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Ballistic Body Armor: A Chief’s Refresher Course

By Yousry A. Zakhary, General Chair, and Peter Carnes, North Atlantic Regional Chair, Division of State Associations of Chiefs of Police, International Association of Chiefs of Police, Alexandria, Virginia

rocurement of soft body armor is a relatively new responsibility for law enforcement organizations. It is very possible that many police executives have rarely dealt with the purchase of body armor. Until the mid-1970s body armor was bulky and generally not suited for patrol work. In the 1960s, a DuPont scientist developed a new fiber called Kevlar, though at the time she did not envision that she was bringing lifesaving technology to the police community.

In groundbreaking work undertaken by the forerunner of the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), the U.S. Department of Justice teamed up with the U.S. Army to develop prototype body armor using Kevlar. The prototypes were field tested by several large, urban police agencies and were determined to be effective. The first documented save came on December 23, 1975, when nowretired Seattle police officer Raymond T. Johnson was shot by an armed robber. Three .38-caliber bullets from the robber’s pistol hit Johnson, one in the hand and two in the center of his chest; his prototype body armor stopped the chest shots. In the intervening years, more than 3,000 police officers wearing soft body armor have been saved from needless disability or death.

Gaining acceptance of concealable body armor has been a grueling experience. Vests were originally expensive, and officers complained that they were generally uncomfortable, hot to wear in warm climates, and limited officers’ flexibility. Furthermore, the science of body armor was at first not exceptionally well documented. Vest manufacturers made product claims that some questioned. The NIJ weighed in, and ballistic protection standards were established. Vest manufacturers were required to submit new offerings for independent testing under the watchful eye of the NIJ. This decision was not without controversy, and some debate continues today; however, the NIJ standards have proven their worth. The only blemish was the failure of a vest manufactured using a material by the market name of Zylon. The Department of Justice addressed the problem immediately and took action to help police agencies replace Zylon-based body armor. Now, over two years since that episode, the NIJ is diligent in providing upgrades to ballistic and stab resistance standards. Officer safety has benefited from these standards, which brought increased product uniformity to the manufacturing of bullet-resistant vests.

Activities to encourage providing all police officers with covert body armor accelerated when the IACP and DuPont entered into a one-of-a-kind noncommercial partnership in 1987 that created the IACP/DuPont Kevlar Survivors’ Club. The purpose of this unique partnership is threefold:

  • Reducing law enforcement deaths and disabilities by encouraging the wearing of personal body armor through documentation of the armor’s effectiveness

  • Recognizing those deserving individuals, who, as a result of wearing personal body armor, have survived a life-threatening or disabling incident

  • Serving the law enforcement community by collecting these important data and sharing valuable information relating to these survivor incidents

The IACP has long recognized the value of ballistic protection for all police officers engaged in the direct delivery of services. The IACP National Law Enforcement Policy Center addressed body armor issues in a 1990 white paper and model policy1. That work was upgraded in 1999 and remains today as a premier authority source for police executives.

The leading advocate within the IACP for matters related to body armor has been and remains the Division of State Associations of Chiefs of Police (SACOP). SACOP upped the ante when it championed the adoption of a resolution by the IACP membership titled, “Use of Soft Body Armor by Law Enforcement Personnel.” The resolution was adopted in 1999 and became IACP policy.

The resolution calls for the following:

  • Obtaining proper-fitting body armor for all law enforcement officers

  • Establishing an ongoing program to educate all members about their obligations to protect themselves, as well as the “life-and-death” advantages of the routine wear of body armor

  • Adopting a wear policy for all on-duty field and investigative personnel

  • Conducting periodic inspections of issued soft body armor to ensure proper fit and usable condition, replacing defective armor as needed

Efforts in increasing officer safety have met with success, but much work remains. To place this in perspective, the 1999 IACP resolution reported, “based on studies that even when available, soft body armor is only being worn by 15–20 percent of the officers who have been issued the equipment, due to mixed messages from management concerning their department’s policies on mandatory wear . . . .” Compare that with today’s estimated vest wear rate of 60 percent. Unfortunately, and all too often tragically, that means that 40 percent of U.S. police officers on the street today are not protected by body armor.

