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Back to Archives | Back to May 2011 Contents 

Officer Safety: A Multidimensional Challenge

By Ron McBride, Chief of Police (Retired) and Law Enforcement Consultant



t the top of the list of officer safety is the value of wearing body armor. There is absolutely no question that body armor protects law enforcement officers from needless disabilities and death. As of March 2011, the IACP/DuPont Kevlar Survivors’ Club® had documented more than 3,126 incidents where body armor protected officers from more serious physical injuries or death.

The value of body armor can be found in statistics compiled by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The FBI concluded that the “risk of sustaining a fatal injury for officers who do not routinely wear body armor is 14 times greater than for officers who do.”1


Body Armor Characteristics and Limitations

As important as body armor is to a police officer’s survival, it is equally important to understand what ballistic body armor cannot do. First and foremost, body armor is not bulletproof, and police officers should never think otherwise. The resulting mind-set is dangerous. Ballistic body armor is not designed to stop an attack by a knife or other pointed weapons. While body armor has over-performed and prevented a stab from perforating a ballistic panel, officers must never bet their lives that ballistic body armor will stop a stab attack. If stab protection is required, stab-resistant or multiple-threat (ballistic- and stab-resistant) armor should be worn.

The wearing of body armor has increased protection from a range of criminal and accidental threats. The Survivors’ Club has documented saves that include motor vehicle crashes, officers struck by vehicles, lightning strikes, ox gores, explosions, falls, cement blocks tossed from buildings, tow truck cable snaps, horse kicks, bicycle and motorcycle spills, and many others. The wearing of body armor adds a level of protection for the officer in everyday policing events, not just in expected, high-risk situations.

Police leaders and practitioners alike need to consider body armor as daily necessary equipment. All too often, body armor is viewed as a uniform accessory. Nothing is further from the truth. Body armor is a carefully constructed officer safety device.


Body Armor Specifications

National Institute of Justice Active Standards Published
Ballistic Resistance of Personal Body Armor
NIJ Standard-0101.06
July 2008
Stab Resistance of Personal Body Armor
NIJ Standard-0115.00
September 2000
Ballistic Helmets
NIJ Standard-0106.01
December 1981
Ballistic Resistant Protective Materials
NIJ Standard-0108.01
September 1985
Riot Helmets and Face Shields
NIJ Standard-0104.02
October 1984
Source: National Institute of Justice, Active NIJ Standards,
http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/nij/topics/technology/standards-testing/active.htm

Knowing the firearm threat officers are encountering establishes the threat-level protection of body armor essential to officer safety. Officers must wear the armor that will repeal the threat. To this end, the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) responded to concerns of the police community in the aftermath of a 2003 incident in Pennsylvania when a ballistic vest was penetrated and resulted in the disability of an officer.2

Ballistic Resistance of Body Armor, NIJ Standard-0101.06 is the current NIJ standard that establishes minimum performance requirements and test methods for the ballistic resistance of personal body armor designed to protect the torso against gunfire. Agency personnel responsible for developing purchase specifications for body armor should be familiar with this publication, found at http://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/223054.pdf. The standard is limited to ballistic resistance only and does not address resistance from knives or other sharp, pointed objects. The document reviews NIJ body armor classifications; details requirements (acceptance criteria, workmanship, armor backing material); and discusses test methods (velocity measurement equipment, wet conditioning, test preparation). This standard supersedes NIJ 2005 Interim Requirements, Ballistic Resistance of Body Armor (August 2005) and also supersedes NIJ Standard-0101.04 Rev. A, Ballistic Resistance of Personal Body Armor (June 2001).

Body armor purchase specifications should be developed by the agency. Preparing a request for proposal (RFP) using locally developed requirements standards can be a challenge to any agency. Assistance is available from the NIJ in Selection and Application Guide to Personal Body Armor, accessible at http://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/189633.pdf. This guide provides information to help determine what level of protection is consistent with the threats to which individual officers are exposed. It also discusses armor selection from the variety of styles available and the proper care of armor in service. Additional guidance is available through Surviving a Shooting: Your Guide to Personal Body Armor at http://www.video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-6753660882259072310&hl=en# (accessed April 22, 2011).

Agencies should explore the benefits of shared purchasing practices through the use of state price contracting or regional consortiums. Even when collaborative purchasing is utilized, it is important that each agency have a say in crafting the RFP for the purchase of body armor. An agency and its officers need to be full stakeholders in this process.


Fitted Body Armor

Ballistic body armor is not an off-the-shelf piece of equipment. Officer safety is directly related to proper fit and coverage that optimizes comfort within reason. Each body armor vest must be custom fitted to the wearer. This requires competence by the individual that is fitting officers for body armor. Ideally, an agency employee would be fully trained in fitting body armor. This would certainly increase the likelihood that ordered body armor is designed to fit the officer to whom it is issued.

The successful vendor should be required by an RFP to provide a trained and skilled representative to conduct prepurchase measurement, inspect and make adjustments at the time of delivery, and follow-up inspection for proper fit after a reasonable breakin period. At each point, the body armor may require minor field adjustments or a recut. Well-developed RFPs will make these requirements clear to potential suppliers and they should be held contractually accountable to ensure that officers are provided with custom-fitted body armor that provides required coverage.

