Northern Panhandle sheriff's departments voiced approval of recently enacted legislation requiring departments statewide to provide deputies with bullet-resistant vests, a practice all six local offices have been in step with for years.
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin signed the bill, which takes effect July 1. Delegate Bob Ashley, R-Roane, was the bill's lead sponsor.
Ashley's constituent, Roane County sheriff's Deputy John Westfall, was wearing body armor in August when he was shot by a man who earlier killed two West Virginia State Police troopers. The suspect was killed. Westfall borrowed the vest from the Spencer Police Department, where he also was employed as an officer.
Vests have a shelf life and must be replaced about every five years, which raised funding concerns for sheriff's departments in smaller counties. The law encourages sheriffs and county commissions to seek federal funding for the vests, which local law enforcement seconded.
Ohio County Sheriff Pat Butler said half the cost of the vests issued to his deputies is covered by federal grants, while the county commission pays the other half. Although he is not sure if the newly enacted legislation will impact how his department finances the body armor, Butler said he is a proponent of the law.
"Any time you can help a county sheriff's department, whether it's to educate or protect deputies, I'm absolutely in favor of it," he said.
Federal grants also cover half the cost of vests for deputies in Marshall County while the commission pays the remainder, according to Sheriff Kevin Cecil, who served as chief deputy prior to taking office in January. Cecil described the legislation as "excellent," saying a ballistic vest is something every law enforcement officer in the field needs.
Hancock County Sheriff Ralph Fletcher pointed out that while a vest's limited life is financially demanding, the law was formed for the sake of deputy safety.
"Many departments, including the Hancock County Sheriff's Department, have already provided their officers with bulletproof vests," Fletcher said. "This legislation absolutely will help smaller sheriff's departments throughout the state make their deputies much safer."
Even if none of the cost was covered by grant money, Brooke County Sheriff Chuck Jackson said he would still ensure each of his deputies would have a personal vest in the field.
"I think a vest is one of the primary things a law enforcement officer needs," Jackson said. "In this day and age, every officer should have one."
Tyler County sheriff's Sgt. Shannon Huffman said that department purchased a new vest for each of its six deputies this spring. Each vest cost around $1,500, and except for about $750 in total grant money, the Tyler County Commission picked up the tab.
Huffman said the department has equipped its deputies with vests throughout his career.
"I've been doing this job for almost nine years, and I would never work a day without a bulletproof vest on," Huffman declared. "At the end of the day I want to go home, and a bulletproof vest is the way to make sure that happens."
Wetzel County Chief Deputy Mike Koontz, who recently was appointed to his position, said the department has provided deputies with vests for most of his 20-year career.
The commission has been responsible for purchasing the vests some years, while grant money has covered the full cost in others, according to Koontz.