As documented in the IACP 1999 resolution, the greatest impediment to increasing vest wear rates rests with police leadership. An astounding number of law enforcement agencies still do not have in place a policy that mandates vest wear. A survey by DuPont in 2002 resulted in a finding that 45 percent of U.S. police agencies fail to mandate vest wear by policy. This was called for in the 1999 resolution, when the IACP membership adopted without objection wording that read, “Adopt a wear policy for all on-duty field and investigative personnel.” Anecdotal evidence brings to light another matter of concern. It is commonly reported that many agencies that have adopted mandatory vest wear do not have inspection processes in place to ensure compliance. Survivors routinely report in conversations off the record that although their agencies may have implemented a vest wear policy, it is not uniformly or consistently enforced. Body armor tossed in the trunk of a patrol car, hanging in a locker at the stationhouse, orllying on the floor of the mudroom at home will not save a police officer from needless disability or death.

Federal legislation that created the Bulletproof Vest Partnership Grant Act of 1998 has made limited funds available to aid tribal, state, county, and local police agencies in purchasing body armor. Although this grant program is woefully underfunded, it has nevertheless been a godsend to agencies with limited resources. It is now far lesscommon to encounter an officer who has not been provided with body armor. Unfortunately, many government entities still come up short in providing for protective equipment and uniforms, including state-of-theart body armor. Some agencies treat body armor as an item to be purchased using funds earmarked for uniform purchasesand replacements. This view is fatally shortsighted. Officers should not have to decide if they are going to upgrade body armor or replace a pair of ragged trousers. It is the government’s absolute responsibility to provide and upgrade body armor as needed.

The IACP is not relenting on its commitment to officer safety. A committee under SACOP leadership has banded together to support an innovative, forward-thinking program called SafeShield. The major work of this partnership is to understand what isdisabling and killing police officers. Much is understood about police deaths, but disabilities are not reported to a central repository. It is not possible under the current system to render even a guess as to the annual number of officers temporarily or permanently disabled. It is impossible to make an informed decision about future officer safety issues if the problems of today are not documented, recorded, analyzed, and used as the basis for future safety upgrades. Police officers will continue to be disabled and killed until a system is developed to facilitate an ongoing understanding of police-related safety issues. Furthermore, a cultural or attitudinal shift toward zero tolerance for injuries is essential before any measurable impact will be realized.

Additionally, the IACP National Law Enforcement Policy Center has called for a comprehensive review of issues related to body armor, expected to be complete by the end of 2007. Policy considerations should include upgrades to NIJ ballistic and stabresistant body armor standards. The increasing lethality of weaponry and the need for improved armor to meet the threat must be considered. Police officers now face criminals armed with high-powered rifles, which has forced the police to upgrade patrol weaponry which in turn mandates that officers wear body armor that will stop a bullet from the weapon carried by the police. This situation may require enactment of a recommendation that officers who carry high-powered patrol rifles be provided with a tactical vest.

Policy makers should also give consideration to external vest wear. There is an abundance of evidence that covert vests commonly available to patrol officers fail to cover the torso adequately. Officers are routinely disabled and killed when a bullet enters the torso immediately above or below the vest, through an armpit or the top of the shoulder. Future upgrades to patrol vests will probably necessitate external wear, which is already common in Europe and a growing number of North American agencies. Such a move would not be without debate, as law enforcement executives are reluctant to permit police officers to have a more tactical routine appearance. Concerns over appearance will have to be weighed against the importance of officer safety.


Procuring body armor is as challenging a task as any other a police executive will face. Officers rightfully believe that they have a vested interest in setting standards for body armor. Police leaders who accept this task as a shared responsibility between management and labor serve the common interest of all stakeholders.

