Published 12:00 am Monday, March 7, 2005

‘Providing protection for those who protect us all’

Fundraising begins to replace vests for St. John sheriff’s deputies



LAPLACE – St. John Sheriff’s Office Lt. Craig Gommel will never forget the day in 1996 when he got a call for the pursuit of a robber.

He and his partner literally flew down the road in LaPlace chasing the suspect, eventually stopping and finding themselves in a gunfight.

The result was that Gommel was hit twice, and his partner was killed.

Neither officer had bulletproof vests on at the time, and the day Gommel was ready to go back to work after recovering from his injuries, it was his mother who wrote a check so that he could get a bulletproof vest.

Since that time, St. John Sheriff Wayne Jones has made bulletproof vests a priority in his department, but it is a cost that is not in the annual budget and needs to be raised every five years to keep the vests in proper condition.

For that reason, the St. John Parish Sheriff’s Office and L’Observateur are joining together in heading up a fundraising drive to provide bullet-proof vests for all law enforcement officers here in the parish.

Current bullet-proof vests being used by the Sheriff’s Office are eight years old, which puts them three years past what the life expectancy of the vests are, according to Jones.

“We are well past the point of needing to get new vests,” Jones said. “We had a drive in 1996, but now those vests are well past the point of needing to be replaced, not to mention the fact we have more deputies on the streets who need them.”

The Sheriff’s Office has already been approved for a federal grant for the vests, but that only pays for half of the cost.

Jones said that the department now needs 175 vests at a cost of $427 each, meaning there is a total of nearly $75,000 needed.

The Sheriff’s Office is setting a goal of $40,000 in the drive, which would help to also fund the carriers needed to put the vests in.

“We try to have two carriers for each

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officer,” he said. “That is the part that holds the Kevlar material which provides the protection.”

Jones wants to provide vests for all patrolmen in the traffic and felony divisions, as well as the corrections officers.

While the advantages of the vests are obvious for officers on the street, Jones said they go even further for the families of those law enforcement officers.

“The vests certainly give a sense of security for the officers, but more than that, it helps the family to feel safer and know that the officer should return home safe each day from work to the wife and kids,” he explained. “In today’s society, people naturally understand the difficult task of law enforcement, and the fact that it is much tougher than it was 20 years ago. We want these vests for all of our officers since you never know when a life-threatening situation will come up.”

Jones said these newer vests should be good for seven years.

L’Observateur will recognize those who donate to the fund in different ways. A donation of $5,000 or more will mean a front page picture with Sheriff Jones; a donation of $1,000 or more will mean a picture with Sheriff Jones that will be published in the paper; and all other donations will be acknowledged at the end of a drive on a full page ad to be donated by L’Observateur.

Additionally, the sheriff holds a post-campaign banquet when he honors those who gave to the fund.

“We hope we will get good support all the way from big business to the smallest donation. Every check for even $5 helps add up to make sure we have all our officers protected.”

Those who would like to donate should make checks out to “St. John Sheriff’s Vest Fund,” and send them to the St. John Sheriff’s Office, 1801 W. Airline Hwy., LaPlace, La., 70068.