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2 women raise thousands to buy bullet-proof vests for every Lewiston police officer

LEWISTON -- Two Village of Lewiston residents launched a fundraiser to buy every member of the Town of Lewiston Police Department a highly protective bullet-proof vest, and they are appealing for help in the final stretch of their $20,000 goal.

Arlene Davitt Sliz and Claudia Marasco started their quest a little more than two months ago and have been heartened by the community’s response, with $17,000 raised so far. But they’re eager to complete their project and provide more protection for the town's 22 police officers and even a police dog, Taser, who also serves village residents.

“This had been bothering me for a long time, and when the police started getting shot in Dallas, California, Kansas, and Louisiana, I thought, ‘This is moving all over the country,’ ” said Sliz, a retired art educator. “I wanted to find out if our police had good vests.”

Her friend Marasco took the question to Lewiston Police Chief Frank Previte at a Lewiston Village Board meeting, and a surprised Previte answered that his officers did not have anything beyond their “everyday vests.”

He added that something “better suitable for active shooter incidents or when the officers felt a higher threat” was long on his wish list, but not in his budget.

Pevite said the bullet-proof vests his officers now wear “are not really suitable (to protect officers) for the different types of special weapons that are being used in a lot of these incidents these days. The new vests have ceramic plates that stop a higher caliber of rounds.”

“I had been looking at this for quite a while because of the schools, since Columbine,” he said, referring to the 1999 incident at Columbine High School in Colorado that left 15 dead.

“We’re unique because we have 12 schools in our jurisdiction,” Previte said. “We’re asking officers to go into situations where they are often outgunned and underprotected. And, it’s moving away from schools and now it can be anywhere. We’re unique, too, because of our proximity to the international border and our infrastructure, with the New York State Power Authority.”

Marasco recalled that her question “opened the door to a conversation that needed to be had in this community. If a regular vest is all the police are given, we need to do better.”

Village resident Randy Haskell agreed. He gave the largest single donation, $2,000, last week through his company, Countryside Lawn Care, because he said this is a cause “near and dear” to him.

“I spent 11 years as a law enforcement firearms instructor and there is a common misconception that, ‘It can’t happen here,’” he said. “It can happen wherever you are. I wore a vest for 11 years and I know what it’s like. When I saw this, I wanted to buy two vests for them.”

Marasco said every penny donated to the project, dubbed “Invest in a Vest,” will be used to purchase vests, which may cost nearly $1,000 apiece and must be custom-fitted.

“They will give us a lot more protection,” Previte said of the new vests, which weigh about 20 pounds apiece. He added that the department already provides ballistic helmets, as well.

Previte said he has 22 full- and part-time officers in his department, not including court officers.

A retired educator, Marasco recalled that, “When I was working in the schools, we had a project called ‘Coats for Kids,’ and I draw parallels, because you wouldn’t send your child into a blizzard of snow in a thin jacket, to stand against the elements, and you don’t want to send your police into a blizzard of bullets without the adequate protection they need, either.

“If the vest is something you need and we can help you get it, we’ll do it,” she said. “We don’t want to be the community that says, ‘It couldn’t happen here.’ You have to be vigilant.”

Sliz said the idea was so popular that the project raised between $3,000 and $4,000 the first week it launched. She even had a friend from Raleigh, N.C., donate. She and Marasco have since approached local organizations for donations and placed collection jars in a handful of businesses.

They urge anyone interested in donating to write a check payable to the Village of Lewiston, Inc. with “Invest in a Vest” on the memo line and take it to the village offices at 145 N. Fourth St., open 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Thursday, and 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Fridays.

“It could be a small, medium or big donation,” Sliz said. “If people hear about this, they just want to do something.”

“We’re used to being the servants and not the takers,” said Previte. “This is overwhelming. To see the general concern of these two women and then have them take it to the point of action has been a real boost for my officers. It’s really moving and it shows the unique relationship we have with our community here.”

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