Lack of body armour puts Mounties at risk

Julian Sher
September 13, 2011
By Julian Sher
Jul 17 2011 More than six years after the shooting deaths of four RCMP officers in Mayerthorpe, Alta., stunned a nation and sparked calls for better police protection, the force has not managed to get the hard body armour that can stop long-gun ammunition to most of its front-line officers.

Jul 17 2011

More than six years after the shooting deaths of four RCMP officers in Mayerthorpe, Alta., stunned a nation and sparked calls for better police protection, the force has not managed to get the hard body armour that can stop long-gun ammunition to most of its front-line officers.

Nine of the 14 RCMP officers slain by weapons fire in recent years – including the four who died in one of the deadliest chapters in the force’s history – were killed with rifles or shotguns, which are at least three times more powerful than pistols.

The force has 19,000 regular members who are required to wear soft body armour on duty, but those vests can stop only handgun fire. So far, only 500 hard body armour vests have been issued, prompting many rank-and-file members to buy them with their own money.

“We have to be sneaky about it,” said a 26-year-old constable from the Prairies who asked not to be identified because Mounties are not supposed to use unofficial gear.

The constable said he spent $600 for what are called “Level 4” ceramic plates to protect him on patrol in the rural areas and small towns where rifles and shotguns are more common than handguns. He got them online from a company that resells Israeli military gear.

“It seems like they’re stalling,” he said of the RCMP delays. “There’s a fair amount of frustration.”

Kevin Brosseau, the RCMP’s director-general of contracting, said he has a simple message for the men and women whose lives are on the line:

“We understand your frustration, and we’re working as hard as we can to provide the protection.”

In the aftermath of the 2005 Mayerthorpe killings, internal RCMP reports and external inquires recommended much wider availability and use of hard-plated armour.

About nine months after Mayerthorpe, the RCMP material design and specification unit recommended the force “adopt a rifle plate for use by general duty members.”

That recommendation was backed in 2006 by the RCMP hazardous occurrence investigating team looking into the killings. In February, 2007, a federal government health and safety report echoed those concerns.

But in its official response at that time, the RCMP would say only that it was “evaluating a variety of possibilities to provide protection against long-gun fire.”

It took three more years before the first major shipment of hard body armour.

“There are concerns out there regarding the delays in issuing this equipment,” acknowledged Inspector Jeff Hunter of the RCMP’s critical incident program, one of the senior administrators in charge of procuring the new vests. “But it’s not as easy as going into Wal-Mart and buying these off the shelf.”

Insp. Hunter said research is “the most time-consuming” factor in the process to determine what product best suits the force’s needs.

“It has to go through stringent testing,” he said.

Another obstacle has been securing an adequate supply of hard body armour from U.S. manufacturers – the only ones that make Level 4 plates – because they are committed first to meet the demands of the U.S. military.

The RCMP say 550 hard body-armour units were finally shipped out last October, mostly to officers in the “V” and “G” divisions that cover Nunavut and the Northwest Territories.

An additional 500 vests are expected over the summer and – if a contract tender in August is successful – another 2,000 will arrive in the next year, bringing the total number of hard body-armour units to just over 3,000.

Pete Broccolo, recently retired as an RCMP constable after 35 years on the force, moderates a Web-chat forum devoted in part to “purchasing body armour.” He said there is no way to get an accurate count, but he estimated that hundreds of RCMP officers may have bought their own protection.

“No one wants to end up looking like Robocop,” he said of the uncomfortable and heavy vests that can weigh more than 10 kilograms. “But they’re concerned. You had Mayerthorpe. You know you’re going to face something – it’s the unknown.”

No police officer has any illusions that hard body armour guarantees safety. It can be too heavy and hot to wear all the time, and an officer can still be shot in the head or other unprotected area.

But the hard plates can undoubtedly save lives.

“Level 2” soft body armour – commonly known as a bullet-proof vest, although that description exaggerates the real level of protection – has been part of police gear for several years.

“Your vest is supposed to stop a gun equivalent to your sidearm – usually a .40 Smith & Wesson,” said Lawrence Thenu, who runs Line of Fire, an Edmonton-based company that develops and markets protective equipment. “All a bad guy has to do is pull a bigger gun.”

Mr. Thenu said his firm has received “a lot of phone calls and requests” for private purchases of its version of hard body protection.

The new RCMP vests won’t be issued to individual members but left in the trunks of police cruisers for rotating use. That has led to some concerns they will not fit all officers properly.

Also, the composite ceramic plates are brittle and, when tossed in and out of cars, could develop cracks that can be hard to detect but render them less effective.

In the Web forum run by BlueLine.ca, a respected law-enforcement magazine, anonymous officers swap tips about the best equipment to buy – and sometimes vent their dismay at the delays.

“Has anyone got any ideas when [these] new vests are to be issued?” asked one.

“Nothing yet,” answered another. “No surprise.”

Rank-and-file officers are also upset because some have been told that the RCMP’s insurance policy might not cover them if they are wounded in a gunfight while wearing body armour they have bought themselves.

But the young Prairie constable who got his own protective vest called that a worthwhile tradeoff.

“At least I’ll come out of it alive,” he said.

Three of the four RCMP officers killed by gunfire since the Mayerthorpe shootings in 2005 were slain by assailants using long guns:

July 7, 2006: Constable Robin Cameron, 29, and Constable Marc Bourdages, 26, were shot by a man using a Winchester rifle when they chased a car after a domestic-violence dispute near Mildred, Sask.

Nov. 5, 2007: Constable Douglas Scott, 20, was killed in the Baffin Island hamlet of Kimmirut by a man who fired a rifle through the passenger window of the officer’s car. (The Globe and Mail)

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