Larger police agencies may have the resources to develop sound standards and specifications for the purchase of body armor. They may have ample buying power to obtain a preferred rate per unit to be purchased. This certainly is not true for most police agencies. For this reason, police executives might seek a way to team up with other agencies for the purchase of ballistic body armor.

Standards and specifications vary widely, from nonexistent to cumbersome documents that cause many vendors to take one look and choose not to bid. Both extremes are unacceptable and not in the best interest of officer safety. Additionally, police leaders need to be sensitive to the reality of state and local procurement laws and codes as well as any perception that one vendor is receiving preferred treatment over others.

As a workable solution to this upfront problem, police agencies at the regional or state level could form a law-based consortium to handle the purchase of specific equipment and supplies. Such an arrangement may already be possible by using state pricing programs that allow county and local agencies to take advantage of state-negotiated prices for body armor and other items. This arrangement could have additional benefits beyond the purchase of body armor.

SafeShield: A Summary
A primary objective of law enforcement executives is to provide their officers with the proper equipment necessary to protect and defend themselves while performing their duties. SACOP strongly embraces this shared commitment among law enforcement executives.

The police chiefs of SACOP do not believe that the high-risk nature of policing means that injuries and deaths are just a part of the job. SACOP strongly feels that the only goal acceptable to law enforcement executives is to have zero officers killed or injured. Establishing this belief as a shared vision of all law enforcement practitioners is a positive step in establishing employee safety as the first item on the agenda for the U.S. law enforcement community.

Although great strides have been made to provide law enforcement officers with lesslethal force alternatives and first-responder protective gear, not as much has been done to address protecting line officers in their daily job functions. Facing the problem of duty injuries, SACOP started to conduct a comprehensive study in an attempt to determine how personal protective garments and equipment can be integrated to form a personal protective system.

SafeShield is a long-term project that encourages imaginative and creative thinking. It examines existing and cutting-edge technology for the purpose of creating a personal protective system for the police officer of the future. The overall goal of the SafeShield project is to provide total police protection by creating a uniform that will provide the officer with a protective structure, incorporating communication, information, and environmental protective systems. Additional factors in officer safety, such as training and policy development, will also be addressed.

In order to achieve the goal of zero officers killed or injured, three steps are necessary in the undertaking of the SafeShield project:

  1. Identifying which areas of an officer’s job are causing the greatest numbers of injuries and death and determining which can be influenced by technology applications. The first step of this process was completed using an initial survey that began to identify the injuries that officers are experiencing.

  2. Addressing each area of vulnerability by determining where existing technology solutions can be adapted for officer safety, where technology solutions are lacking, and where training and policy development can achieve the project’s goal.

  3. Producing a recommendation for a redesigned uniform with embedded technology that would be more effective in counteracting the dangers and threats facing line officers, recommending appropriate training avenues, and developing policy to prevent officer injuries.

Standards and Specifications

If purchases are made pursuant to an interlocal agreement, such as a regional consortium or state price contracting, establishing suitable standards may be less of a problem. Still, police leaders must find a method to allow their agencies to help shape standards and specifications. Labor should have a say as well. To develop meaningful standards, agencies must understand that the threats encountered by officers in a specific community, area, or region are the primary basis for determining vest needs—the foundation for standards and specifications. Requests for proposals should address the following concerns.

Scope: The scope of the request for proposals must clearly define needs and requirements. NIJ ballistic body armor standards should serve as the exclusive minimum requirement. If an agency determines that NIJ Threat Level II is the minimum accepted standard, it should be so stated.

Questions: Vendors should be provided with the name and contact information of the individual empowered to respond to questions related to the request for proposals. If there is a prebid vendors’ conference, it should be clearly stated in this section, indicating the date, time of day, and exact location of the meeting. Cutoff dates for questions must be stated.

