In Kentucky, the Ashland Police Department is, for the most part, an agency with mandatory vest wear. Any officers hired after October 1995, were hired with the understanding that they would wear their agency-issued vest. Those hired before that date, must at least keep their body armor close by. After 15 years of officer attrition, Maj. Todd Kelley, Ashland PD field operations division commander, says most officers now fall under the mandatory wear policy. Ashland PD provides two carriers: one white and one dark (black or blue) and a ballistic panel, which are replaced according to manufacturers' specifications.
Setting a mandate for new hires and providing the equipment for the officers have been key to the policy's success.
"I think if an agency mandates equipment, the agency needs to provide the equipment," he says.
The Bureau of Justice Assistance Bulletproof Vest Partnership (BVP) can help. BVP reimburses agencies up to half the cost of eligible vests, which can be priced at more than $500. In 2009, funds totaling $22,720,316 were awarded to 3,927 jurisdictions.
To the latest generation of police officers Kelley has observed it would seem more upsetting if agencies don't provide officers vests. They seem to accept soft body armor is part of a police officer's equipment, he says.
"Our policy lets officers know that we, as a department, are looking after our employees," he says.
Even with an agency policy in place, there can be officers who don't always wear their vests.
Lt. Adrienne Quigley is a member of the Arlington Co. (Va.) Police Department (where vest wear is not yet mandatory but a policy is in the works) and has looked at police injuries and what can be done to eliminate them while she was an IACP fellow and worked on the SafeShield project. She created materials including a poster for the Vests Save Lives campaign to promote vest wear.
Quigley says, "Officers' attitudes can be changed primarily through education." When officers understand why wearing a vest is important, she says they wear their vest.
As a 14-year veteran of law enforcement who always wears her vest, Quigley emphasizes there are no excuses for not wearing one.
Reduce sweating and spending
Those who complain about body armor say it's hot and restrictive, and to some extent, the extra, protective layer, by its nature, may always be that way.
Recently more U.S. agencies have been considering external vests, worn over uniforms, to increase comfort and take some of the weight off the gun belt as equipment typically carried on the gun belt can be placed on the vest.
Manufacturers, like Point Blank/PACA Body Armor, continue working to improve comfort by:
- Evaluating new ballistic fiber sources to engineer next-generation hybrids to achieve the optimal combination of weight, thinness and performance.
- Incorporating Outlast heat management technology into the outer carriers. With Outlast technology, testing shows a reduction of sweat up to 70 percent, compared to a carrier without Outlast, thus making the vest more responsive to an officer's work environment and providing additional comfort throughout the work day.
- Tailoring designs to meet specific form, fit and function needs of both male and female officers.
- Providing additional protection against other non-lethal threats. (Point Blank's ThorShield technology provides electroshock weapon protection.)
"Our primary goal is to make officers as comfortable as possible so they want to wear their vests," says Michael Foreman, Point Blank Solutions senior vice president of domestic and international sales.
Point Blank is working to reduce vest weight by 20 to 30 percent, though Foreman, who has 36 years law enforcement experience, emphasizes weight does not equate to comfort -- vest thickness and flexibility also are important.
Capt. Travis Yates, a member of the Tulsa (Ok.) PD for 16 years and law enforcement safety advocate, says, until every officer is wearing a bullet-resistant vest, everyone is accountable and must strive for 100 percent wear.
He begins with officers: "Those of us in law enforcement have no business operating in the mind-set of what 'normally' occurs. If we did that, there would be no reason to carry guns. The majority of officers reading this article will never have a need for their weapon on duty, but we carry guns to be safe on calls. For that same reason, we have to wear our vest. We do this because of what might happen, because of what we know could happen. We owe our family and everyone around us the peace of mind that we will do everything we can to be safe, and that includes wearing a ballistic vest."