There was a time when helmets—usually for impact protection, not to stop bullets—were common kit for patrol officers. Switch to today, however, and patrol officers are rarely issued hats, much less helmets.
But that may be changing.
After last year's Dallas and Baton Rouge ambushes, which claimed the lives of eight officers, and the Pulse Nightclub Massacre in Orlando where officers engaged an active shooter terrorist in close quarters, more and more agencies are purchasing hard armor and helmets for their patrol officers. The NYPD, the Fort Worth Police Department, and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department announced last year they were purchasing ballistic helmets to give their officers better protection during high-intensity incidents.
Sources contacted for this article say many other agencies are also considering or buying helmets for their officers. Tactical Channel Manager for Armor Express Steve Murphy says he received "no less than six calls from chiefs" wanting ballistic helmets for their patrol officers in the week following the Dallas sniper attack. And the demand for ballistic helmets from public safety agencies wasn't just limited to law enforcement, as fire departments and emergency medical units are also acquiring head protection for their personnel.
Murphy says it was hard to meet the orders. "The problem was that nobody could make [helmets] that fast. It was the same thing with plates. They were flying off the shelves so fast that nobody could keep up."
In the popular "John Wick" series of movies, a hit man played by Keanu Reeves specializes in killing his enemies at close range with pistol shots to the head. The reason he goes for their heads is he knows they are wearing soft body armor that will defeat his rounds. One of the big questions in law enforcement is whether bad guys are taking the John Wick approach when attacking officers and does that warrant issuing ballistic helmets to patrol personnel.
Comprehensive data on how officers are feloniously killed is compiled by the FBI's Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS) Division and published each fall in a report titled "Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted" (LEOKA). The report's details on feloniously killed officers includes how the officer was killed and the location of the fatal wound as reported by the officer's agency.
So the data is readily available on how officers are attacked. Unfortunately, though, it's very hard to establish any trends from this data because the numbers are all over the place.
One thing is clear, however, from the LEOKA reports: Each year the majority of officers feloniously killed in this country are shot. Another thing that can be established from the data is that a significant number of murdered officers are killed by shots to the head. About a third of all officers fatally shot each year are felled by head shots. But there is no discernible upswing in this percentage.
It becomes even more difficult to establish a trend when looking at reports on officers shot and wounded. The LEOKA reports include officers shot or stabbed on duty without lethal outcomes, but reporting is not as comprehensive as it is for officers feloniously killed. Also, the data does not include details on whether attacks were aimed at the officers' heads.
Perhaps the best evidence that some bad guys are targeting the heads of officers in attacks comes from interviews with felons convicted of the attacks. One of the goals of the LEOKA team at FBI CJIS is to enhance officer safety through gathering information on attacks and sharing it in free training sessions. (For more information, contact [email protected].)
Phillip Wright is a LEOKA trainer and a retired West Virginia State Police trooper, and he has interviewed felons about their attacks on officers. He says only once in his prison interviews has a cop killer or attempted cop killer said he aimed above the officer's body armor. "The kid knew based on past experience that the officer wore soft body armor, so he tried to shoot the officer in the neck. Fortunately, the officer positioned himself in such a way alongside the car during that traffic stop that the round hit him in the soft body armor. That probably saved his life," Wright says.
So the answer to the question of whether bad guys are intentionally aiming at officer's heads is… Maybe.
Even if ballistic head protection could save a significant number of officer lives, it's unrealistic to expect officers to wear their helmets for the duration of their entire patrol shifts. So that means the helmets will end up in patrol vehicle trunks with other active shooter response gear.
Dale Stockton, creator of and a core trainer for the officer safety program Below 100 (www.below100.org), is not against giving officers increased protection, but he is skeptical that helmets in the trunk will make a difference in the majority of incidents where officers are shot in the head, which tend to be sudden attacks at domestic calls and during traffic stops.
Stockton says officers arriving at such calls, unless they have prior warning of an active shooter or person with a gun, will probably not have a premonition to go to the trunk and put on their helmets. "Experience has shown that items in the trunk are seldom deployed in time to address whatever they are needed for unless we're talking about a specific tool where the task can't be accomplished without it," he says.
