Just when I thought I was pretty much shock proof, I read something that let me know that I'm not. I'm talking about the October 24, 2008 USA Today article by Kevin Johnson, "Officers At Risk By Resisting Armor."
I am outraged that in 2008 so many police officers still aren't wearing body armor. It is a conclusion derived from studies by the IACP/DuPont Kevlar Survivors' Club, the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund (NLEOMF), and the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA).
Even allowing for statistical variances, these studies all point to a singular conclusion: A disturbing percentage of today's police don't wear body armor. Up to 33 percent of officers killed by gunfire in 2007, and 43 percent of the 1,671 officers who have died during the past decade, weren't wearing body armor. On the flip side, an estimated 3,050 officers' lives have been saved by body armor since 1987.
Despite body armor's proven life-saving track record, ILEETA Executive Director Ed Nowicki estimates that up to 50 percent of all officers don't wear body armor on duty. "It's like playing Russian roulette," Nowicki notes.
His concern is echoed by Jeff Fackler of the IACP/DuPont Kevlar Survivors' Club, who says an estimated 40 percent of police officers and a staggering 85 percent of prison/jail guards don't wear body armor.
How could this happen? This is 2008, not the 1970s when wearing vests was—in the words of Ed Nowicki, a survivor of six shootouts in Chicago PD—"considered chicken."
My own experiences echo Nowicki's. As one of the earliest in my department to wear a vest, I heard many sarcastic comments like, "YOU go in first; you have the vest."
In the 1970s, the prevailing attitude toward body armor was one of resistant skepticism and contempt. Over time, and thanks to the increasing numbers of "vest saves," this attitude began to change. It took years of persistent effort to reach the point today where most LE agencies issue body armor to their personnel. My department didn't do so until the mid-1990s.
Many of you may wonder what this has to do with you and SWAT. And you'd be right to ask, since most readers of this column are tactically sound and wear your armor religiously.
Yet, even within the SWAT community, there's a wide range of differing views on armor. Some teams make armor mandatory wear (as does mine), while other teams leave it up to the discretion of individual officers. I'm a fan of mandatory wear policies for SWAT.
Further debate involves the type of vest: tactical vs. personal, helmets, shields vs. none. As far as I'm concerned, the more protection the better. Ask any SWAT officer who's ever been in a deadly force confrontation. The importance of wearing armor is perhaps best illustrated by the unforgettable sight of the LAPD SWAT officer who raced to the 1997 North Hollywood bank shootout with his rifle, armor and helmet—still dressed in his gym clothes.
With the possible and rare exception of certain undercover work or inside duty that doesn't require contact with the public, there are no valid excuses for not wearing body armor. However, the "reasons" given for not wearing vests almost always have to do with 1) Comfort, 2) Cost, and 3) Denial.
1) Comfort. Yes, vests can be uncomfortable, especially in hot or humid climates. Or maybe you've "outgrown" your vest. But tell that to our military stationed in far less clement locations such as Iraq and Afghanistan. They never go out without their armor, helmets, and a heck of a lot more gear than most police (with the possible exception of SWAT).
2) Cost. Yes, vests can be costly, $500 - $1,000 each. However, there are ways to defray the cost, such as department issue, grants, and personal gifts to name a few. However, in performing a cost/benefit analysis, one can simply ask which is worth more: your life or $500?
3) Denial. As Lt. Col. Dave Grossman says, "Denial kills you twice." I suspect denial is the real reason many police don't wear armor. They've convinced themselves that "It can't/won't happen to me." This time, the stats prove them wrong. It can, and does, happen—all too often.
I find it inconceivable that in 2008 there are so many police not wearing protective vests. Body armor needs to be considered as standard and essential as the gun, badge, and uniform. Voluntary compliance only goes so far. It's time all LE agencies do the "right thing" and issue body armor to all officers (both initial and replacement vests), institute mandatory wear policies, and vigorously enforce them. Of course, a little self discipline and peer pressure wouldn't hurt.
The bottom line is: The life you save will be your own. Wear Your Vest!