For decades, body armor companies have been working to make concealable ballistic vests that are lighter, cooler, more comfortable, and more likely to be worn by officers on patrol.
In the late 1990s, the industry (and many police departments) turned toward a new synthetic polymer called Zylon, which was lighter, more flexible, and stronger than Kevlar. Or so departments thought.
Following two 2003 shooting incidents involving Zylon vests that resulted in the death of an officer in California and the serious wounding of an officer in Pennsylvania, the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) decertified the "wonder fabric" for use in law enforcement ballistic vests. The NIJ's research discovered that Zylon fibers rapidly degraded, especially under hot and humid conditions.
In response, the NIJ reexamined body armor certification standards and issued its sixth certification in 2009. The NIJ Threat Level 6 (or NIJ-6, as it is commonly called) standard resulted in the creation of vests that were sturdier, but also heavier, bulkier, and less flexible.
Since the NIJ-6 standard was issued, both law enforcement uniform and body armor manufacturers have been looking for new methods of making ballistic-resistant soft body armor that meets the dictates of the standard, but is also thinner, lighter, and more thermally bearable. They seem to be focusing on two areas: modifying the carrier and modifying the way ballistic panels are fastened to the wearer.
"The Holy Grail is the combination of ballistic protection and the decreased weight that is synonymous with officer comfort," says Michael Haynes, director of channel development for Point Blank Enterprises/PACA, which develops, manufactures, and distributes body armor for the U.S. military and domestic and international law enforcement agencies.
In 2011, according to FBI statistics, more than 54,000 U.S. police officers were assaulted in the line of duty. Of the more than 160 who died, about 53 percent were not wearing body armor, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. Many experts believe if armor can be made more comfortable for officers to wear, then fewer officers will be killed by felonious assault in the future.
The following is a look at a few law enforcement apparel and armor companies, and how they're changing the way you wear concealable armor.
Massachusetts-based uniform manufacturer Blauer has developed an external concealable body armor carrier, called Armorskin. The ArmorSkin vest covers an officer's conventional ballistics carrier, which is secured to the body as usual with its straps for a snug, custom fit. Unlike some other external carriers which are closed via hook-and-loop systems, Blauer's product uses two hidden zippers to close the false uniform shirt and complete the tailored look.
The carrier's exterior comes in a variety of fabrics, including polyester, wool blend, rayon blend, and cotton-blend ripstop, which are matched to Blauer's ripstop shirting and pant fabric. It also includes two-way pockets with hidden document storage, epaulets, and a center mic tab. The carrier is color matched to the company's lightweight, moisture-wicking ArmorSkin Base Shirts, which come in short- and long-sleeved models, and the same variety of fabrics. Sizes range from XS to 6XL.
"The number one reason why police officers refuse to wear armor is discomfort," says Blauer's Senior Vice President Stephen Blauer. "External wear of armor is the most comfortable way to wear it, as it can be removed easily [when the officer is in a safe area], allowing the officer to dry off and giving him or her a break from the heat and weight of it."
For additional comfort, the company also offers an ArmorSkin Suspension System, a suspender-like contraption that attaches to four points on an officer's duty belt, to rebalance the belt and equipment between shoulders and hips. It is worn under the uniform-style carrier.
Uniform manufacturer Elbeco calls the "V" Series of its Professional Performance System the evolution of the daily uniform.
In 2011, the Pennsylvania-based company introduced its V1 External Vest Carrier to the law-enforcement market. At the time, most concealable ballistic vests were worn underneath an officer's uniform, which was usually made of non-breathable material itself. Underneath the vest, he or she wore a T-shirt, which soaked up the heat and sweat generated by many layers of clothing.
What made the V1 different was that it was engineered to work outside of an officer's uniform shirt and was available for both men and women in a wide range of sizes/body types.
"That's the biggest trend right now: to wear the armor externally," says J.D. Devine, director of sales and marketing for Elbeco.
The uniform-style carrier itself doesn't offer ballistic, stab, or slash protection. Conventional, soft body armor panels are inserted into the external carrier's inner pouches, and the external carrier includes functional front pockets, a badge tab, epaulettes, a mic line loop, and flexible, underarm micromesh vents. It secures with a side Velcro closure for a custom fit.
