JARRELL, Texas (KXAN) - Police officers at some of the smallest Central Texas departments are gambling with secondhand, expired or ill-fitting protective vests.
The Jarrell Police Department is one agency where older vests are commonplace. By any measure, it's a small police department - a couple of patrol cars shared by just a dozen officers. Most of them are volunteer reserves. The department was formed six years ago to watch over a growing community about 40 miles north of Austin.
Part time Officer Crystal Smolen, who earns about $15 an hour, paid out-of-pocket for not only her gun belt, but her bullet-resistant vest. That vest, is secondhand from Austin's police department.
While it looks new, it's only months away from the end of the five-year lifespan it was designed for. But this rookie officer says it's better than an oversized man's vest she wore for the first nine months on the job in Jarrell. And she's not alone.
Smolen's supervisor, Lt. Roger Thompson says new protective vests are a luxury in this tiny city. He says limited tax dollars don't always find their way to law enforcement.
"If it's something that we get to the point where we can put it in the budget or something, we will. But right now, we're making it work," Thompson told KXAN.
Thompson showed another tired-looking vest, one he wore for five years. It's still his backup and he is confident it will still stop a bullet.
Yet even Thompson's "new" duty vest, another hand-me-down, has its own problems.
"Basically, it just doesn't form fit to me. It sticks out a little bit," he said, adding that the vest "could do better."
Major crime is all but nonexistent within the Jarrell city limits. But the wild card for the officers who serve this community is part of their patrol area that takes in a seven-mile stretch of Interstate 35 where 60,000 vehicles move through every day.
"We have some really great citizens here," Thompson said. "But sometimes people stop off and do things they shouldn't do."
He recalls three to four incidents where officers' lives were in danger. And unlike Williamson County's sheriff's office and larger agencies, there's no SWAT team. We showed some pictures (see slideshow above) of those used protective vests to Jarrell grocery store clerk, Rosa Iqbal. She was astounded to learn this is what her local peace officers were wearing everyday.
"I always thought they had the best, suitable for them and everything, but God, they're not safe at all," she told KXAN News.
But in a not-always sleepy town, these cops say they find safety and comfort in their training. They say constant preparation helps give them an edge in an armed confrontation. And then there's the altruistic-sounding philosophy of 'putting citizens first.'
Officer Smolen told KXAN News, "In the heat of the moment, you don't think of your life over a citizen's life, it's always to protect our citizens and to go out and stop whatever threat or to assist in any way that we can."
Last year, those same people in Jarrell wanted to express their gratitude. They raised several hundred dollars for officers to buy new protective vests. But with new ones running up to a thousand dollars each, there just wasn't enough cash. The officers decided that money should instead go to another local charity.
Before that, another charity bid failed when a donor backed out.
There are national police vest charities, like vestforlife.com but also a long line of officers waiting for new gear. One group that KXAN News reached out to said it has helped Central Texas agencies before, but won't reveal which ones citing confidentiality concerns.
Department of Justice figures show 59 of the 160 officers killed in 2010 were shot during violent encounters; a 20 percent increase over 2009 numbers. The DOJ site does not offer a break-down of which were wearing body vests which cannot protect an officer's head, neck or extremities.
But the DOJ maintains a subsidy program, the Bulletproof Vest Partnership that allows slightly larger, more established cities to offset the cost of new bulletproof vests.
In 2010, Central Texas police departments received more than 2.8 million dollars to buy nearly 13-hundred vests. Austin received the lion's share at nearly 200 thousand dollars which helped acquire 996 vests. Williamson County was able to buy 90 vests, San Marcos got 51, Round Rock bought 50. Even tiny Lago Vista City received a subsidy for four.
Jarrell's police chief has yet to apply for the DOJ subsidy, citing other priorities for every spare dollar in an annual budget game.
Unlike police training standards that are compulsory and set at the state level, police salaries and budgets are left up to local lawmakers. The option of contracting regular services from a county sheriff's office or other urban agency often proves too expensive.
So for the smallest Central Texas towns, it becomes a battle of decisions -- keep a basic police department on the roads -- or have none at all.
With her job as district attorney potentially on the line, Rosemary Lehmberg called her behavior towards deputies "totally inappropriate" the night she was arrested for Driving While Intoxicated.
On Tuesday, Capital Metro will roll out it's new MetroRapid fleet and run multiple tests gearing up for its January 2014 debut.
The Austin Parks Department board will vote on a new design for Auditorium Shores that expands a proposed off leash dog park area by one acre.
A Texas woman is expected to plead guilty to sending ricin-laced letters to President Barack Obama and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
An 8-year-old was killed while standing outside of a vehicle which lost control during the icy conditions, DPS said.
Democrats say they finally hold a statewide office again in Texas — thanks to a Republican who's switching sides.