McBride says the answer to the question "How do we get more officers to wear their vests?" is a leadership question.
Just as police chiefs would not let their officers patrol the street wearing sandals or just boxers, he says chiefs should not let officers patrol without wearing their vests.
McBride, who was chief of the Ashland (Ky.) Police Department from 1979 to 1999, says agencies need to have a written policy mandating wear.
But even in agencies with mandated wear, there are officers who don't always wear their vests -- that's why he says agencies need to "inspect for what they expect." Often he hears agencies have a policy but no one ever checks for compliance.
"We have to stop thinking of body armor as being part of an officer's uniform," he suggests. "It's equipment -- it's the defensive portion of the officer's weapons system that keeps officers in the fight when bad times break out, which they do all too frequently."
The Bureau of Justice Assistance/Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) report in 2009 found 59 percent of agencies require officers to wear body armor at least some of the time. The BJA/PERF Body Armor National Survey: Protecting the Nation's Law Enforcement Officers is based on the response of a nationally representative sample of the country's nearly 17,000 law enforcement agencies, of which 80 percent, or 782, responded. PERF says perhaps the research team's most encouraging finding is 99 percent of survey respondents said they ensure body armor is made available to their officers. To help ensure officers actually wear their body armor as much as possible, the report suggests agencies make further improvements in policy and practice. The report suggests agencies provide more controls on the fitting of armor to individual officers and maintenance of armor, and do periodic inspections to ensure the armor is in good condition.
The National Fraternal Order of Police (NFOP) also strongly encourages the use of body armor by law enforcement officers, says Rick Weisman, NFOP director of labor services. Weisman adds, "The issue of making vest wear mandatory is a subject of collective bargaining, in most states that provide for that bargaining."
Management has the right to require officers to wear soft body armor while on duty, according to the Americans for Effective Law Enforcement report in the May 2010 AELE monthly Law Journal. Although AELE adds, "If officers are covered by a bargaining agreement and have been permitted to wear the armor over a duty shirt, management will probably have to bargain a new requirement to have officers wear armor under a duty shirt."
Equipping officers for the job
The AELE report also says, "Oddly, there is no known litigation over whether management must furnish ballistic vests to officers at no employee cost." In Washington State, a 2006 Department of Labor and Industries standard says body armor is personal protective equipment and must be furnished to peace officers by the employer. AELE urges officers to insist that agencies provide and pay for ballistic vests.
Ontario's Police Services Act outlines minimum police equipment standards. Soft body armor is standard issue for all police services in the province, and all police services are required to have policies mandating wear. Officers may wear a vest under their uniform or externally. Since 2003, even operational plain clothes officers must wear soft body armor at all times while on duty.
One of North America's largest police agencies, OPP equips more than 5,900 uniform members and 833 auxiliary officers. For OPP, Sgt. Pierre Chamberland, the agency's media relations coordinator, describes wearing body armor has moved beyond a policy issue to being part of the standard uniform. He says, "The steadfast adherence to policy implementation, coupled with the full support we received from senior management and the employee bargaining unit led to the culture shift."