Body armor—no other piece of law enforcement safety equipment has made such a fundamental difference in officer safety. Not only has body armor saved the lives of nearly 4,000 U.S. LEOs, in many cases it has allowed those officers to go on the offensive and triumph over their opponents. I've had the privilege of meeting and interviewing many vest saves and I'm absolutely convinced that the widespread use of body armor is one of the primary reasons that officer deaths by gunfire are down so significantly.
The dramatic decline in death by gunfire is unprecedented in the history of U.S. law enforcement and, considering the huge increase in the number of guns being sold, it's unlikely that it's due to any legislative actions commonly referred to as "gun control."
According to the Officer Down Memorial Page (www.ODMP.org), 30 officers died last year as the result of gunfire (non-accidental). That's a sobering number, but go back 30 years to a time when armor was less frequently worn and here's what you'll find: 81 in 1983; 92 in 1982; 93 in 1981. Go back to 1973 when almost no one had armor and you'll find this terrible number: 144.
Keeping on the Pressure
The decline in gunfire deaths coincides with a significant increase in the wear of body armor. Why are we seeing more officers wearing body armor? Sharing credit is a combination of better product offerings, better training, mandatory wear polices, funding assistance and a general recognition that armor works.
There's no good excuse not to wear armor these days. That's why "Wear your vest" is a core tenet of Below 100, the Law Officer initiative designed to drive down LODDs to fewer than 100 per year (www.Below100.com). That's a number not seen since 1943. During Below 100 training, we spend about 20% of the time discussing armor and we always stress this point: Armor works, but only if you wear it.
Remarkably, the benefits of armor extend well beyond gunfire. Just last week I learned of an officer who was involved in a serious car crash where an elk came through the windshield. One of the antlers struck him dead center in the chest, actually putting a dent in the trauma plate. Perhaps this story as much as any other serves to underscore that armor really can save your life, if you wear it.
If you think that you'll keep it handy and put it on if the situation warrants it, you're using fools' logic. Of all the vest-save interviews I've done, none had any advance warning or opportunity to access armor. Make it a given: If you're recognizable as a law enforcement officer, you're wearing armor.
At the recent Shooting, Hunting, Outdoor Trade (SHOT) Show, I had the opportunity to examine some of the new products being offered by different manufacturers. I was astounded at how far the technology has advanced. There's no comparison with the armor that I first saw in the 1970s and started wearing in 1980. In my opinion, the new products are game changing, providing a higher level of protection with less bulk and greater flexibility at price points that are lower than ever.
Today's armor is often a mixture of fiber components that complement each other to provide a degree of protection, durability and flexibility unlike anything seen before. So what are these amazing fibers and who makes them?
Four different fibers make up the majority of today's body armor. Perhaps the best known is Kevlar, a product of Dupont. There is a fairly similar product called Twaron that is manufactured by Teijin. Both Kevlar and Twaron are para-aramid synthetic fibers. This is a technical term based on the chemical composition and physical properties of the fibers.
Also in widespread use are Dyneema, manufactured by DSM, and Spectra, manufactured by Honeywell. Both Dyneema and Spectra are composed of ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene, making them extremely lightweight and strong. Pound for pound, Kevlar and Twaron exhibit strength approximately five times that of steel. Dyneema and Spectra come in at a level approximately 15 times that of steel.
There's more involved than just strength, though, and that's why armor manufacturers have to be both scientists and artists, continually seeking the holy grail of ultimate stopping capability with incredible flexibility and minimal weight. The fact that there are multiple fibers capable of being used in body armors is actually a real benefit to the officer in the field because vest manufacturers can combine or layer materials so as to maximize the benefits. It also means there is competition, which spurs product development and price benefit for the end-user.
The Armor Manufacturers
Over the past few years there has been a lot of consolidation within the body armor industry. Some names from the past are now grouped under a larger corporation. Then there are some relatively new standalone manufacturers that have their own product offerings with specific features or specializations.
The two heavy-hitters in body armor are the Safariland Group and Point Blank Enterprises. Both have long histories serving law enforcement and have proven themselves over the years. In fact, Safariland has been making law enforcement products for more than 50 years and the founder, Neale Perkins, played a key role in getting body armor into mainstream law enforcement. The other "heavyweight" is Point Blank Enterprises, which also has a long history providing products for law enforcement. In fact, the first body armor I ever wore (in 1980) was from Point Blank. The Safariland Group and Point Blank Enterprises have multiple armor companies under their respective corporate umbrellas, many of them names with a rich law enforcement heritage.
Body Armor Manufacturers
Point Blank Enterprises
Point Blank Body Armor—www.PointBlankEnterprises.com
You'll also find several manufacturers whose single-line brands merit attention with great products. See the sidebar listing of manufacturers along with their websites for more information.
