The statistics bear out just how dangerous a police officer's job can be.
On average one U.S. law enforcement officer pays the ultimate sacrifice in the line of duty every 53 hours, reports the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund (NLEOMF).
That fact becomes even more staggering when one considers that the number of line-of-duty deaths has been on an uphill climb.
Line-of-duty deaths increased 13% in 2011, when 173 officers lost their lives. Of that number, 68 officers died in firearms-related incidents, reports the NLEOMF.
That's the sobering reality law enforcement officers face every time they don a uniform, holster their guns, and go out on the street.
The good news is some of these deaths can be prevented if officers wear bullet-resistant vests. According to the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), law enforcement officers who do not routinely wear body armor risk fatal injury at a rate 14 times higher than officers who do.
But though wear rates are better than they once were, PERF reports more than one-third of officers work unprotected.
Many officers do not wear their vests, saying they are too hot, too heavy, and too uncomfortable. "At the National Sheriff's Association annual trade show, an officer came up to me and said, 'I'm not wearing my vest today; it's too hot outside,'" says Matt Davis, CEO/president of Central Lake, Mich.-based Armor Express. "That's a real-world example of what happens. Comfort, heat, and weight are all things affecting officers' decisions to put on their vests each and every day."
Increasing wear rates requires a three-prong approach that includes fiber developers, bullet-resistant vest manufacturers, and law enforcement administration, stresses Mark Smith, vice president of sales and marketing at Point Blank Solutions Inc. of Cincinnati, Ohio.
"One-hundred % wear rates is the target we should shoot for because it will save lives," he says. "But achieving that 100% has to come from a joint effort that includes performance fiber manufacturers, application engineers creating ballistic packages, and police administration. If we do that and come up with products that are lighter, more comfortable, and proven to save lives, we will inch closer to that goal."
Safety Begins Locally
To date, only 60% of agencies require officers to don body armor on duty. In an effort to increase those numbers and ultimately save lives, the Bulletproof Vest Partnership, which reimburses up to 50% of a vest's purchase price, now requires agencies receiving funds to have a written mandatory wear policy for uniformed patrol officers.
"We believe that where collective bargaining is in play mandatory wear should be an issue agencies bargain for," states Chuck Canterbury, national president of the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP). "We don't have a lot of heartburn over mandatory wear policies because the bottom line is bullet-resistant vests save lives."
That being said, Canterbury warns individual agencies should be setting the mandatory wear policies, not the government. He explains blanket wear policies do not address the specific situations of individual departments.
"In the deep south, where you have officers working traffic detail in 90-degree weather, there have to be provisions for them to remove their vests. There need to be provisions for undercover officers as well," he explains. "There are scenarios that vests are just not suited for. That's why we believe mandatory wear policies should be determined at the local level."
Jeff Fackler, North American business leader for DuPont Protection Technologies, agrees. "The only way to ensure increased wear rates and to reduce injury and death is for all police agencies to have a mandatory vest-wear policy for active-duty street officers that is tailored to the needs of their respective departments."
Canterbury adds these policies should also address the types of vests needed for each geographic region. "Administrators can't just look at the low bid. They need to talk to the rank-and-file wearing these vests each day and do their homework to find the right vest for them."
Education is another important component in increasing wear rates, adds Davis. More than 3,000 police officers' lives have been saved by body armor since the mid-1970s when the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) began testing and developing body armor and performance standards for ballistic and stab resistance. The saves have been well documented but more needs to be done to ensure officers understand what wearing their vests means to them.
"Fundamentally it comes down to one thing and one thing only, and that is the individual officer’s commitment to wearing his or her vest. It is extremely important that officers make that commitment," Davis says.
Point Blank's Smith points out there was a time when people wouldn't wear seat belts because they were perceived as uncomfortable; but today people understand that wearing them saves lives. This is where body armor wear rates need to go, he adds. "There are still a lot of agencies out there with officers who didn't wear body armor before and view it as keeping them from doing their jobs," he says. "As younger officers come in and are more accustomed to wearing body armor, wear rates will go up."
"Tremendous progress has been made in taking the weight out of fiber," notes Smith, who points out this is an important development that ultimately increases wear rates. Removing weight enables manufacturers to produce thinner and more flexible ballistic panels that increase comfort.