The Pierce County Sheriff’s Department has been fined $3,600 for equipping jail deputies with outdated protective vests that could result in disability or death.
The state Department of Labor and Industries issued a “serious” violation and levied the fine Monday. The agency said corrections deputies have been using 46 ballistic body armor vests that exceeded the manufacturer’s five-year warranty in May. The vests have an expiration date because materials in them break down over time.
The outdated vests are less than 20 percent of the vests assigned to corrections deputies and sergeants.
L&I’s citation states that using expired vests was “likely to cause injuries involving permanent severe disability or death from a gunshot wound.”
Unless the county requests more time, the Sheriff’s Department must take the outdated vests out of service by Dec. 28 to correct the violation. Sheriff Paul Pastor said Wednesday that the department is working with L&I to make sure corrections deputies in assignments requiring vests have ones that are not outdated.
“We are working with L&I to make sure we are doing the right thing by our people and keeping our people safe,” Pastor said.
Corrections deputies need vests when they take inmates to court hearings and to hospitals, the sheriff said. He said it wasn’t clear whether any deputies carrying out those duties had outdated vests.
“Everybody in the jail was not in an assignment that exposed them to a need for a ballistic vest,” Pastor said.
The Sheriff’s Department has until Dec. 19 to appeal or request an extension. The citation isn’t final until the appeal period has run its course, said L&I spokeswoman Elaine Fischer.
Pastor said Wednesday he hadn’t seen the citation.
The maximum fine L&I could have assessed is $7,000, Fischer said.
L&I’s records for the past three years show no other violations by the Sheriff’s Department.
Fischer said L&I conducted an investigation after receiving a complaint that outdated vests were being used. Brian Blowers, president of the Corrections Deputies Guild, said he filed a complaint with L&I in September after the vests had expired.
Blowers said the safety officer for the corrections bureau requested the outdated vests be replaced in June. But the sheriff’s administration told the officer then it didn’t have the money to replace the vests, Blowers said.
No one has been hurt as a result of the outdated vests, Blowers said. But they remain in service and haven’t been replaced, he said.
Each of the 266 deputies and sergeants in the corrections bureau is assigned a vest, Blowers said. Because each bullet-resistant vest costs about $600, Blowers said, it’s cheaper for the department to pay the fine than replace the vests.
“It’s very frustrating,” Blowers said. “It’s a safety issue. I hate to see anything happen.”
Corrections deputies complained to the County Council about their protective vests being outdated during hearings on budget cuts. In September, the council approved laying off 16 corrections deputies to help plug a $5 million shortfall in the jail’s budget.
In response to the deputies’ complaints, the council required that $25,000 from the jail’s budget for next year be used “solely for the replacement of non-functional or obsolete protective equipment for corrections deputies.”Steve Maynard: 253-597-8647 steve.maynard@ thenewstribune.com @TNTstevemaynard