had been wearing body armor.

Ballistic vests can also help protect officers from knives, blunt force trauma and injuries from car accidents, Rutherford said. 

Sheriff's Department Capt. Sean Crosier said the ballistic vests are a lot lighter than they used to be, weighing in at 2 or 3 pounds each. But some deputies may still occasionally balk at the weight of the vests, or say they are uncomfortable to wear.

But Rutherford said safety is more important than comfort.

"The number-one priority for us is to take care of the citizens, and along with that goes the safety of the deputies," Rutherford said.

"We'd rather make them wear their vests than go to a funeral."

Reach Rusty Marks at rustymarks@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1215.


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