Standards Documentation: The purchase of body armor is a highly technical endeavor. A list of applicable documents vendors are required to submit must be stated. This may include the NIJ 2005 Interim Requirements for Bullet-Resistant Armor MIL-STD-662 and NIJ Standard 0101.04 or future iterations of these standards and requirements2. It should also include the V50 Ballistic Test for armor;3 Federal Standard 751, Stitches, Seams & Stitching;4 and all other relevant standards (for example, ISO and ANSI) for the manufacture of body armor.

Purchase Requirements: It is completely reasonable to set purchase requirements relevant to the business viability of vendors submitting offers. These requirements will allow the purchaser to assess the availability of the vendor to deal with issues, questions, and problems likely to arise after a bid is awarded.

Purchase Quantity: The purchaser must communicate to potential suppliers the agency’s right to set the specific quantity to be purchased. The purchaser needs to maintain the right to adjust the total quantity while maintaining the accepted bid price, without notification to the successful bidder.

Design Requirements: The agency needs to make design requirements clear using performance standards as much as possible. Certainly the agency should state the relevant NIJ standards for the desired threat level. An example of performance standards would be to say that the soft body armor should be designed to provide the following:

  • A high degree of concealment and comfort

  • Minimum restriction of motion and mobility

  • Optional carriers to allow for laundering and color changes

This list is offered merely as one possibility. Agencies will have unique performance requirements that should be included in this section.

General Design: One of the trickiest tasks is describing general design. It is acceptable to specify a desired fiber, but care must be taken to avoid creating the impression that the request for proposals prefers a specific proprietary product. To do so opens the agency and its leadership to criticism of inappropriate purchasing practices, and, if taken to the extreme, could lead to sanctions. The general design should make abundantly clear what the purchaser expects the successful vendor to deliver. This needs to include comfort, fit, unique needs for female officers, strapping needs and requirements, and any and all other performance and technical requirements as determined by the purchaser.

Ballistic Panel Materials: Requirements for ballistic panel materials require the same care as discussed in the previous paragraph. It is essential to specify that all ballistic panel materials be new, unused, and without flaws that affect appearance, durability, or function. If a specific fiber is listed as preferred, it is most appropriate to allow for offering of equivalent materials only if the agency accepts the offer as compliant.

Panel Construction: Specifications and standards regulating panel construction have a highly technical component. Agencies lacking expertise on ballistic protection may want to employ a consultant. Care must be taken to avoid using a participating vendor as a consultant, as the accusation may arise that the specifications were designed to give unfair advantage to that vendor.

Performance: The same is true of ballistic panel performance. Heavy reliance on NIJ bullet-resistant standards provides a solid foundation to defend agency specification for body armor. V50 performance and trauma performance (that is, backface signature) data will be required of the successful bidder. Technical expertise will be required to ensure those scientific requirements are satisfied.

Labeling: The purchaser needs to mandate that labeling is compliant with the relevant in-force standard: name of manufacturer, level of protection, NIJ-STD-0101.04 or newest iteration, date of fabrication, size, serial number, model of vest, care instructions, and lot number. It is good practice to provide space for printing of the name of the officer to whom the vest is issued and the date of issue.

Cover and Carrier Materials: Care should be taken to specify ballistic panel cover material requirements. It is appropriate to specify materials, keeping n mind the need to avoid favoring one manufacturer over others. This standard will require technical expertise to prepare and evaluate the offerings for compliance. Vest outer carrier material is less critical than the ballistic panel cover material, but it requires technical assistance. The vest carrier is exposed to extreme wear and tear and must be highly durable. It must also be easy to maintain to allow for frequent cleaning. Resistance to discoloration and stains is an additional important performance standard.   

Plate Insert: It is common to require a trauma or shock plate insert to provide enhanced protection for officers’ upper center torso. The type of material used to manufacture the insert should be of concern. It should not be made of a material or substance that could compound an incident, such as a material that is electrically conductive.   

