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What Every Police Leader Should Know About Body Armor

No other single piece of law enforcement safety equipment has more saves and sent more officers home to their families than soft body armor. The exact number of saves is unknown, but virtually everyone familiar with the issue is confident that the number is well over 3,000 officers.

That is 3,000 families, departments and communities that did not have to go through the absolutely devastating experience of losing a police officer. For those of us who have had the privilege of visiting the National Memorial, you know how sobering the experience is. Imagine if there were 3,000 more names on that wall. The cost in human suffering is virtually incalculable.

Not only has body armor saved law enforcement lives, in many situations it has allowed officers to go on the offensive and triumph over their opponent. The widespread use of body armor is one of the primary reasons that officer deaths by gunfire are down so significantly. Last year (2015), there were 39 officers who were killed by hostile gunfire. Compare that with 40 years ago (1975) when body armor was a rarity and 144 officers fell to gunfire.

Ten years later (1985), that number dropped to 75. In 1995, the gunfire loss was 70 and in 2005, it was 53. There has been a steady decline in gunfire deaths as the use of body armor has become increasingly common for uniformed patrol officers. 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 gun control laws.

Other factors such as improved tactics, the availability of advanced life support and, during the past few years, the use of tourniquets, have played a role. However, there is no denying that body armor has played a major role in driving down line-of-duty deaths.

Although body armor isn’t yet being worn by every officer, it’s become much more the rule than the exception for those in uniform. More officers are wearing body armor due to a combination of better product offerings, better training, mandatory wear polices, funding assistance, and a general recognition that armor really does work.



If you haven’t examined the ‘new’ generation of body armor, you are in for a surprise. There are noticeably better armor offerings than even five years ago. Recent developments in armor technology are capable of providing a higher level of protection with less bulk and greater flexibility at price points that are surprisingly affordable. Officers can now embrace a higher degree of protection (higher threat level) without being burdened by thick, heavy and unwieldy armor.

There are a number of important considerations when you are choosing your armor. First, select the appropriate level of protection. At a minimum, you need to have armor that will stop the ammunition that you and your fellow officers are carrying. Friendly fire or the disarmed officer’s weapon in the hand of a suspect is just as deadly as any other. So, select the threat level of body armor that is rated to stop your own duty gun and issue load.

Second, after this basic determination, consider what you know as to the environment where you work and what you would likely see on the street in terms of weaponry. With the exception of long guns, it’s possible to stop almost anything you are likely to face with today’s soft body armor.

Third, be realistic about what you will wear. Yes, it’s possible to stop almost everything—including most long guns—by donning the highest level of armor coverage. But the reality is that you won’t actually wear that vest because it will be so heavy and so cumbersome that you will be incapable of doing your basic day-to-day activities.

Any armor that is worn is better than armor left in the locker. That said, you want to make sure that coverage is adequate. Many departments allow officers to choose their level of protection within certain parameters. Before locking in, take a look at what the differences in thickness and weight are between the most common levels of coverage.

Fortunately, the new generation of armor is capable of providing approximately one step increase in coverage without increasing weight and thickness compared to previous generations of armor. Many officers and departments are opting for Level II coverage, which includes most handgun rounds, even those that are full-metal jacket with the exception of high-velocity 9mm FMJ rounds and most 44 Magnum rounds. 

To gain additional coverage, you need a Level III-A vest which, until recently, was often deemed too heavy and thick for regular wear. However, some officers are opting for the increased Level III-A protection because today’s armor technology means greater coverage with less bulk and weight. It’s strongly suggested that you do your due diligence, evaluate your options, and choose what is going to stop the majority of your threats while not being too uncomfortable. Remember, a vest not worn provides zero protection.


Fit and Care of Body Armor

Body armor must fit properly to provide maximum protection and there are some basic guidelines that apply to everyone. First, make sure you have full side-panel protection with a slight degree of overlap that permits the front panel to actually extend over the back panel. This overlap should be equal on both sides. Side coverage should extend upward sufficiently to protect the chest cavity without intruding into the armpit area, where it would cause chafing or discomfort. 

Make sure you have a slight gap (approximately 1–2 inches) between your armor and your gun belt when you are in a standing position. If you don’t, the vest will ride up when you are seated in a vehicle and will, over time, develop a curl at the bottom of the vest, which can decrease its effective coverage. Make sure you don’t wear your body armor too tight or you could experience limited range of motion and even difficulty breathing during heavy exertion like a foot pursuit.

