How body armor saves lives: Interpreting LEOKA data

Agencies must develop policies that vigorously encourage proper utilization of this essential equipment


One hero’s name that few police officers know is Stephanie Kwolek, the chemist who developed Kevlar while working as a chemist for DuPont in 1965. While there are now other fabric configurations, this breakthrough was a watershed event. Another name in the history of what was called the “bullet-proof” vest is Richard Davis. He is noted for working to develop more concealable body armor and demonstrating its effectiveness by shooting himself over 200 times in presentations across the country.

In my first months on patrol, each squad car had a thick ballistic vest stained by the grease and grit of the trunk where it lay ready, theoretically, to be donned prior to a gunfight. It was only after a department rabble rouser (your author) gathered support for individually issued body armor that each of our officers could wear that gear without buying their own or engaging in a tug of war at a scene over the single vest in the trunk. By that time, vests were getting more concealable and comfortable, a necessity in Missouri’s summer heat and humidity.

A 2016 report prepared for Congress revealed that an officer shot while wearing a ballistic vest is more than three times more likely to survive an attack by a firearm than without the ballistic protection. That same report acknowledges that 29 percent of officers who were wearing vests when shot were killed, but during the period studied, only one of those deaths was due to vest failure. The others were due to shots striking the murdered officer in areas of the body not covered by the vest, or by a firearm projectile that the vest was not designed to withstand.

Advances in material and design will continue in the field of body armor largely because of the military applications, with an obvious benefit to civilian law enforcement. (Photo/PoliceOne)
Advances in material and design will continue in the field of body armor largely because of the military applications, with an obvious benefit to civilian law enforcement. (Photo/PoliceOne)

In terms of clear indicators of how officers survive armed encounters, there is little comprehensive study of how many officers had their firearm out of the holster, how many were in the process of accessing their firearm, and how many were able to fire their own weapon and with what effect, especially in the many poorly reported incidents where neither an officer or suspect dies in the encounter. Given the documented increase in ambush deaths of officers, one argument for not wearing a vest – “I’ll get him first” – simply fails the common sense test.

The statistics we do have indicate that we might have a dozen fewer police funerals every year from both firearms and vehicle crash deaths, so why do we still have officers in armed encounters and vehicle crashes not wearing available protection? A 2017 report published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene examined body armor using data from the FBI LEOKA reports. Some answers to the question of failure to wear protective vests were uncovered.

Assignment differences

Most armed encounters are with uniformed patrol officers, but not exclusively. Detectives in plain clothes, management and commanders, and those on special assignment are categories of officers less likely to be wearing body armor.

Regional differences

Western law enforcement officers are more likely to wear ballistic vests than officers in the south. Whether these regional differences are climate related or cultural is not certain.

Policy differences

Most agencies have policy regarding the wearing of body armor, but it is the clarity of these policies and their consistent enforcement that appears to determine the likelihood of officers wearing vests. The more seriously agency policy and leadership regard body armor use the greater the frequency of use of protective vests.

Body differences

The older an officer is the less likely they are to wear body armor, and that reluctance increases each year. My personal experience was just the opposite. I started wearing knee pads, an athletic cup, sturdy boots, and leather gloves in addition to my vest later in my career when working patrol. Body mass index – a measure associated with obesity – is also a significant factor in who chooses to work without body armor. Non-use of vests is apparently highly correlated with fit and comfort, suggesting that female officers may be less likely to wear the armor.

The future

Advances in material and design will continue in the field of body armor largely because of the military applications, with an obvious benefit to civilian law enforcement. Care and maintenance of these materials, as well as universal availability to law enforcement, are vital to ensuring that more officers’ lives are saved. Comfort and fit are as vital as the vests’ stopping power in individual officers’ decision to consistently wear them. Agencies must develop policies that vigorously encourage proper utilization of this essential equipment.

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