ISO 9001 Compliance: The successful bidder must provide to the purchaser proof of ISO 9001 compliance. The source of this proof must be recognized as valid. The scope of certification is to include design and manufacturing of technologically advanced personal safety equipment, including concealable tactical bullet-resistant vests, and so on. This is the purchaser’s best mechanism to ensure that the successful bidder has a demonstrated history of quality control.

Serial Number: Each unit of armor shall have a unique serial number permanently affixed. The serialized body armor shall be traceable to its original ballistic material lot number and ballistic material roll number. Additionally, the soft body armor serial number shall be traceable to an incoming material lot test and ballistic panel lay-up lot test. The successful bidder must have the ability to trace serial numbers.

Lot Testing: All incoming ballistic material shall undergo V50 ballistic lot testing in accordance with MIL-STD-662F, except that the test will be conducted on clay backing, which meets the requirements of NIJ Standard 0101.04 for backing material, or as amended by future iterations of NIJ standards. As noted earlier, NIJ standards may change, so policy developments should be closely monitored to allow for future upgrades to individual agency bullet-resistant body armor standards and specifications.

Fit: In the purchasing of body armor, no one step in the process is more critical than the others. However, if measurement and fitting are handled poorly, officers will not have optimum protection, will be assigned a vest that is not comfortable, and will result in nonuse of body armor, with potentially catastrophic consequences. Standards and specifications must tightly hold the successful bidder responsible, under penalty of financial sanctions, for individual measurements of female and male officers as well as modifications after delivery but before wear, as required. Fit and alterations standards should include what is required of the successful bidder if necessary adjustments exceed the limits of strap adjustments. Time limits must be clearly stated to the successful bidder. This section should specify ranges for the minimum acceptable amount of ballistic material per size.

Testing: Lessons learned in the recent episode involving Zylon include the need for aggressive pre- and postcertification by destructive testing of ballistic materials used in bullet-resistant vests as well as other items and equipment intended to protect police officers. The NIJ has put a rigorous precertification testing protocol in place. This protocol is currently under review, and it is likely that upgrades are possible. It is most likely that the NIJ will create postcertification destructive testing to ensure that lots of ballistic materials used after their original certification have not degraded. An agency purchasing body armor must develop, individually or through a cooperative arrangement, means and methods to test samples of in-service vests to ensure that the ballistic protection qualities have not diminished.

Insurance: The purchaser needs to specify product liability insurance protection to a specific minimum level and period of coverage. This insurance is for the protection of the purchaser, agents, and employees thereof.

Service Life: The debate about the service life of ballistic material remains unanswered with scientific certainty. The NIJ has protocols under development to artificially age ballistic material in an effort to determine a reasonable end of service period. The common duration of warranty for ballistic materials is five years. This life cycle is open to question but is the best estimate, given the relative newness of body armor technology. It is prudent to consider replacing body armor every five years. The removable covers are exposed to great wear and tear. A reasonable lifespan for a carrier worn routinely is likely less than the lifespan of the ballistic material. Warranties for the removable cover are commonly less than 24 months.

Training: It is assumed that police officers know all there is to know about body armor. This is a fatal assumption. The successful bidder shall be required to specify how each member of the agency shall be trained in the proper fit, use, care, and maintenance of issued body armor. Training shall take place on dates and times and at locations specified by the purchaser. The successful bidder shall provide to the satisfaction of the purchaser documentation that officers were tested and that each officer receiving a vest demonstrated mastery of the subject matter.

Vendor Documentation: The successful bidder should be required to provide a certified financial statement for the preceding full business year for each manufacturer for which they are bidding.

The purchaser should require that the successful bidder provide specific certifications, test reports, and samples. If one manufacturer is bidding through multiple vendors, the manufacturer may be permitted to submit the required documentation on behalf of all vendors. Failure to provide documentation is cause for rejection of an offer. The purchaser may require the following:

  • Models must be clearly identified and shall include both a full product description and technical specifications.

  • Manufacturers bidding directly must include a service proposal as to how they will measure for alterations and how customer service will be maintained without local distribution.

