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Back to Archives | Back to October 2008 Contents 

Vests Save Lives: A Reminder of the Importance of Wearing Soft Body Armor

By Sergeant Adrienne Quigley, Arlington County, Virginia, Police Department; and IACP Fellow

reliminary statistics compiled by the National Law Enforcement Officer Memorial Fund show that 2007 was one of the deadliest years for the U.S. law enforcement community since 1989. There was a 28 percent increase in officer fatalities compared with 2006. The number of officers killed by gunfire increased at a more staggering rate of 33 percent. Since 1974, the number of law enforcement deaths had been steadily declining with the exception of 2001.1

Although officers know the benefits of wearing soft body armor, many still choose not to wear it. Officers often complain about the comfort, fit, and breathability of the vest, especially in the warmer months. Research has shown that between 1980 and 2001 approximately 1,200 officers have been killed in the line of duty. More than 30 percent could have been saved by body armor. The save percentage is even higher when evaluating felonious assaults involving firearms. It is estimated that the risk of dying from gunfire is 14 times higher for an officer not wearing a ballistic vest than for one who is.2

To heighten the awareness of the advantages of wearing soft body armor, the IACP has created the Vests Save Lives campaign. This annual campaign is geared at reminding officers of the dangers they face every day and of the importance of wearing soft body armor. The goal of the program is to make officers aware that the benefits of wearing their armor far outweigh any perceived negatives. Using a mass media campaign, posters will be distributed to agencies across the country to increase awareness of the benefits of wearing soft body armor. The IACP requests that law enforcement agencies support and participate in the Vests Save Lives program by publicizing the significance of wearing ballistic vests and encouraging their officers to protect themselves so that they can protect others.

Many realize that soft body armor has proved to be extremely effective against firearms, but it has also helped protect officers from other potentially fatal situations. On October 4, 2004, Officer Carlos Ramos of the Harlingen, Texas, Police Department responded with other officers to a domestic violence call. The victim provided information about the suspect, who was known by police. The suspect was located and pursued into a dark room. Upon entering the room, Officer Ramos immediately detected the odor of gasoline. As his eyes adjusted to the low light, he observed the suspect throw something at him, followed by a clicking noise. Ramos caught fire. He was able to locate an adjacent bathroom and entered the shower stall, drenching himself with water to put out the flames. Noting that his escape route was now blocked by fire, Officer Ramos then drenched himself again and ran through the flames toward a window. However, the window was secured with antiburglar bars. Fortunately, he was able to think quickly and found a section that had been removed. Ramos was able to climb out of the small opening to escape. He suffered from second and third degree burns as well as smoke inhalation. According to the medical staff that treated Officer Ramos, his body armor saved his life by protecting much of his torso from burns, which had the added benefit of providing doctors with a large, healthy supply of Ramos’s own skin for the reconstruction of the burned areas.

Ballistic vests have also proved to be equally effective in protecting officers from severe blunt force trauma. On the morning of November 18, 2007, Trooper Cameron Keesling of the Virginia State Police received a request for assistance in pursuing a vehicle from a nearby jurisdiction. Trooper Keesling and other officers were able to execute a rolling roadblock effectively. As Keesling exited his marked cruiser from the passenger side, the suspect rammed the vehicle, pinning the trooper between the door and the body of the vehicle. Trooper Keesling drew his weapon and fatally shot the suspect. He was subsequently transported to a local hospital and treated for blunt force trauma to the front and rear sides of his torso as well as below the waist. The imprint of the police vehicle door was visible on Keesling’s body armor. It was determined that this body armor was instrumental in protecting the trooper from more serious injury or death.

On July 29, 2001, Officer David Soika and Reserve Officer Kristopher Conwill of the Medina, Ohio, Police Department observed an early-1900s steam engine being transported on a local highway. It was determined that the engine was being driven to the local fairgrounds, where it was going to be displayed. The officers proceeded to follow the engine to the fairgrounds to assist with the escort. Upon arrival, the officers approached the engine to speak to the operator. When they came to within approximately 20 feet, the engine exploded. The three men on the engine were killed instantly, and two others subsequently died from their wounds. The officers were tossed back several feet by the explosion. Reserve Officer Conwill received massive injuries. The steam inflicted second- and third-degree burns on over 40 percent of his body, and he sustained multiple shrapnel wounds. Forty-seven other individuals were injured in the blast. It was determined that Reserve Officer Conwill’s body armor protected his vital organs and saved his life.

