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4 things to know to choose the body armor you need

Identify your threat level and make an informed choice using the NIJ standards for ballistic armor


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4 things to know to choose the body armor you need

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By Barry Reynolds for PoliceOne BrandFocus

Over the past 30 years, ballistic-resistant body armor has saved the lives of more than 3,000 law enforcement officers, according to the National Institute of Justice. At one time considered a luxury for those officers and agencies that could afford the cost, body armor is a vital and necessary form of personal protection for all law enforcement and corrections officers.

Body armor is vital personal protection for all law enforcement officers. A simple assessment of the most likely types of threats you will encounter on the job will help you determine the most appropriate type of armor for you. (photo/ATS Armor)
Body armor is vital personal protection for all law enforcement officers. A simple assessment of the most likely types of threats you will encounter on the job will help you determine the most appropriate type of armor for you. (photo/ATS Armor)

It is critical to select the appropriate type of body armor for your mission. There are three main types of body armor available: ballistic-resistant, stab and slash-resistant and combination armor that protects against both types of threats. In the United States, ballistic armor that protects against firearms is most widely used by patrol officers, while stab and slash-resistant is often the choice for correctional officers.

A simple assessment of the most likely types of threats you will encounter on the job will help you determine the most appropriate type of armor for you.

1. NIJ body armor performance standards

The NIJ’s standard for body armor performance is the only national standard for police body armor. The standard provides five different levels for ballistic-resistant armor. The key to understanding and applying the standard appropriately is recognizing that it is directly related to the anticipated level of threat likely to be faced by the officer.

The current standard 0101.06, most recently updated in 2008, requires rigorous compliance testing, and the 0101.07 update is anticipated by the end of 2017. (Note: The 0101.06 requirements supersede the previous 0101.04 standard, so armor certified under that standard should be considered obsolete.)

2. Ballistic standards and corresponding threats

Ballistic armor is differentiated by types of weapons and ammunition in each potential threat situation.

For handguns, levels II and IIA have been tested to provide protection against short-barreled handguns, including 9mm and .40 S&W ammunition. Threat level IIIA has been tested to provide protection against longer-barreled handguns, including .357 and .44 Magnum ammunition.

None of these levels (II, IIA and IIIA) provides protection against threats from rifles. For protection against rifles, Level III ballistic protection has been tested to stop 7.62 x 51mm FMJ (M80) lead core ammunition. Level IV, the top level of protection, has been tested to stop M2 AP .30cal armor-piercing rifle ammunition.

3. How to select appropriate body armor for your threat level

Conventional wisdom in the selection of ballistic armor says, at a minimum, always select the level of armor necessary to protect against the officer’s own weapon. This is a good starting place, but more agencies are now purchasing higher-level armor for their officers based upon the increasing likelihood of higher street-level threat situations.

Another common approach has been to select higher threat level protection for patrol and lower levels for detectives and administrative personnel based on a lower likelihood of high-level threats for those personnel.

Alternatively, rather than selecting body armor based on assignment, some agencies select body armor based on the highest potential threat level that could be faced by any member of the department after due consideration of the potential types of firearm threats that could be encountered.

Regardless of the selection method, always consult the NIJ standards and the Compliant Products List prior to selecting ballistic body armor.

4. Stand-alone armor vs. In Conjunction With armor

A final consideration in the selection and purchase of body armor is understanding the difference between stand-alone and in conjunction with, or ICW, armor.

Stand-alone armor is exactly what it says: No other protection is needed to stop the prescribed level of threat.

In conjunction with armor requires multiple pieces to provide protection against the prescribed threat level. A typical application of ICW armor is a soft armor vest of a handgun threat level (Levels II, IIA and IIIA), combined with a ballistic plate of a higher threat level to provide protection against rifle threats.

It’s important to know that ICW armor components earn NIJ certification as a single system and are not interchangeable. In order to provide full and certified protection, ICW armor components must be paired with the manufacturer-recommended companion piece of armor.

While there is no such thing as “bulletproof” armor, research has shown that officers who do not regularly wear personal body armor are 3.4 times more likely to suffer a fatal injury from a torso wound than those who do.

Armed with a thorough understanding of the NIJ standards and a proper assessment of your potential threat level in the selection process, you can choose appropriate armor that significantly reduces the likelihood of an officer receiving a serious or deadly injury.

About the author

Barry Reynolds has over 35 years of experience in the police profession, including 31 years in municipal law enforcement. He is a leadership author and instructor, and owner of Police Leadership Resources LLC, which provides leadership training and consulting to law enforcement agencies. Barry previously served as a senior training officer and the coordinator for career development programs for the Wisconsin Department of Justice, Training and Standards Bureau. Barry holds a master of science degree in management and is a certified leadership instructor.
Contact Barry Reynolds

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