There are important considerations beyond the fiber composition. Let's start with stopping power and the level of coverage that you need. The common threat levels established for soft body armor are, in order of increasing protection, Level 1, Level IIA, Level II and Level IIIA. (Note: Level III and IV armor is composed of hard plates and generally limited to tactical usage. It's capable of stopping rifle rounds but adds substantial weight and limits movement and flexibility. We'll cover Level III and IV armor in another article.)
For a long time, a Level-IIA vest was the most frequently seen on the streets because it was capable of handling common handgun rounds (like .38 special and .45 ACP) while not being overly bulky or heavy. If a department specified greater coverage, officers would often not wear their armor. Stopping almost everything out of a handgun doesn't mean much if armor isn't worn.
Things have changed significantly, both in handguns and armor. Today's handguns and ammunition produce a greater threat to officers on the street. Higher velocity, jacketed bullets and multiple hits (more common with semi-autos) present a much greater challenge to body armor. Fortunately, advances in body armor composition and design mean that officers can now get Level-IIIA coverage and not feel like they're wearing a phone book.
Today's Level IIIA protection is lighter and more comfortable than the early Level-IIA vests. This is phenomenal and would have been unheard of just a couple of years ago. If your organization hasn't given recent and active consideration to the armor worn by officers, it's time to do so. An absolute: Make sure your armor is capable of stopping the rounds carried by your officers. The reason should be obvious.
Stopping More Than Bullets
Knives have always posed a particularly deadly threat, especially in correctional environments. Some armor is better than none, but the reality is that you need "stab-resistant" armor to ensure the maximum protection if this is a concern to you.
Why won't regular body armor stop a knife attack? Traditional body armor fiber is designed to catch a bullet and force it to dump its energy once it enters a vest. Knives, on the other hand, are designed to cut fibers and can often slice right through armor that would have stopped a deadly bullet. Some companies are now offering multi-threat vests that are comprised of a combination of materials capable of both catching bullets and thwarting a knife attack.
Make sure you choose the tool that will meet your needs. But more protection generally means more bulk and you want to make sure that officers will wear their safety equipment and can function effectively. Don't just read the specs; physically check out the armor.
Research & Standards
The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) literally wrote the book on ballistic body armor and the standards set to ensure proper performance in the field. Their website (www.NIJ.gov) has extensive information on the subject, as well as the NIJ-06 standard. The NIJ-06 standard is the result of extensive research conducted after two body armor failures that were attributed to fiber degradation related to the work environment.
One of the most visible changes to armor has been the recent surge in popularity of external carriers. Since I get around the country with Below 100 training, I have the opportunity to see and hear how officers are wearing their armor. I've noticed that some areas of the country are fully engaged with external carriers while others are just beginning to talk about them. In general, warmer climates seem to be leading the way while colder areas are maintaining the status quo. The exception is Alaska where I saw external carriers everywhere. You only need to watch one segment of Alaska State Troopers to see that external carriers are the rule rather than the exception.
The move to external carriers is driven by both comfort and utility. The first factor is because external carriers can vent heat more effectively and be donned and doffed rapidly during down times. The second factor is that external carriers are designed foremost to be utilitarian. The ability to carry extra gear is not without controversy, though, resulting in some saying that these multi-purpose external carriers exacerbate the "militarized appearance" of officers.
For a much more in-depth look and discussion on this matter, check the April and September 2013 issues of Law Officer. Or go to LawOfficer.com, and keyword search "external carrier."
Weight and flexibility have definitely made today's armor more comfortable for officers but the number-one complaint of virtually every officer remains, "It's hot!" I even heard this from officers in Alaska. No matter how light or how flexible armor becomes, it will always heat against the body.
Some officers wear specialty t-shirts that have ribs designed to allow air travel underneath the armor. Many use t-shirts comprised of special wicking material that carries away moisture. For me, both of these approaches proved to be ineffective and relatively expensive. It seemed that no matter what I did, I ended up soaked in sweat at the end of my shift.
Cops are known to be inventive. "Adapt, improvise and overcome"—that's our world. Not surprisingly, there have been a couple of officers who have developed products and founded companies to address the issue of body armor and heat. My days of wearing armor are over but if I were still working the field, I would definitely consider products from the following two companies.
Cool Cop was founded by Ron Baldal while he was a working San Jose (Calif.) police officer. The original Cool Cop device uses a specialized hose and attachment to direct a vehicle's air conditioning underneath an officer's vest. Available for less than $60, this device has been popular with many officers. Now retired, Baldal has expanded his product offering and has an impressive array of products designed to reduce the heat factor for armor-wearing officers.
Jeremy Harrell, a co-founder at Cortac, served seven years with Metro Nashville (Tenn.) PD until he was injured in the line of duty. The Cortac Cooling and Trauma Attenuating Vest (CTAV) uses a combination of science and physical design to lessen both heat problems and blunt force trauma.
