"Bulletproof" is a misnomer. The correct term for ballistic armor is "bullet resistant" because there are bullets and ordnance that can defeat almost every level of armor. But it's the best protection we've got out there.
In my last column, I discussed the alarming statistic that fully one third of police killed weren't wearing body armor. While I don't have any figures to prove it, I strongly suspect the vast majority of SWAT teams today are armored up.
Yet, I suspect that not all teams feel the same way about what constitutes armoring up.
To gain more insight into the world of SWAT and armor, it is beneficial to step back in time to the beginning—of both SWAT and armor.
My department's original tactical vests weighed in at 65 pounds with all attachments—50 pounds without them. We called them "turtle vests," since if you fell wearing one, you couldn't get up without help. As ballistic as they might have been, their weight made them a cumbersome liability.
Since then, ballistic equipment has made tremendous strides in protection and comfort. The industry has been working feverishly to come up with that elusive ideal blend of protection and comfort. This debate contributes greatly to SWAT attitudes toward the type of armor they use.
Protection vs. Mobility
I'm a believer in the more ballistic protection, the better—without compromising mobility. For patrol, this means concealable body armor. For SWAT, this means full coverage tactical vests with plate(s), groin and arm protection, helmets, shields, and Armored Rescue Vehicles, along with "ballistic" eye protection, gloves, knee/elbow protection, and boots.
When it comes to individual armor—for both SWAT and patrol—I'm a believer in mandatory wear policies, rigorously enforced. For shields and ARVs, each team should decide its own deployment policy. Most SWAT teams follow these guidelines already.
I've talked with a few teams and trainers who believe in mobility over protection, so they advocate SWAT team members wear only the minimum protection (i.e., personal body armor). Their rationale is SWAT should always be able to overwhelm any opponent through speed and surprise.
But I question whether these advocates have ever been in real-world shootings. To think speed and surprise can work 100 percent of the time is unrealistic at best and downright dangerous at worst. And such thinking will very likely end up getting someone hurt or worse.
Ask anyone who's been involved in actual shootings, and they'll almost universally tell you the more protection, the better. If anyone doubts this, let them get caught out in the open when bullets are flying.
However, when it comes to SWAT, I'm preaching to the choir. You already know to wear your ballistic protection. But here's where it starts getting tricky. Does your team mandate wearing tactical vests? With plate(s)? Helmets? Or does your team leave it up to individual discretion? I advocate SWAT teams having mandatory wear policies.
While I'm a strong believer in ballistic shields and ARVs, I view their deployment as situational. That is, up to the team to decide when, where, who, and how they should be deployed.
For SWAT members' non-SWAT, non hazardous duties, personal body armor is acceptable—but also mandatory. After all, you're SWAT, and you need to lead by example. And you never know if or when something will happen.
Now for non-ballistic protection.
Ballistic Eye Protection
I recommend mandatory wear. The eyes are extremely vulnerable to injury and damage, and we only have the two we were born with. Today's protective eyewear is both "ballistic" and "cool," and even available in prescription. No excuse not to mandate eye protection.
Highly recommended, prevents a lot of injuries, especially knees. I'm somewhat flexible with regard to mandatory wear for knee/elbow protection. I always wore them on SWAT missions—that is, after I sustained a serious knee injury. Live and learn.
Another mandatory wear item most SWAT operators are already voluntarily wearing. Given the hazards (hostile, accidents, and health) SWAT operators face, combined with the user-friendly glove enhancements, common sense dictates wearing hand protection on SWAT missions.
I almost hesitate to include boots on this list, because today boots are considered standard footwear not only in SWAT, but also patrol. But the simple fact is boots prevent injuries, including the most common of all: sprained ankles.
Protection Always Wins
Ballistic protection has a single purpose: keeping YOU alive and injury free so you can accomplish your mission. The way I feel about the protection vs. comfort issue is protection wins every time. Period.
The ballistic industry continues to make great improvements in protection and comfort levels. Especially for high-risk operations—whether police or military—requiring ballistic protection is a no-brainer.
If anyone doubts this rationale, all you have to do is watch the nightly news on TV, and you'll see our nation's military in 100-plus-degree desert heat wearing their full-coverage ballistic vests and helmets. If the military can wear theirs, police can wear ours. No excuses.