This gift will stay close to officers' hearts

This gift will stay close to officers' hearts

Tolono Police Chief Rick Raney was a little skeptical but overwhelmingly grateful for the gifts given his seven-member police force Thursday by the Police Support Association of Champaign County.

He was in the office in the morning when police sergeants Matt Rivers (Urbana) and Jeff Vercler (Champaign County Sheriff's Office) rolled up with seven heavy-duty armored vests designed to protect officers dealing with an active shooter.

"I didn't know they were even going to give those to us. We probably wouldn't have even thought of it," Raney said. "For smaller agencies, armor plating is pretty expensive."

After asking "How much is this going to cost me?" and learning that the answer was nothing, Raney got pretty excited.

"It's much appreciated that they are thinking of us," he said.

That's exactly what Rivers, a founder of the support group, had in mind.

Last fall, he and fellow officers and their spouses from across the county started the group with the idea of providing emotional support to each other, especially for smaller departments with fewer officers.

They developed a wish list of things that police could use but can't necessarily afford, then set about raising money for them. The body armor was at the top of the list.

"The people of Champaign County made this happen," said Rivers, crediting Stevie Jay, owner of Stevie Jay Broadcasting in Urbana, as a major contributor to the effort. "We raised somewhere in the neighborhood of $9,000."

That amount allowed the association to buy more of the vests, referred to as plate carriers, than they had initially planned, from Tucson, Ariz.-based Spartan Armor Systems.

The Champaign County Sheriff's Office and the Rantoul Police Department had budgeted to buy their own plate carriers and were able to piggyback onto the association's order for a total of 125.

Because of the size of the order, Rivers said Spartan gave the group a good discount. He declined to list the bottom-line price, calling an order of 125 vests "a big, big deal."

Receiving the body armor for free from the association on Thursday were the Tolono, Fisher, Ludlow, Gifford, Thomasboro, Homer and Parkland College police departments.

The sheriff's office and Rantoul also took delivery of their vests — 57 for the sheriff's office and 30 for Rantoul — on Thursday.

Weighing 22 pounds, the vests are pulled on over the officer's head, wrap all the way around the upper torso to protect all the major organs, and are firmly secured with Velcro.

"These you would put on ... when you have someone actively shooting and you need to respond with something better than the armor we have. Eventually, the goal is to get one for each officer (in the county)," Rivers said.

"At the suggestion of the board, we wanted to get the armor on the people furthest from the hospital, so that's why agencies like Ludlow and Homer are getting theirs first," Rivers said.

Rivers, Vercler and a few other area officers who have had SWAT training gathered at the Illinois Law Enforcement Agency System in Urbana Thursday morning to load the vests on to a U-Haul, which the officers used to deliver them.

The first order of business was figuring out how to load the metal plates into the vests, then getting them on correctly, not exactly a snap given the weight and the number of pieces that need to be secured.

"These are the kinds of things that ride in your car. You throw it on over your uniform. It adds another layer of protection that officers don't have unless they've bought their own," Rivers said.

Capt. Shane Cook was among the sheriff's employees helping to unload their shipment at the sheriff's office on Main Street in Urbana.

"Obviously, with the type of incidents forcing law enforcement to react differently, this is very beneficial. It helps us in our mindset that we are able to get an additional safety measure in place for our troops," he said.

"Violence toward officers seems to have increased," Cook said.

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