How to use body armor research to inform departmental policy

In 2012, PERF published the findings of a survey about police use of body armor – here’s how to use those findings to inform your PD’s body armor policy


In 2012, the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) published the findings of a survey funded by the U.S. DOJ asking law enforcement officers about their body armor use, care and performance in real-world conditions.

While this survey was done 10 years after NIJ Standard-0101.04, and just under four-and-a-half years after 0101.06, the survey only references revision 4.

Six years after the survey, NIJ Standard 0101.07 is about to be released, but this doesn’t mean that the survey results are obsolete. In fact, there is a substantial difference between PERF’s 2009 report on body armor and the 2012 report, which keeps the findings fresh.

In the 2009 report, PERF used data from 782 law enforcement agencies gathered in 2007. In 2012, PERF believed that by surveying over 1,000 individual officers and not agencies, they could produce findings about the cutting edge of body armor practices (actual use and officers’ attitudes about body armor), not merely the lagging indicators (written policies) – and this is the big difference between the two surveys.

One key statistic really hits home. In 2012, more than 92 percent of officers reported that they were required to wear body armor, while in 2009, only 59 percent of the responding agencies stated that wearing armor was a requirement.

Saving lives

It is proven that body armor saves lives, yet 22 percent of officers reported that their agency does not have a written body armor policy – which is required for agencies to gain body armor grants through the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Assistance.

While PoliceOne can offer grant assistance, we cannot help you gain access to funds that require a policy that you don’t have in place.

Make or update policy

If you don’t have an armor policy in place, put one in place. If you already have one in place, what does it say? Does it mandate wear only when cops feel like it? Does it tell them to wear it some of the time, like when it’s not too hot? What about inspections and maintenance of armor?

Most important, does your policy have teeth in it? It’s better to dock hours or pay if an officer refuses to his or her vest than it is to explain to their family how a survivor’s pension works.

You can download an editable sample model policy from the National Sheriffs’ Association here, and the following sections include information that should be included in your policy.

Proper care of armor

PERF’s 2012 survey found that on average, 28 percent of agencies did not provide any training on the care and maintenance of body armor. Figure 6 in the survey shows that there is no difference in 5-year-old level II and Level IIIA soft body armor that had been “soaked” in water or sweat previous to testing versus those that had not been soaked in water or sweat previous to testing.

However, it did show that there is a possible 10% reduction in the protection of 5-year-old body armor when compared to new armor. Put simply, the velocity at which 50 percent of the bullets penetrate the armor is less with used armor. This is why test round velocities for used armor are now the same as those for new armor in revision 7 of the NIJ standard.

Getting back to moisture, this reduction in protection did not vary by region. The vests performed equally regardless of the temperature/humidity in the climate in which they were reported worn by the officer. This suggests that while manufacturers recommend that vests be dried before storage, environmental factors do not play a role in the performance differences between new and old vests.

The study did not address folding of Kevlar and other modern ballistic panels, but did note that almost 58 percent of officers store their vests on a hanger not specially designed for body armor.

What does your policy say about everyday care, maintenance and replacement of ballistic panels and carriers? What do your vest’s manufacturer(s) say about their maintenance and care procedures and is your policy in in alignment – especially if you have moved to a different manufacturer or technology since your policy was written?

Fitting and refitting

The large majority of officers surveyed were fitted for their body armor. Nearly 70 percent indicated that they were fitted by manufacturer representatives or police agency representatives. Only 25 percent of officers were fitted again when the body armor was delivered.

Once refitted upon delivery, only 14.5 percent had their size checked on again. How many cops do you know who are the same weight five years later? Do you know if some cops have large side gaps because the front and back panels are now too far apart? Nearly 30 percent of officers surveyed reported being dissatisfied with the fit of their armor. Could a bad fit put them in danger when lead starts flying in their direction?

What does your policy say about initial fitting, delivery fitting and regular fit checkups, perhaps every quarter or six months?

A step in the right direction

While this was not included in the 2012 report, do you know if your armor’s ballistic panels are directional? Some are, and it is critical that the wearer ensures the ballistic panels are inserted into the carrier with the strike face facing away from your body. Improper insertion of a ballistic panel can result in serious injury or death.

Next steps

Although most officers indicated that some sort of body armor training was available, it typically came in the form of manufacturer‐provided literature or materials. Moreover, almost a quarter of officers said that they had never received any training at all. Given the important knowledge gaps cited, training must be an important part of your policy.

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