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How to choose the right ballistic body armor for you or your agency

How should officers choose the vest that best meets their professional needs? Consider these criteria


Body armor vests, often incorrectly called "bullet proof" vests, are a necessity for today's law enforcer. Offering protection against firearm attacks, body armor can also protect the wearer from slash and knife assaults and even blunt force trauma caused by impacts with steering wheels during auto accidents.

The levels of ballistic protection offered are established by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ). The NIJ is somewhat akin to Underwriter Laboratories and sets standards and monitors quality for many items related to law enforcement.

NIJ ballistic protection standards are broken down into levels with level II and III-A being commonly used to categorize protection levels offered against many of the more common handgun rounds and some loads of 00 buck. Basically, the higher the number, the higher the level of ballistic protection.  

A member of the of the U.S. team puts on his body armor as he prepares to compete during the 6th annual Warrior Competition at King Abdullah Special Operations Training Center. (AP Image)
A member of the of the U.S. team puts on his body armor as he prepares to compete during the 6th annual Warrior Competition at King Abdullah Special Operations Training Center. (AP Image)

So how should officers choose the vest that best meets their professional needs? There are four criteria officers need to consider: 

  1. Ballistic Protection
  2. Comfort
  3. Camouflage
  4. Cost 

1. Ballistic Protection
The first consideration should be the minimal ballistic protection available which protects against the wearer's duty carry ammo. Having a vest that will offer protection against the ammo in your service weapon is critical and should not be overlooked. After this selection is made, the next level that should be considered is that which is likely to be encountered in your locale. An officer working in an inner city environment will likely have differing ballistic protection needs than a game warden in a rural setting. Be realistic with your most likely encountered threat and purchase accordingly.  

2. Comfort
Once you've decided with level of ballistic protection best meets your working environment consider comfort.

Comfort ties in directly with ballistic protection. The more protection offered, the heavier and thicker the vest. A Level III-A vest might offer an extremely high level of protection but such a vest is worthless if it is so heavy and uncomfortable it gets left hanging in the station locker room. Talk to your local uniform supply store and ask some coworkers what they're wearing and how uncomfortable the vest is after a long day on patrol.

A vest should be measured to fit your body type and weight and should be properly measured to fit you. Comfort not only includes the bulk and weight of the vest but the comfort in inclement weather. I've found a vest to offer little warmth and insulation in cold weather but one can certainly make for an uncomfortable work day when temperatures climb into the 90's! Make sure you're choosing something you know you can wear on the hottest of days.  

3. Camouflage
Camouflage is the vest's ability to blend in with uniform wear. A vest worn under a uniform shirt is the best choice for camouflage as long as the cover shirt is tailored correctly. 

A current trend is to wear the vest in some type of exterior carrier that makes the vest easy to don and doff. If you go this route, make sure the vest cover closely matches the color of your uniform.  Don't advertise the fact that you're wearing body armor just in case a potential attacker gets the idea that a head or pelvic shot might be his first course of action!  

4. Cost 
In a perfect world, an officer would be provided with a vest by the department or would receive an allotted amount to spend on such a purchase. But that's not always the case. If your agency doesn't offer some type of vest purchase program, ballistic protection can still be found for a fairly reasonable price. Just remember the NIJ standards outlined above and make sure a private purchase offers protection from your duty ammo. 

Lastly, keep in mind that ballistic vests only have about a five year service life. Chances are the vest will still perform long after the five year lifespan but there's no point in spending money on something that's going to expire in five years if you aren't going to use it! Buy wisely. Wear it daily!

For more information on body armor or ballistic protection, visit the National Institute of Justice website at: http://www.nij.gov/topics/technology/body-armor/Pages/welcome.aspx

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