Police bulletproof vest manufacturer accused of failing to disclose flaws

The nation’s largest supplier of bulletproof vests for police knew for years the material used to make its lightweight vests could weaken with exposure to fluorescent light, but failed to tell its customers, Pennsylvania’s attorney general said Tuesday.
Attorney General Jerry Pappert blamed the lightweight vests’ failure for the death of a police officer in Oceanside, Calif., and the wounding of an officer in suburban Pittsburgh. Both shootings happened in June 2003.
In a civil lawsuit filed in Commonwealth Court, the state is demanding Second Chance Body Armor Inc., of Central Lake, Mich., pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in civil penalties and give refunds to Pennsylvania law enforcement agencies that bought the lightweight vests.
Tyrone’s police chief Joseph Beachem said his department spent about $850 for one of the vests.
“I agree with the lawsuit,” said Beachem. “(The vests) are rather expensive and you expect to see results.”
The vests ranged in price from $600 to $1,100 and came with a five-year warranty, the attorney general’s office said.
A call to the Bellwood Borough Police for their reaction was not returned this morning.
Second Chance president and chief executive officer Paul Banducci said in a statement the company had not seen the lawsuit. But he added that Second Chance has properly handled the issues, voluntarily replacing or upgrading thousands of vests.
Pennsylvania is the sixth state to file such a lawsuit against Second Chance. Second Chance sold more than 7,200 of the lightweight vests worth nearly $5 million to 200 law enforcement agencies around Pennsylvania, including to the state police, Pappert said.
Second Chance discontinued production of the lightweight vests in September, Pappert said.
The lightweight vests, going by the names Ultima, Ultimax and Tri-Flex, used Zylon fibers — a material produced by Toyobo Co. of Japan — that made the body armor lighter and more comfortable.
But in December 1998, Toyobo informed Second Chance that the material significantly deteriorated with exposure to fluorescent light, Pappert said.
The attorney general’s lawsuit included a copy of a facsimile in which an official from Toyobo’s research center advised Second Chance officials to keep the Zylon in a box and not expose the fabric to factory light for too long.
In August 2001, Toyobo officials told Second Chance that heat and humidity tests resulted in more problems, Pappert said.
“It’s our position that Second Chance made a conscious decision to hold off warning our law enforcement officials that degradation problems with Zylon in bulletproof vests could seriously compromise their effectiveness,” Pappert said.
Standing alongside members of law enforcement at the Allegheny County Fraternal Order of Police headquarters in the Pittsburgh suburb of West Homestead, Pappert Tuesday displayed a blown-up copy of a December 2001 memorandum Second Chance’s research director allegedly sent to the company’s president. The memo urged Second Chance officials to “immediately notify our customers of the degradation problems we are experiencing.”
“Lives and our credibility are at stake,” the memo said.
Many law enforcement agencies have returned the lightweight vests to the company in exchange for replacements or have received panels from Second Chance that can be inserted into the vests, according to the attorney general’s office.
But Pappert’s office also accused the company of offering some customers free replacement vests while charging other customers for replacement equipment.