Ballistic eyewear: See the need for safety

The risks of injury to an officer’s eyesight are present almost any time they are working, not just when qualifying with a firearm


By Sergeant (Ret.) Robert E. Bemis

In the course of their duties, law enforcement trainers occasionally hear the term “Monday morning quarterback.” Often, it is a title bestowed upon the trainer following his or her review of a serious police incident, and the subsequent actions taken as a result of that review. Because the term has negative connotations, a trainer may be reluctant to render an opinion, or suggest future corrective action in case that incites the emotions of those involved or even their uninvolved associates, who will always “have their back.” But failing to speak up is a mistake on the part of the trainer.

At the conclusion of a serious police incident, a responsible trainer has the ethical obligation to review the details of the incident for its value in training others. This review may be formally assigned by supervisors, or self-initiated by the trainer to add to his or her own general knowledge and experience.

Many types of ballistic glasses come with a variety of interchangeable lenses that provide for a quick conversion from dark to clear. (Photo/PoliceOne)
Many types of ballistic glasses come with a variety of interchangeable lenses that provide for a quick conversion from dark to clear. (Photo/PoliceOne)

During the review process, a responsible trainer seeks out information, looks at the facts and circumstances surrounding the incident, and considers both the experience level of those involved, as well as the incredible stresses that may be experienced by personnel during a critical incident.

A responsible trainer does not assign blame to the individuals involved for the sake of accountability, but rather, seeks to find the lessons that are present in virtually every incident. Regardless of the outcome, information important to officer safety MUST be relayed to others.

Take the case of a shooting incident I reviewed a few years ago (for my own general knowledge), in which two officers sustained injuries to their eyes and face from shattered glass and metal fragments when their vehicles were struck by incoming rounds. While nothing in this article is intended to find fault with the actions of those involved, or to suggest that the outcome of the incident would have been altered, it is this author’s opinion that such an incident is a prime example of the need for members to consider wearing ballistic eyewear at all times while on patrol.

An important theme in any defensive tactics, or police skills training is preparation. You don’t prepare for what will happen as much as you do for what could happen. This is the logic that justifies the use of your body armor and seat belt. It is also the logic behind the use of protective eyewear during annual weapons qualification. In recent years, military members have credited the use of ballistic eyewear with saving their vision in numerous combat situations. Go to any manufacturing plant and the use of safety glasses is not even open for discussion. You wear them – period.

So somewhere between military combat and industrial manufacturing is the occupation of police officer. The risks of injury to an officer’s eyesight are present almost any time they are working, not just when qualifying with a firearm. Aside from the aforementioned shooting incident, ballistic eyewear can protect you in a variety of situations such as:

  • Vehicle crashes with the danger of flying debris and fire;
  • Hazardous airborne substances like pepper spray, blood, saliva and other dangerous fluids;
  • TASER deployment;
  • When conducting searches in buildings or wooded areas;
  • In low-light situations at times when sunglasses would not be appropriate;
  • During incidents of physical assault.

It is difficult to anticipate every event where ballistic eyewear could help protect your eyes, but wearing glasses and not needing them is certainly better than needing them and not having them available.

Of course, there are those who will say, “Well, I’ll wear ‘em if my agency gives them to me.” To that I ask, “What else are you willing to sacrifice while you wait?” Here’s the truth: There are many items of essential equipment that you will need to get you through this difficult job, and a lot of them you will likely have to provide on your own. A word of caution though, when making an investment in your future, and especially in the future of your vision, it is not wise to go the economy route.

Although cheaper, hitting the rack at the local dollar store for anything you plan to carry on patrol is not recommended, including sunglasses or safety glasses. Many law enforcement equipment suppliers have a full line of eyewear that meets the requirements of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) or U.S. Military Standard (MIL-STD). In addition to impact resistance, other considerations when selecting eyewear should include functionality, comfort and the ability to be easily cleaned.

Many types of ballistic glasses come with a variety of interchangeable lenses that provide for a quick conversion from dark to clear. Some even have polarized or prescription lenses as needed. It is possible to find a balance between cost and quality the more you shop, but whatever you choose, remember that fashion should be the last consideration.

Give your eyes the same protection as you do the rest of your body. Invest in eyewear, put it on your face and leave it there while you work. Simply carrying glasses in your vehicle may not be enough as you can’t always rely on your ability to return to your car in an emergency. That rule should apply to all your vital equipment, issued or otherwise.

Such is the advice of an old law enforcement trainer. I’ll leave it up to you to decide if it’s responsible advice.


About the author

Sergeant (Ret.) Robert Bemis retired in 2017 as a supervisor in the Operational Training Division at the Pennsylvania State Police Academy in Hershey. With over 30 years of law enforcement experience, Sgt. Bemis spent more than a decade as a trainer specializing in officer safety, self-defense and civil disorder tactics. He is the author of “Forged in Scars & Stripes: A Trooper’s Victory Over Critical Injury.” Sgt. Bemis is currently the Director of Training at NSENA VR, a virtual reality training solution for law enforcement and corrections.

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