How much is a cop’s safety worth? Despite safety concerns, due to shrinking budgets it’s becoming increasingly common for police departments to require officers to purchase their own body armor. Even when agencies pony up some money for ballistic vests, it’s usually not enough to buy the best of the best—which is what most officers want protecting them from bodily harm.
So you’ve decided to purchase your own vest or upgrade your department-issued model. How do you know what makes for a good vest? What should an officer look for in buying body armor?
Sizing Up Vests
The armor most often worn by patrol officers during the routine performance of their duties is covert—that is, concealed under the uniform so as to minimize its detection. Generally speaking, such vest wear is not designed to protect against rifle fire or sharp-edged weapons, but to counter the most likely threats officers may encounter. This includes a variety of handguns.
What makes a vest effective against such firearms is its composition, which generally includes at least one ballistic plate and specially designed fibers. What makes the fiber formidable is its ability to absorb and disperse the energy of a bullet’s impact, diffusing its power over a wide area. The bullet’s energy is dissipated as each successive layer of material in the vest absorbs its energy and causes it to deform and mushroom.
Getting Your RDA of Fiber
The tightness of the weave and the density of the thread vary dependent on the threat a vest is designed to defeat. Likewise, a fiber’s makeup dictates its mark-up: some vests are pricier than others.
Produced by spinning a solid fiber from solution, Aramid fiber is an aromatic polyamide, better known by trade names such as Kevlar (DuPont) and Twaron (Teijin Twaron). Vests made out of such materials offer a degree of flexibility for greater comfort. Vests that contain Polyethylene fibers—such as Spectra by Allied Signal or DSM’s Dyneema—offer maximum performance and minimum weight, though at a higher cost.
Many product lines include hybrid vests that offer the best of both fiber worlds. The ideal synthesis results in a product that isn’t cost preemptive, yet is strong enough to stop higher caliber rounds while retaining flexibility and comfort. Higher end vests make no pretense to such concessions: lightweight and ultra-thin, GoldFlex by Honeywell provides exceptional protection against blunt trauma but is also the most expensive.
Shop So You Don’t Drop
Studies show that wearing a protective vest increases a law enforcement officer’s survivability chances by 40 percent. But this means wearing a vest at all times while on duty. As a result, an officer needs to reconcile the realities of his work environment with his own comfort. Face it, a vest that is heavy and uncomfortable is a vest that is less likely to be worn.
When it comes to choosing a vest, consider the following:
Work environment: Heat and humidity eventually betrayed Zylon’s liabilities. But even otherwise reliable vests can become liabilities when work conditions transcend discomfort. A complaint of some emergency responders to Katrina-ravaged areas was that the humidity made the wearing of ballistic vests untenable, despite the known presence of snipers in the area. PACA’s Armor Ice features thermal management technology that allows its wearer to keep four to seven degrees cooler for extended periods of time while wearing body armor.
The original Xtreme vest from American Body Armor combines three ballistic technologies and its Cool Comfort Zone interior wicks away moisture.
Performance needs: Statistically, one in six officers killed in the line of duty are killed by their own service weapon, or that of their partner. A good rule of thumb is to purchase a vest tested to stop the weapon you, or your partner, carry. As a tactical consideration, choosing a thicker Level II or III-A over a II-A rated vest avails extra thickness, affording more blunt trauma protection and the ability to get back in the fight more quickly should your vest get struck by a suspect’s round.
If knives are a concern—and they are—Second Chance and First Choice Armor offer vests that are both ballistic resistant and stab resistant. While these vests cost more than standard vests, the added protection is worth the price.
Fit and Comfort
In addition to heat and bulkiness, other concerns that an officer should consider when buying a vest include:
• Ride-up: the vest rides up while the officer is seated
• Shirt Puckering: the ends of the vest pucker out where they meet on each side, resulting in pulling up of shirt tails and a sloppy appearance
• Carrier tears at the bottom of the vest cover
• Side wrap: full wrap around the sides maximize protection, just a small gap helps to maintain freedom of movement, and a gap on the sides provide extra ventilation and comfort. A gap is definitely preferred if heat buildup would prevent you from wearing your full-side-wrap vest.
• Color compatibility with an employing agency’s uniform
• Optional needs, such as pockets, collar/groin protectors, and strike plates
• Hidden costs: you may be charged extra for a second carrier if you’re an XXL copper. Some companies offer extended warranties (longer than five years), but you may have to return the vest for refurbishing every few years.
U.S. Armor's Enforcer XLT features DuPont Kevlar Comfort XLT and Akwadyne. It's available in male and female styles.
In light of these many concerns, making sure the vest fits is paramount. Whether getting fitted at a uniform supply store or taking your own measurements at home, don’t fudge on the inches. Here is one time where it doesn’t pay to be vain. If you suck in your gut for the tailor, you’ll have to continue doing so every day you wear your vest. Wear your uniform pants and gun belt while getting sized.
If you work outside infrequently and experience weight fluctuations, you might want to consider getting your vest replaced or retailored more frequently. On any given day, a detective can be seen hauling ass out of his precinct tossing his vest over his uniform because it no longer fits him.