There's an additional reason that gunshot deaths are down. More and more officers are now prepared to save their own life or the life of a fellow officer by using a tourniquet.
Lessons learned on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan have resulted in the realization that almost any injury to an extremity is survivable if you can control the bleeding. The most effective way to do that is with a tourniquet. Like armor, these simple devices work but only if you have planned ahead and can readily access your equipment.
A conscientious approach to officer safety means a two-pronged approach. First, protect your torso with body armor. Second, be ready to self-treat an injury to an extremity with a readily-accessible tourniquet.
Wear your armor and carry a tourniquet. To borrow a line from Below 100—Remember: The life you save may be your own!
For more in-depth coverage of NIJ's 06 standard, visit www.NIJ.gov/Topics/Technology/Body-Armor
Dale Stockton is the editor in chief of Law Officer and a 32-year law enforcement veteran, having retired from Carlsbad, California PD as a captain. He is a former California POST commissioner and a graduate of the 201st FBI National Academy. He has a master's degree from the University of California School of Criminology, Law and Society. Stockton is the director of Below 100 and has presented the training to thousands of officers across the country.
Wear your vest, of course, but add plate armor to beef up protection
In a recent training seminar on school violence, Lt. Col. Dave Grossman pointed out that one of our greatest failings as human beings and as police officers is denial. Some are unwilling to accept that they're at risk. When we suffer the loss of an officer, we often hear: "I cannot believe it happened here."
Well, here is everywhere. There is no constant that defines the dangers. Big cities, small towns, highways or side streets all are points of contact with daily threats. The first step each officer can and should make is the commitment to wear soft armor every shift.
Wear your vest—of course. But there's additional protective equipment I recommend: an over the shirt/vest plate carrier with rifle impact rated plates.
Nationwide, there have been a number of attacks on officers by criminals armed with rifles. Active shooter/mass murder events illustrate the need for enhanced protection of patrol first responders.
New technology has moved protective armor plate into patrol, where in the past it was the domain of SWAT. Although soft armor is rated to stop pistol velocity impacts, high velocity rifle round protection requires Level-III or -IV-rated hard plate armor.
As a guide, Level III is rated to stop the majority of .223/5.56 rounds. Green tip 62-grain M-855 steel penetrator in 5.56 m/m and some steel core AK-type 7.62 x 39 mm rounds pose a higher threat level. Level IV is designed to stop threats up to and including .30-06 armor piercing.
Why not choose Level IV? The difference between Level-3 and -4 protection is the weight of the plates. Weight is a big factor as to whether it will be purchased and then actually used. The most current composite Level-III rifle plates weigh less than 3 lbs. per plate. As a comparison, ceramic is usually 7 lbs. or more, and steel is 12 lbs. per plate.
I was introduced to new lightweight Level-III plates at the 2013 Illinois Tactical Officers Association conference. Steve Camp of the Ravelin Group demonstrated the DKX line and it's impressive. Camp is a longtime trainer and designer, and he explained that he shot the plates with .223/5.56 mm, 7.62 x 39 mm and .30-06 150-grain ball fired in an M-1 Garand. Even with multiple hits, the plates stood up to the impacts. (See photo.)
How are plates deployed? A plate carrier, like a soft armor vest carrier, fits over the uniform with shoulder straps holding the front and rear plates in place. It's fast to get into and is easily carried in the car.
It is not realistic to work in a hard plate carrier setup throughout a regular shift. The bulk, weight, and the trapped heat is too much for everyday use. However, when the call goes out that a man with a rifle is reported or an active shooter is in a mall or school, it takes only seconds to reach across the seat and drop on the plate carrier. Further protection for the officer is the soft body armor under the carrier plates.
Pouches can be added to the carrier for additional ammunition and medical gear. A Camelback or other water carrier can be attached for needed hydration. Unlike traditional plates, these are made with Dyneema fiber and are buoyant. For those officers working around water, that's a big consideration.
Expense is always a concern. To increase buying power when dealing with various manufacturers, it's often possible to get significant discounts from their suggested retail price and look to the federal government Bulletproof Vest Partnership program for up to 50% in grant monies.
For a full review of the DKX armor test go to www.RavelinGroup.com/wordpress1/dkx-rifle-armor-max-iii-extreme-test/
For information on the Bureau of Justice Administration Bulletproof Vest Partnership program, visit www.ojp.gov/bvpbasi/
The backside of the MAX III plate after four "muzzle contact" shots. One shot each with all four cartridges. All rounds were completely absorbed within the MAX III plate! Top left .308, top right .30/06, bottom left 5.56 x 45 mm. Bottom right, 7.62 x 39 mm.