Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. / Win McNamee, Getty Images
WASHINGTON - A program that helps law enforcement agencies buy bulletproof vests is stuck in an ideological battle over the government's responsibility to state and local police departments.
Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, asked the Senate on Tuesday to consider long-delayed legislation to reauthorize the Bulletproof Vest Grant Partnership Program, which he authored.
But a longtime opponent of the bill, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., objected, blocking action on the program, as he did in 2012.
Coburn said the Constitution gives the federal government no role in funding local police departments.
"It's a nice thing to do if we were in surplus," he said. "We're not in surplus."
Leahy wanted the Senate to take up the legislation ahead of National Police Week next week. After Coburn objected, Leahy announced he would hold a May 14 hearing on the program's positive impact.
Leahy said in a floor speech that legislation reauthorizing the bulletproof vest program, which his committee approved last year, has never been a partisan issue until now.
"We should not let ideology put officers' lives at risk now," he said. "We can honor the service of those who keep us safe by protecting their lives with bulletproof vests."
The program has received funding through the annual appropriations process, including $22.5 million in the bill that financed Justice Department programs for the current fiscal year. But Leahy has had trouble recently getting it reauthorized for long-term funding.
The last authorization bill for the vest program expired in 2012. Established in 1999, it has never gone this long without renewal.
Leahy's bill would authorize $105 million for the program from fiscal 2015 through fiscal 2018. During his floor speech, Leahy said the bill would improve the grant program by giving preference to law enforcement agencies seeking to buy vests for female officers.
The bill has 26 co-sponsors, but none are Republican.
"I don't know why Republican senators are blocking it, especially when we're now protecting, as we hadn't before, women police officers too," Leahy said. "I don't know how we can turn our back on both men and women as police officers."
Coburn said he supports the program's purpose, but funding it is the responsibility of states and local communities.
"Our founders were very clear," he said. "And the reason this country is in trouble is we continue to practice outside the parameters of a limited government and take away the responsibility and obligations of state and local communities."
The Bulletproof Vest Partnership Grant Program is one of two Justice Department grant programs that help state and local law enforcement agencies buy body armor. The grants cover up to half the cost of vests for law enforcement agencies that match that with their own money. Financially struggling jurisdictions can apply for waivers to the matching requirement.
The program has long been a priority for Leahy, who co-authored the original legislation after a 1997 shooting along the Vermont-New Hampshire border in which a New Hampshire man, Carl Drega, killed a judge, two state troopers and a newspaper editor before being killed by police. The state troopers did not have bulletproof vests because of the cost, according to Leahy.
The program has helped more than 13,000 state and local law enforcement agencies purchase more than 1 million vests with matching grants, according to Leahy. Protective vests are credited with saving more than 3,000 law enforcement officers' lives since 1987, he said.
The bill's supporters include the Fraternal Order of Police, International Association of Chiefs of Police, the National Sheriff's Association and the National Association of Police Organizations.
Providing for the safety of constituents is the first responsibility of elected officials at every level of government, said Jim Pasco, executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police.
"Sen. Coburn is of a mindset that public safety is best affected by posses and militias and seems to have lost sight of the fact that we have stepped into a new century," Pasco said.
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