Body Armor's Role in Policing

Personal body armor is standard- issue equipment in modern day law enforcement. Like most law enforcement equipment — from firearms to ammunition—before purchasing and utilizing body armor an agency should evaluate mission needs, identify an effective procurement strategy and determine short and

and long-term maintenance requirements.

The first soft body armor that I wore was made by Second Chance, a company that was acquired by Safariland Group. Interestingly, the company was called Second Chance because of the inference that it would protect the wearer from a fatal gunshot wound and thus give the wearer a second chance in the gunfight. Ironically though, there are no second chances in a gunfight. Ballistic protection must work the first time, or, we may not have a second chance.

Ballistic protection can be broadly segmented into two categories. The first, hard body armor, is protection that stops a projectile made of steel or other similar hard materials and is designed to stop a bullet or sharp object such as a knife or ice pick. We find this type of material in carried body bunkers, ballistic shields, and in Levels III and IV personal body armor. This ballistic protection is rigid, stiff, heavy, and difficult to carry for long periods of time. The other type of ballistic protection, soft body armor, is worn by most police officers. Soft body armor is made by tightly weaving together strands of very strong material such as Kevlar or Zylon and creating a panel that can catch or trap a bullet-- thus stopping it from reaching the wearer. Soft ballistic protection can be molded and fitted so that it’s worn with relative comfort by a law enforcement officer to protect the vital areas in the body’s torso area.

“Magic” armor that will stop all caliber bullets simply doesn’t exist. Hard material could be compromised by special ammunition. Soft body armor is often more problematic because its effectiveness is limited by the both the type of material used and the material’s weave. The National Institute of Justice within the Department of Justice establishes body armor standards for the six levels of body armor, and manufacturers must demonstrate their product meets these standards.

Modern ballistic protection is wide ranging in functionality and price, and law enforcement agencies must identify their needs and then evaluate products from various companies to determine the armor that will best meet those needs. For example, an active Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) Team may need a high level of protection and may need to relinquish comfort for protection as the armor won’t be worn for long periods of time. A police officer on patrol for 10-12 hours will tolerate a bit of discomfort in exchange for protection, but if the armor is heavy and severely limits mobility, it may go unworn. Often, we see an enhancement of soft body armor by inserting a rigid plate that covers highly vital areas such as the heart and lungs. Body armor is analogous with ammunition; there is no one perfect law enforcement duty service round and there is no perfect body armor.

Body armor must be maintained properly to guarantee it will “work” the first time. Each manufacturer has specific care and maintenance instructions for their products. The lack of body armor care has become such a serious issue that often a video that discusses proper wear and maintenance accompanies the product

Body armor is expensive and a considerable line item in an agency’s budget. Today’s effective personal soft body armor costs a minimum of about one thousand dollars per unit and increases in price from there. Soft body armor isn’t transferable between officers, as it’s tailor made to fit a specific officer, so body armor reuse is nearly impossible. Body armor has a 5-year life warranted by the manufacturer and should be replaced according to those standards.

Body armor should be maintained properly so that that five-year usable life is experienced and the agency realizes maximum cost effectiveness. More importantly, proper care and maintenance will increase the likelihood that the ballistic protection will perform as expected the first time it’s needed.

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