To reduce bulk, Elbeco also created the UV1, a thin, moisture-wicking knit-fabric undershirt designed to look like a uniform shirt when worn under a vest carrier. Parts of the shirt visible to the public—pointed collars, shoulders, long or short sleeves, and buttoned shirt cuffs—are made of color-matched polyester fabric to give a professional (and yes, uniform) appearance when worn with the external carrier. They come in sizes from small to 6XL.
"Until a couple years ago, the external carriers were mostly tactical, SWAT looking, and public safety administrators didn't want to use them because they preferred the traditional look of the daily duty uniform," Devine says. "The compromise we have found works for administration and patrol officers who don't want to compromise the image they have always projected."
Working in tandem with the "V" series carriers is Elbeco's VSS1 Suspension system, a suspenders-like harness that attaches to an officer's duty belt so the entire weight of the belt and equipment doesn't rest on his or her hips and lower back. The suspension system itself is also worn under the external vest.
KDH Defense Armor
KDH Defense Armor claims that its Transformer Armor System, which uses a harness system to directly support armor panels and hold them against the body, is revolutionary.
"With the Transformer, you wear the armor—the armor doesn't wear you," says Paul Larkin, the company's national director of sales.
"A standard armor carrier holds the armor within, and does all the work," Larkin notes. "If the shoulder straps (elastic/neoprene) stretch out over time, then the ballistics tend to drop down on the officer's body and can expose their front or back to a potential ballistic event."
The Transformer harness, on the other hand, attaches directly to the ballistic panels themselves, and is made of ripstop nylon that will not stretch out over time. The harness literally holds the armor in the correct position on an officer's body.
"It's extremely light, and not as bulky. It doesn't even look like you have a vest on," says Officer Mark Guillen, a veteran of the Eden (N.C.) Police Department, who has been testing the Transformer system for five months in his area's hot, humid climate.
"A vest, when you sit down, rides up into your throat. This keeps all your plates together and tight. And if you're outside chasing someone, or directing traffic, or running a K-9 track, instead of wearing a sweaty vest all day, you can just grab another sleeve [and change into a dry one.] It takes about a minute."
The system comes with five standard protective sleeves per vest, so an officer can change them out at will much easier than removing a conventional ballistic vest to replace a wet, under-carrier T-shirt. Other manufacturers' vests come with one carrier for the armor, and if an officer needs an additional carrier, he or she will need to purchase them at an average price of up to $150, according to Larkin.
The KDH suspension system can also fit into other types of carriers, including a uniform shirt sleeve, an overt vest sleeve, and a tactical MOLLE sleeve. Officers can simply then button their uniform shirt over it.
"The Transformer Armor System, which has the most ultra-concealable carrier option on the market, is the wave of the future for the law enforcement, federal and military community," Larkin says.
Point Blank Enterprises
Florida-based Point Blank develops and manufactures concealable and tactical body armor for the U.S. military; federal agencies; and city, county, and state law-enforcement and corrections agencies. Its military-style, tactical armor is designed to be "modular" and "scalable"—so that other specialized protective pieces such as throat collars or cummerbund systems—can be attached onto the basic frame.
"Those are the buzz words now," Point Blank's Haynes says. "You have fewer officers being tasked with a wider variety of jobs as our police forces are shrinking…. They need to be able to go from a patrol-uniform profile one minute, to then potentially responding to an active-shooter situation, which would necessitate the quick addition of rifle plates, or perhaps a full maximum-coverage tactical vest. We try to maximize building off their base ballistic platform."
What sets concealable ballistic vests manufactured by Point Blank subsidiaries Point Blank Body Armor and PACA Body Armor apart from its competitors is a Self-Suspending Ballistic System, or SSBS. The system is comprised of shoulder harness straps connected to the front and back of ballistic carrier panels. The suspending system prevents the ballistic panels from shifting or dropping, maintaining the original shape and coverage of the carrier itself. PACA's Blue Steel and Point Blank's Vision carriers, manufactured in both male and female models, also include an inner lining that offers electroshock weapon protection.
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Bryn Bailer is a freelance writer based in Tucson, Ariz.