  • NIJ 0101.04 or a subsequent iteration must be provided, along with certification and test reports from an accredited laboratory for the vest being certified.

  • V50 testing must be accomplished on clay backing, and reports should be completed in accordance with MIL-STD-662F. Test reports must be submitted for the entire ballistic package and for incoming materials used in the ballistic package.

  • The successful bidder must have documented ability to trace serial numbers.

  • The layer count of the vest must be uniform throughout the entire ballistic package. If not, test reports must be submitted for the vest utilizing the smallest number of layers.

  • Quality control procedures must be documented, including incoming materials, lay-up configuration, inprocess configuration, testing verification, inspection of ballistic panel stitching, random and final product inspection and continuous in-process surveillance, and quality assurance training and documentation.

  • The successful bidder must provide proof of product liability insurance as specified in the published request for proposal.

  • The successful bidder must provide proof of warranty for ballistic materials and removable covers as specified in the request for proposals.

  • Certified financial statements are required as specified in the request for proposals.

  • An ISO 9001 certificate must be included.


The focus of this article is on ballistic protection for police officers. Certainly officer safety includes far more than ballistic protection, but police officers who do not routinely wear body armor are 14 times more likely to be killed on the job than those who do.

The law enforcement community has made headway in the area of officer safety, but much remains to be done. The IACP membership adopted a vision of officer safety in 2006 by passing a resolution at the Boston annual conference. All chiefs and administrators must be committed to zero tolerance for officer injuries and deaths. Police supervisors must also supervise for safety every hour of every day.

SACOP continues to press forward with SafeShield by seeking a method to collect, store, analyze, and share information on police disabilities. Without such a program, officer survival initiatives would be at best hit and miss. This would equate to increased numbers of officers being disabled and killed. It is hoped that the SafeShield program will reduce the toll of needless human suffering at incredible cost to U.S. taxpayers.■

2006 Resolution: A Vision for Officer Safety
Submitted by the Division of State Associations of Chiefs of Police

WHEREAS, officers injured, disabled, or killed in performance of their duties is unacceptable; and

WHEREAS, police injuries and disabilities are disruptive to the quality of lives of the impacted police officers, their families and friends, work associates, organizations, and communities; and

WHEREAS, a police death causes great personal pain and suffering to the survivors; and

WHEREAS, these injuries, disabilities and deaths may be mitigated or prevented, now therefore be it

RESOLVED that the membership of the International Association of Chiefs of Police hereby adopts a safety vision to minimize officer injuries, disabilities, and deaths in concert with the SafeShield project; and be it

FURTHER RESOLVED that adoption of the SafeShield project is designed to align all stakeholders to define, analyze, and prevent the causes of police injuries, disabilities, and deaths; and be it

FURTHER RESOLVED the International Association of Chiefs of Police encourages all police leaders to consistently communicate the importance of a shared vision for officer safety and wellness.


1International Association of Chiefs of Police/Bureau of Justice Assistance, National Law Enforcement Policy Center, Body Armor, Concepts and Issues Paper (Arlington, Va.: International Association of Chiefs of Police, June 1990); and IACP National Law Enforcement Policy Center, Model Policy: Body Armor (Alexandria, Va.: International Association of Chiefs of Police, May 1999).
2National Institute of Justice, “NIJ 2005 Interim Requirements for Bullet-Resistant Body Armor,” media release, September 26, 2005,; and National Institute of Justice, Law Enforcement and Corrections Standards and Testing Program, Ballistic Resistance of Personal Body Armor,
NIJ Standard 0101.04, NCJ 211680, June 2001, (both accessed November 5, 2007).
3V50 is a standard statistical ballistic test that identifies the average velocity at which a bullet or a fragment penetrates the protective armor equipment in 50 percent of material tested and fails to penetrate the remaining 50 percent.
4Federal Standard 751 is available through the Standards Incorporated by Reference (SIBR) Database Home Page: (accessed November 6, 2007).



From The Police Chief, vol. 74, no. 12, December 2007. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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