As a member of law enforcement, you are well aware of the vast array of potential dangers you face on a daily basis. Many of those dangers are life threatening, specifically, the risk of being shot while on duty. That’s why body armor is an absolutely crucial piece of equipment to have, increasing your ability to protect yourself and avoid potentially life threatening harm.
In fact, according to the National Institute of Justice (NIJ.org), over the past three decades, “ballistic-resistant soft body armor has saved the lives of more than 3,000 police officers.”
Think about that fact: 3,000 heroes who, if not for body armor, may not be with their families today.
So what is body armor? In essence, it’s what is commonly referred to as a bulletproof vest. But as you probably know, there’s no such thing as a bullet or puncture-proof vest or armor. In effect, the most it can be is bullet-resistant.
The way body armor works is that it receives the force of the bullet and redistributes that force laterally across the rest of the armor and away from the specific point of entry.
Currently, not all police departments require that officers wear body armor when on duty. However, many do and still more are catching up with current times and requiring it.
And although, as mentioned, body armor is not bulletproof, according to a study by the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene, “officers who do not routinely wear body armor are 3.4 times more likely to suffer a fatal injury from a torso shot than officers who routinely wear body armor.”
In other words, body armor can literally be the difference between life and death.
So what should you look for when purchasing body armor?
There are two types of body armor – soft armor and hard armor. These two can also be used in conjunction with each other depending on the type of protection needed.
The first thing you need to think about and identify when shopping for body armor is the threat level you’ll likely face. Ask yourself what situations and missions you find yourself in. How much and what kind of protection do you need? Do you need something that can withstand a rifle round or a handgun? For everyday use and situations, perhaps protection from a handgun caliber will suffice. However, if you’re a member or head of a S.W.A.T. team, then you’ll want extra protection from weapons like rifles.
Another aspect to think about is active-shooter situations. With these on the rise, the added protection from rifle and higher caliber weapons is probably a wise idea.
We look to the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) as the governing body on testing the effectiveness of both soft and hard armor, as well as combinations of the two. Their work also includes testing the useful lifespan of armor and sponsoring research to improve body armor.
The NIJ is recognized worldwide for establishing standards and ratings for police body armor. Their most recent update (2008) of the Ballistic Resistance of Body Armor NIJ Standard-0101.06 includes ratings for handgun-resistant armor and hard armor for rifle and armor-piercing rounds. The higher the rating, the greater the protection afforded. Ratings are as follows:
Standalone vs In-conjunction Armor
We’ve talked about soft and hard armor, but when you combine the two it’s called in-conjunction armor. Officers often wear soft armor under their uniforms for protection from handguns. However, for larger caliber rounds like those from a rifle, a hard plate is needed in addition to the soft armor. It should be noted that when choosing in-conjunction armor, for it to be effective, the hard plate should be worn with soft armor that was tested together with the hard plate. In essence, this means that you’ll almost always want the soft and hard armor to be from the same manufacturer.
Comfort and Fit
When we talk about comfort and fit, yes we’re talking about how comfortable the armor is to wear, because if it’s uncomfortable then the chances are likely that you won’t actually wear it and thus, forgo that critical protection it offers.
But we’re also talking about how the armor fits so that it affords you maximum protection. The idea of body armor is that it protects your torso area and in turn your vital organs so as to prevent life-threatening injuries and death.
Body armor should cover and protect your front, back and sides. You want the armor to fit snugly, but so that it doesn’t hamper your movements or ride up into your throat and neck area. As you’ll often be in and out of your cruiser or kneeling and bending down for various activities, you also don’t want the armor to interfere with these movements.
Fortunately, thanks to the research and technology of manufacturers, most current body armor is very lightweight with flexible panels, so that not only are you protected, but maximum comfort is ensured as well.
The Bottom Line
Assess the threat type you and/or your department face and the situations in which you generally find yourself. Are you purchasing body armor for everyday use, or for specialized situations like S.W.A.T. and active shooter? Then match that threat level with the type of protection offered according to NIJ standards and guidelines.
And one last point. You may have noticed that we haven’t mentioned cost yet. Yes, body armor is expensive. It doesn’t necessarily make sense to purchase the most expensive piece of equipment if it doesn’t match your needs. However, this also isn’t the area in which to sacrifice quality and protection to save money. Think of it as an investment in the life and wellbeing of you and/or your department.