Experts say agencies issuing ballistic helmets to patrol will probably take one of two approaches to their use: create a policy that covers when they can or must be used or leave the matter up to officer discretion. Either way, in order to prevent officer deaths, the decisions will have to be tactically sound. "I would hope that if they receive a 'shots fired' call, they will be able to and want to gear up as quickly as possible on arrival at the scene," says Dan McNeil, director of tactical hard armor for Protech (Safariland).
Stopping and Deflecting
Gearing up at a high-intensity incident typically means patrol officers slipping into plate carriers that hold hard armor certified to stop common rifle rounds. At the agencies that issue helmets to patrol, it could also now mean adding head protection. But unlike hard armor plates, the vast majority of ballistic helmets are not specifically rated to defeat high-velocity rounds fired from long guns. Military helmets are better suited to protecting the wearer from shrapnel. Law enforcement ballistic helmets are typically designed to protect the wearer from handgun bullets. They are rated to stop NIJ Level IIIA rounds. But that can be misleading.
Modern ballistic helmets are made of aramid materials such as Kevlar or of ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene. And the ballistic properties of this material are such that it should catch a bullet and slow it down. That's what happens when a bullet strikes this material in flat armor. But a bullet striking a helmet behaves very differently than a bullet striking flat armor.
Helmets are not flat and they have contours, so unless they are hit square in the front, what armor experts calls a zero-degree strike, then they may have the ability to deflect a rifle round even if they are not rated to do so. "Any kind of angle that you put on that shot will almost universally help the performance of the helmet more than if the bullet came in at zero degrees," says Ron Szalkowski, director of product development for Team Wendy.
Bullet deflections from angular shots in testing are an argument against the belief that helmets only protect the wearer's head from impact, handgun bullets, and shrapnel. Better arguments can be found in real-world examples.
At last June's Pulse Nightclub Massacre, Orlando SWAT officer Michael Napolitano was one of the first officers on the scene. In an exchange of fire with the terrorist, Napolitano was struck in the head and saved by his helmet. It's unknown what kind of round hit Napolitano because the terrorist had both a rifle and a handgun, but it was likely a rifle round. And because of the angle at which it struck Napolitano's helmet, it was deflected.
A more definitive example of a pistol-rated helmet saving an officer from a potentially fatal rifle shot occurred in October 2010. The Humboldt County (NV) Sheriff's Office Special Response Team was called out to a scene where a man squatting on federal land was shooting at local and federal officers. During this incident Capt. Kevin Malone was struck in the head by a 30.06 round. Fortunately, his Protech Tactical Model 774 helmet, which is rated Level IIIA, deflected the round. Malone was not seriously injured, and he is now a member of the Safariland Saves Club.
In addition to protecting the wearer from pistol and perhaps even rifle rounds, ballistic helmets can of course shield the wearer from impact. That's one reason why some agencies are switching out their riot control helmets for ballistic models that can protect officers from thrown bottles, rocks, and bricks as well as bullets.
The economics of this are easily understood, especially if an agency is buying both. "Why buy two separate helmets when a ballistic helmet can be used for riots?" says Murphy, who adds that ballistic helmets can be quickly modified for riot duty. Clip-in face shields are available for ballistic helmets, with some even capable of offering protection against handgun rounds.
Economics will be a determining factor in whether some agencies will be issuing ballistic helmet protection to their patrol officers in the near future. But politics will also play a role.
At a time when law enforcement uniforms and equipment are often described by the press and other police critics as "militarized," adding ballistic helmets may be just too much in some jurisdictions. "Should that be a consideration when discussing officer safety?" asks Stockton. "No. But unfortunately we don't get to make that call."
Even when new protective gear such as hard armor and ballistic helmets are acquired for active shooter response, some police critics begin to scream about militarization. But Murphy has this response to those critics: "If an officer has extra protection during an active shooter incident, he or she can take more extraordinary measures to come and rescue you," he says.