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Bulletproof Vest Could Add Layer of Safety for Rancho Santa Fe Patrol

TIMES STAFF WRITER

If the boys in brown uniforms have their way, there will soon be a new wrinkle on the mean streets of Rancho Santa Fe--bulletproof vests for the Ranch’s seven-man patrol force.

Today, the officers of the contracted private security firm will ask Rancho Santa Fe to buy body armor to protect them during their 24-hour patrols in the wealthy North County enclave.

At $325 apiece, the vests would be the added insurance officers need to blunt the effects of violent crime, which exists even in that high-rent neighborhood of 4,300 residents, said Matt Wellhouser, chief of the Rancho Santa Fe Patrol.

“They do have crime in Rancho Santa Fe, and we often have to respond to calls at homes where we encounter people whose criminal record or emotional background we don’t know,” he said.

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“The vests are a piece of safety equipment, just like the guns our officers carry. This isn’t the big city. But the possibility for violence is still there.”

In 10 years of patrolling the wooded covenant area, where multimillion-dollar homes dot the slopes of the San Dieguito River Valley 5 miles northeast of Del Mar, neither he nor his men have ever been wounded.

But shots have been fired, and suspects have been disarmed, he said.

“Every situation we walk into is an armed one--because we carry weapons on our hips,” said Wellhouser, referring to the standard-issue .38-caliber revolver and 9-millimeter pistols used by his patrol force.

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“FBI statistics show that 60% of police officers in this country who are wounded or killed are done so with their own weapons. They don’t keep such statistics for uniformed security people, but our duty pretty closely parallels that of the police.

“And, if we have the guns, we might as well be able to protect ourselves with the vests. They’re a safety net, and they’re just as justifiable for us as they are for any police department.”

Walt Ekard, manager of the Rancho Santa Fe Assn., says he thinks the vests are a good idea.

“In the past, we’ve been very supportive of the needs for our patrol, and this probably won’t be any different,” Ekard said. " . . . There probably won’t be much discussion on it.”

Bulletproof vests have long been standard equipment for most urban police departments. And several local security firm operators said Wednesday that, although the armored vests are not a requirement for their officers, they are useful.

“You bet they are,” said Cmdr. Roger Randall of Rancho Santa Fe Security, which provides home and office security throughout North County. “I’ve been to Vietnam, and I’ve been shot at there and here back home. And I’ll tell you what, I’d rather have the thing on than not have it.”

Mike Cea, vice president of the Deputy Sheriff’s Assn., agreed. “They are expected to respond to a number of calls that we would normally answer,” said Cea, a deputy sheriff who works out of the Encinitas substation.

“In fact, people in Rancho Santa Fe will often call their security force before they call us. So I think they’d be a good thing to have.”

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