Body armor causes increased body heat and this means perspiration which, in turn, means the user has to be able to clean the armor. In general, the focus of cleaning should be on the carrier and not the armor panels. The carrier should either be washed by hand or, if manufacturer directions allow, machine washed on a gentle cycle. If you find the need to clean the armor panels, do so by wiping them down with a damp rag.

Never use solvents, deodorizers, bleach, etc. on the panels themselves because you could actually degrade the armor. When you put the armor back into the carrier, make sure you have the panels facing the way the manufacturer intended. Failing to do so could decrease the effectiveness of the armor. When you are not wearing your armor, lay it out flat rather than placing it on a hanger. This helps to ensure the armor maintains its intended shape and will make for more comfortable wear.

If your armor no longer fits properly because it has ‘shrunk’ as you got bigger, you have two choices: 1) Get fitted with new armor for proper coverage; or 2) Get yourself back down to the size and shape when you were fitted for your current armor. Failure to do so means you’ve got areas that are not covered and you are decreasing the benefit of having body armor.


Carrier Choice

Until a couple of years ago, almost all soft body armor was worn under the uniform. Today there are external carrier options that include carriers designed to look like part of the uniform and carriers that are very overt and capable of carrying some equipment. Opinions vary significantly as to which type is more appropriate. Some police leaders dislike the tactical appearance of the load-bearing vests while others applaud their efficiency and potential for increasing comfort while decreasing injuries due to back strain.

Regardless of how you or your agency feel about external carrier options, suffice to say that an external carrier can provide increased comfort by permitting additional air flow under the armor and by allowing the armor to be quickly removed when in a secure setting. This increased degree of comfort may mean more officers will wear their armor and that’s a positive that should not be overlooked.

When choosing an external carrier, make sure you choose one that is specifically designed to work with your body armor panels. It is very important that the carrier holds the panels in the proper position over the vulnerable parts of the body so the armor can do its job.


Special Situations

Some agencies have unique challenges such as needing a stab-resistant vest for correctional settings or a vest that is capable of working with a personal flotation device for boating enforcement. One model of body armor does not necessarily fit all situations.

If you have special needs, ensure you give proper consideration to the coverage needed and talk to your supplier to ensure those needs are met. It is not acceptable to have officers working with armor that will not adequately protect them or that could further endanger them because of a unique environment.


The Role of Police Leaders

Body armor only works when it is worn and police leaders have a responsibility to ensure that this is happening.

Mandatory wear policies have become much more common since they are now a requirement of receiving funds through the DOJ Bulletproof Vest Partnership Program.

However, the term mandatory is somewhat misleading because there are ‘administrative exceptions’—those personnel who are allowed to go without armor, even when in uniform, because of their assignment. This is purportedly for those who are deemed unlikely to be in a gun battle and thus not in need of the protection afforded by a vest.

Departments have essentially made this administrative exception apply to those who have significant rank and many extend this exception to an officer who is on a training day, even if he/she is wearing a uniform and/or driving a marked unit.

Reality check: Bad guys don’t care about rank and they have no idea whether you are in a training or enforcement mode. An officer in uniform is a potential target and will be expected to engage if an incident occurs. Very few administrators actually spend their entire day sequestered within the building and, even if they do, there have been plenty of gunfights inside police facilities (three officers were murdered inside their headquarters during this past December). 

Instead of looking for a way to not wear armor, police leaders should set the example by always wearing armor when they’re in uniform. By the way, a police chief or sheriff who is in full uniform and wearing armor sends a very sobering message during a press conference. It’s a reminder to all that police work is serious business with an associated risk.

Police managers should ensure that all personnel under their command have access to quality body armor that meets their needs. Regardless of funding source, there should be a clear mandate and expectation that anyone who is working and recognizable as an officer should be protected by body armor. When necessary, leaders should hold their people accountable. It’s not fun, but it’s better to administer discipline than plan a funeral.



According to the most recent FBI Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted report, many of those who are killed in the line of duty are not wearing body armor. The 2014 LEOKA study, released October of 2015, reported that during the five-year period of 2010 through 2014 there were a total of 255 officers who were feloniously killed. Of those, 82 were not wearing armor at the time of their deaths.

We know body armor works and today’s body armor is better than anything we’ve previously seen. Take steps to make sure you and your personnel have the equipment and protection that is needed and then go the extra step to ensure it is used.


Dale Stockton is a 32-year-veteran of law enforcement, retiring as a police captain from Carlsbad, Calif. He is the executive director of the Below 100 program ( He may be reached at


Published in Law and Order, May 2016

Rating : Not Yet Rated

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