There are thousands of documented cases where body armor saved the lives of officers shot during the performance of their duties. In Austintown, Ohio, Officer Joseph Wojciak was shot in his police vehicle by a male known to him. The .22-caliber round, shot from four to six feet away, struck Officer Wojciak in the upper left area of his torso. He survived. In Cleveland, Tennessee, Sergeant Bill Coultry was shot multiple times by a .357 revolver at close range while he was walking into a convenience store. The suspect approached the officer and opened fire from the gun in his jacket pocket unprovoked. One round struck Sergeant Coultry in his left arm, the other in the lower right area of his torso. His ballistic vest stopped the potentially fatal round, saving his life. In Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, Trooper Kerry Massie stopped a vehicle for erratic driving behavior. As Trooper Massie approached the vehicle, the driver opened fire on him with a .45-caliber handgun from an estimated one to five feet, striking him in the center of his body mass. Trooper Massie lived to tell his story.

As of 2001, it was estimated that 25 percent of state and local law enforcement officers were not issued body armor.3 Although that number has decreased, there are still numerous police officers in the United States who have not been issued soft body armor or who have been issued vests that do not fit properly. In 1998, the U.S. Department of Justice created the Bulletproof Vest Partnership (BVP) to provide officers with financial assistance in procuring this critical resource. The BVP funds up to 50 percent of the cost of each vest purchased or replaced by law enforcement applicants. Thanks to the BVP, over 11,900 agencies have participated in the program, resulting in over 450,000 vests purchased with the assistance of federal funding. (For more information on the program and the application process, contact the BVP at

Thorough research into soft body armor has led to numerous technical advancements addressing issues from protection to comfort. In 1972, the National Institute of Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice, today known as the National Institute of Justice, developed a ballistic-resistant body armor performance standard.4 The revised standards reflect the growing threats faced by officers, not only by gunfire but also from blunt force trauma. In formulating the standard, weapon type and rounds were selected based on a combination of types of firearms carried by law enforcement personnel as well as criminals. Since an alarming number of officers are killed by their own duty weapons, there has been a recent push for officers to wear a vest that is grade rated to withstand shots from the type of firearm they are issued.

Manufacturers have also realized the growing need to produce a protective system that has a lower profile and is less bulky and lighter in weight. The ultimate goal is to increase ballistic protection while also increasing comfort. The use of state-of-the-art materials has led to the creation of redesigned soft body armor that is lighter, more flexible, and more breathable than its predecessors. In addition, continued efforts are made in the production of outer technical vests. These vests, worn on the outside of the uniform, provide increased coverage while also allowing for better weight distribution to the shoulders, putting less stress on the lower back and hips. Many of the new tactical developments are currently used by the U.S. military in its efforts in the Middle East.

Traditionally, officers fall into a state of comfort when working. It is often displayed in how they respond to calls for service, how they interact with citizens, and even in the choices they make in regard to personal safety. It is easy to become complacent and adopt a won’t-happen-to-me attitude, but the reality is that it could happen to anyone. Since 1987, over 3,000 individuals working in the law enforcement profession have survived both ballistic and nonballistic incidents because they were wearing body armor.5

Since 1999, the IACP has pushed for a mandatory wear policy that would maximize officer safety through the use of body armor in combination with prescribed safety procedures. The IACP understands that although ballistic vests provide a significant level of protection, they are not a substitute for the observance of officer safety procedures. Law enforcement executives need to take an active role in protecting police officers by instituting routine and regular inspections of body armor. Supervisors should be responsible for ensuring that body armor is worn and maintained through routine observation and documented inspections. Ballistic vests should be thoroughly examined annually in regard to fit, cleanliness, damage, and wear. Agencies and law enforcement officials need to work together to reduce the death and disability of officers by encouraging the increased wearing of soft body armor. ■


1The 2007 statistical jump is alarming, but fortunately it appears to be a deviation rather than a trend. The current year began with another substantial increase in law enforcement deaths, but by August the number of officers who lost their lives while serving, although still significant, appears to be declining. See “Facts & Figures,” National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, (accessed September 5, 2008).
2House Report 107-193, James Guelff and Chris McCurley Body Armor Act of 2001, (accessed August 29, 2008).
4“NIJ’s Bullet-Resistant Vest Standard Reaches Milestone,” NIJ Journal, no. 249 (July 2003): 2, (accessed September 5, 2008).
5“‘Survivors’ Club’ Recognizes 3000th Law Enforcement Officer Saved by a Protective Vest,” press release, March 7, 2006, IACP/DuPont Kevlar Survivors Club, (accessed August 22, 2008).

New NIJ Standard for Ballistic Resistance of Body Armor

In July 2008, the latest revision of the standard for Ballistic Resistance of Body Armor was published, NIJ Standard 0101.06.1 The new standard establishes minimum performance requirements and associated test methods for body armor designed to protect against gunfire. Classifying and standardizing armor helps provide consumers with reliable information about the effectiveness of various models of body armor and facilitates the selection of armor appropriate for an agency’s officers.

