COVINGTON - The family of Newton County Deputy Wesley Atha remains extremely grateful that he escaped with his life following the recent shooting when he and fellow officer Deputy James Trent were wounded. But Atha's mother, Dawn Atha, said his family and friends decided while still at the hospital that they wanted to do something to make sure all NCSO deputies have better protection.
"The vests the county offers now are Level II. We just feel that Newton County has changed and we feel like it's very important that these guys who are out there protecting us have the Level III vests, which are the best they can get," she said.
The Covington Police Department and the neighboring Rockdale County Sheriff's Office both use Level III vests. They are bulkier, making them more uncomfortable to wear. They are tested to stop such threats as a 9mm sub-machine-gun and a .44 Magnum, and are said to give the officer better impact protection.
While the vest Atha was wearing at the time he was shot is credited with saving his life, the vest is not designed to stop a high-velocity round, she said.
"It did stop the bullet, but a .22 caliber bullet will penetrate a Level II vest," she said. "God stopped that bullet."
In fact, Atha felt the bullet hit him and it left what his mother described as a "large welt" on his back. He did not feel the one that struck his arm and did much more damage, requiring surgery.
In light of budget constraints, the Sheriff's Office has no funds to purchase better vests, so the Atha family has set about to raise in excess of $100,000 to upgrade the vests.
There are 166 mandated officers with the NCSO. Prices for the vests range from $579 to $752.76, depending on size. Atha estimates the total price tag will be $113,484.
"It's a big undertaking, but if this county will just come together, we can do this," she said.
NCSO Sheriff Ezell Brown is enthusiastic about the campaign.
"There's an old adage that says that out of every bad situation something good can come. Over the past few weeks the citizens of Newton County have proven this to be true," he said. "Following the incident resulting in two of our deputies being wounded, interested, compassionate and caring citizens have risen to the occasion. These individuals have demonstrated that we can only serve and protect when properly equipped. These citizens are ensuring that our department has the best protective gear that money can buy. They have advocated and collected funds from neighbors, businesses and community leaders to purchase state-of-the-art safety equipment. I would say just knowing you care enough to reach out on our behalf makes it a greater pleasure for our department to serve and protect. On the behalf of the Newton County Sheriff's Office, I say, 'Thank you.'"
The group has arranged for donations to be made through the NCSO and they will be tax-deductible. They are appealing to churches, civic groups and business owners, as well as individual donors.
Checks should be made payable to the Newton County Sheriff's Office and earmarked for Safety Vests & Equipment. Donations can be mailed to the NCSO in care of Sherry Dollar, 15151 Alcovy Road, Covington, GA 30014.