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Most police departments require their officers to wear body armor for one big reason – the equipment saves lives. Between 2009-2018 there were over half a million assaults on law enforcement officials, according to data from the FBI’s LEOKA (Law Enforcement Officers Killed & Assaulted). Over 500 of these attacks resulted in felonious deaths.
Of these deaths, 93 percent involved firearms, making the need for ballistic protection imperative.
But police officers aren’t the only public safety professionals that need body armor. Depending on the job, the threat level protection of body armor will vary. When choosing the right equipment police officers and others must follow department requirements, as well as consider the threats they may encounter.
How Body Armor Works
Body armor typically refers to a type of vest that protects the torso’s vital organs. But protection is available for the head, legs, arms, groin and more.
It’s important to note that body armor is not “bulletproof.” It’s bullet-resistant. This is because ballistic vests can only slow down the bullet’s impact. How the impact is absorbed depends on the threat level (IIA, II, IIIA, III or IV) and type of armor worn: soft or hard armor.
Soft armor is designed to protect against handgun assaults and consists of threat levels IIA (9mm FMJ & .40 S&W FMJ), II (9mm FMJ & .357 Magnum SJHP) and IIIA (.357 SIG FMJ & .44 Magnum SJHP).
Hard armor is designed to protect against rifle rounds and consists of threat levels IIIA (.357 SIG FMJ & .44 Magnum SJHP), III (7.62mm, (M80)) and IV (.30 caliber Armor Piercing Rifle Round (M2 AP)).
Choosing Body Armor
There are many factors to consider when picking the best body armor for the job. The most important being what threats you’re likely to face in your specific department. Here is a quick list of the types of armor a public safety professional may wear based on their role.
The area in which an officer is patrolling will largely determine what level of protection is needed. For example, an officer working in a big city is more likely to face an assailant with a handgun (typically a 9mm), than an officer in a small town.
At a minimum, soft body armor with a threat level of IIA, II or IIIA should be worn. It’s also important that the level of protection an officer’s armor provides can withstand the caliber of their own handgun in the case that they’re disarmed by their assailant.
The types of threats a corrections officer faces will differ from a police officer working in the field. This is because they’re within close proximity to dangerous individuals in confined spaces. It’s unlikely a prisoner will get their hands on a firearm. But an attack from a blunt or sharp object poses significant risks.
For these reasons, having stab armor with some level of spike resistance (1,2 or 3) will help decrease the chances of being stabbed in any vital organs of the torso.
When working undercover or in covert situations, it’s important that an officer wears the right protective gear without drawing attention to themselves. The best way to ensure this is by wearing a light-colored convert vest that blends in underneath plain clothing.
These vests are designed to be as thin as possible without hindering its ability to protect against the majority of handgun bullets. In most cases, its recommended to go with a level IIIA covert vest for protection not only against 9mm bullets, but specific rounds at close range as well.
SWAT/TACTICAL OPERATIONS TEAMS
SWAT and tactical operations teams are sent into extreme situations where the chances of coming under attack are high. With high-caliber weapons and unknown assailants involved, SWAT teams are required to wear hard armor with a protection level of III or IV.
These types of vests are bulkier and much heavier than lower-level vests, but provide the necessary protection needed in a hostile environment. If there’s a chance armor-piercing rifle rounds are involved, a level IV vest may be more suitable, but that’s situation dependent.
Proper Body Armor Maintenance
Having the right armor is crucial to an officer’s safety, but without proper maintenance, that armor can be rendered useless. All armor eventually breaks down, but the speed at which it does will depend on the way it’s being used, stored and maintained by the officer.
All armor worn by officers is compliant with NIJ (National Institute of Justice) standard 0101.06 and requires the manufacturer to provide recommended care instructions on the back of the armor panel.
These instructions must be followed to maintain the vest’s maximum ballistic performance, as well as regularly inspecting, cleaning and storing the armor properly.
Inspection. Always check for cuts, tears, separation in the stitching, sealing problems and cracks in hard armor plates. Also, check the condition of the plate label for any signs of excessive wear or illegible writing. If this occurs, it’s time for a replacement plate.
Cleaning. Plate carriers should be hand washed once a week to ensure that the panels won’t fail if they’re ever struck. Never dry clean, machine wash or machine dry the plate carrier and panels unless instructed by the manufacturer. Detergents and solvents should also be avoided when cleaning the armor panels.
When cleaning armor panels remove the plates from the carrier and gently wipe the outer panel with cold water using a damp cloth or sponge, then lay them flat to air-dry indoors. Abstain from submerging, rinsing or spraying the plates in water.
When cleaning plate carriers, the detachable straps and fasteners must first be removed before cleaning (if not removable, lay them in a secure position). Thoroughly rinse the carrier by hand with cold water and a delicate fabric detergent, then air-dry indoors.
Storage. When storing armor, it’s important to lay it flat in a dry, shaded area at room temperature. Never hang the carrier by the straps. This causes them to stretch out over time and sit incorrectly on the user. Also, avoid storing the armor in a low airflow area or extremely hot/cold environment.
About the Author:
Lauren Hoyt is a marketing specialist for Galls, LLC, a leading provider of police and public safety uniforms. For over 50 years, Galls has serviced the needs of America’s public safety professionals with a full range of duty gear and apparel from top brands, as well as uniform fittings and customizations.