To ensure that body armor designed for law enforcement and corrections officers is tested and meets the requirements of the standard, the NIJ operates a Voluntary Compliance Testing Program (CTP), administered by the National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center (NLECTC). Products that are tested by the CTP and deemed compliant by the NIJ are published on the NIJ Compliant Products List ( Armor listed as compliant is eligible for grant funding through the Bureau of Justice Assistance’s Bulletproof Vest Partnership program (

The new standard contains several significant changes, including revised armor classifications, more rigorous performance requirements, modified test methods, and a new environmental conditioning protocol. The changes to the standard were incorporated to provide greater assurance that the armor worn by law enforcement officers today will afford the protection they need. NIJ Standard 0101.06 supersedes the NIJ 2005 Interim Requirements and all other previous versions of the standard.

The standard classifies body armor into five distinct categories or classes based on the degree of ballistic protection provided. These classifications have been updated to better represent the current threats that law enforcement personnel face as well as the duty rounds carried by officers. The first three classifications represent flexible body armor designed to provide protection against handgun threats, whereas the last two represent armor designed to protect officers in tactical operations against rifle threats. The five classifications and the associated threat round calibers are as follows:

  • Type IIA: 9mm Luger and .40 S&W

  • Type II: 9mm Luger and .357 Magnum

  • Type IIIA: .357 SIG and .44 Magnum

  • Type III: 7.62 mm NATO (rifle)

  • Type IV: 30.06 M2 AP (armor-piercing rifle)

In addition to the changes in armor classifications, there are other significant changes in the revised standard.

  • Elimination of Level I: It was determined that the level of protection provided by the previously defined Level I classification did not offer sufficient protection for modern-day law enforcement officers.

  • Armor wet conditioning requirements: The conditioning prior to ballistic testing has changed from water spray to water submersion. The purpose is to verify the moisture resistance of panel covers and seams due to the fact that armor performance may be degraded if the ballistic material is exposed to moisture.

  • New sample quantities: The number of vest samples was increased to 12 vests instead of 4 to improve statistical confidence in the results.

  • Testing of two armor sizes: Samples of the largest and smallest sizes that a manufacturer will produce will be tested to address law enforcement concerns with the ballistic protection of very large and very small vests. Past tests have shown that the size of an armor panel can have an impact on its ballistic performance as well as its backface signature.

  • Increased edge performance: In previous standards, performance was tested three inches from the edge of the armor. In the revised standard, shot location has been moved to two inches to analyze ballistic performance closer to the edges of the vest.

  • Shot pattern: In earlier standards, there was a predefined location in the center of the vest panel for shot placement of three of the six rounds. Current standards allow the three-shot group to be placed anywhere in the fair-hit area, ensuring compliance over a larger area of the armor with multiple hits.

  • Conditioning protocol: A number of samples will be required to undergo an environmental conditioning protocol prior to ballistic testing for the purpose of identifying armor models with inherent design or material weakness. The protocol neither predicts the service life of the armor nor simulates an exact period of time in the field but is intended to provide some indication of the armor’s ability to maintain ballistic performance after being exposed to conditions of heat, moisture, and mechanical wear.

  • Ongoing conformity assessment: During the compliance period, a series of random inspections of armor will be conducted to ensure that continued production meets NIJ standards. During these inspections, samples of armor will be taken from the production line without advance notice and will be tested for ballistic performance.

  • Compliance status period: The new standard time bounds a product’s compliance status at a period of five years. After that time, manufacturers must apply again for certification.

The revised standard does not invalidate body armor models previously deemed to be compliant with either the NIJ 2005 Interim Requirements or the NIJ Standard–0101.04. However, agencies are encouraged to meet or exceed the most recent and up-to-date version of this standard with future procurements. Law enforcement officials need to become familiar with the NIJ standards and use them to determine the type of armor that best fits the needs of their agencies without having to rely solely on the advice of vendors. Those seeking guidance concerning the selection and application of body armor should contact NLECTC-National at 800-248-2742 or visit

The NIJ is currently revising the Selection and Application Guide to Personal Body Armor, NIJ Guide 100 to reflect NIJ Standard 0101.06.2 This guide provides information to help determine what level of protection is consistent with the threat to which officers are exposed and provides more in-depth information regarding armor classifications, compliance testing, care and maintenance of equipment, procurement, and training/ education. Full copies of NIJ Standard 0101.06 may be obtained from the NIJ or the NLECTC free of charge.


1U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, National Institute of Justice, Ballistic Resistance of Body Armor, NIJ Standard–0101.06, July 2008, (accessed August 25, 2008).
2U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, National Institute of Justice, Selection and Application Guide to Personal Body Armor, NIJ Guide 100-01, November 2001, (accessed August 25, 2008).



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXV, no. 10, October 2008. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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