Body armor is a piece of equipment based on precise scientific knowledge that must meet rigid NIJ standards for protection. Like any piece of equipment, body armor requires pre- and in-service training on care and use. The RFP should mandate the type and level of training required when body armor is issued. The successful vendor should be required to provide this care and use training, and officers should be required to demonstrate their knowledge and competency in caring for and using their personal body armor.


Wear Policies

Most police officers have either direct or reliable secondhand knowledge of a police officer who died on the job while not wearing body armor. At the same time, police officers need to realize that body armor cannot guarantee officer survival. The FBI Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted (LEOKA) program annually reports officers that were felonious killed while wearing body armor. This painful fact should never be allowed as an excuse for not wearing body armor. The evidence makes it perfectly clear that officers wearing body armor have an increased chance of survival.

The current wear rate is estimated by the IACP/DuPont Kevlar Survivors’ Club® to be stagnant near 60 percent of police first responders. Conversely, this means that an estimated four out of ten police officers routinely venture forth without the known protection of body armor. A relevant research finding by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) determined that 41 percent of surveyed agencies do not require officers to wear body armor. Fifty-five percent of the reporting agencies do not have a written mandatory vest wear policy.3

The IACP National Law Enforcement Policy Center (NLEPC) recognized the value of mandatory vest wear policy in 1990 and developed a model policy for police departments. The NLEPC reissued an updated policy in 1999. This resulted in the issuance of the IACP NLEPC Body Armor Model Policy in April 1999 that recommended enactment of mandatory vest wear policies.

The IACP membership attending the annual conferences in 2003 and again in 2008 voted to adopt resolutions recommending all police executives “[a]dopt a mandatory wear policy for all uniformed personnel.”4

The IACP has published a Body Armor Model Policy and position paper to the Bulletproof Vest Partnership (BVP) program. In order to obtain a copy of the model policy and position paper, jurisdictions must be registered with the BVP program. To request a copy of the model policy, contact the BPV Customer Support Center at 877-758-3787 or vest@usdoj.gov. For more information on up-to-date model policies, please contact the National Law Enforcement Policy Center by e-mail at policycenter@theiacp.org or visit www.iacp.org.

Nearly 20 years after the IACP first called for mandatory vest wear, the PERF survey cited above finds that mandatory vest wear policies have been enacted by 45 percent of the agencies surveyed. The lack of a policy is often cited as a flaw in eforts to protect police officers by requiring that proven safety equipment—body armor—be worn at all times if an officer, on or off duty, is engaged in the direct delivery of police services.


Compliance Policies

Enacting a mandatory vest wear policy is only a preliminary step toward protecting officers from needless disabilities or deaths. Policy compliance must be institutionalized. Managers and first-line supervisors need to be held administratively accountable for workforce compliance with policies, and that includes mandatory vest wear. Failure to supervise for safety should warrant sharp administrative rebuke with progressive adverse sanctions for violators. Officer safety is an all-hands task, but the impetus must come from agency leadership.

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) through the Office of Justice Program (OJP) provides grant funds for the purchase of new and replacement body armor. Funding is not adequate to purchase all needed ballistic- and stab-resistant equipment, but it does provide up to 50 percent funding to successful grant applicants.

The OJP has engaged in the issue of mandatory vest wear. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced a new policy at the annual IACP conference in October 2010. According to BVP program requirements, beginning with FY 2011, in order to receive BVP funds, jurisdictions must certify during the application process that all law enforcement agencies benefitting from the BVP program have a written mandatory wear policy in effect. The policy must be in place for at least all uniformed officers before any FY 2011 funding can be used by the agency.5 The IACP model policy on body armor provides interested agencies with a template to assist in the development of their mandatory vest wear policies.


Medical Research

Elements of the DOJ have provided a portion of the funding necessary to complete research that will lead to improved understanding and response to issues and needs that place officers at increased risk for line-of-duty disabilities and deaths. This is in addition to internal research under way by many federal government components including the National Institute of Justice (NIJ).

The NIJ has been the primary funding source for a program managed by Wayne State University, Department of Biomedical Engineering, in Michigan. This project is focused on the medical aftermath of officers who suffer a ballistic hit on their body armor. While this work continues, the project leadership determined the need to publish the brochure Behind the Badge: Management Guidelines for Impacts to Body Armor.

This brochure contains recommendations for handling an officer after a ballistic vest save. The involved medical practitioners have offered sound guidance. Of immediate concern to the on-site police commander is “all officers shot while wearing personal body armor should be transported to an emergency department or trauma center, when available. The vest should accompany the officer since it is critical in understanding the officer’s potential injuries.”

The brochure provides clear guidance to attending medical personnel. This is essential to the care and well-being of an officer shot while wearing body armor, as many medical personnel have never before cared for such a case.

Readers of this material are encouraged to secure adequate copies of this brochure for both field- and hospital-based medical personnel that may be expected to treat officers shot while wearing their body armor. Agencies are encouraged to include relevant wording from the brochure in their written policies dealing with care of officers so involved. A free copy of this brochure may be obtained by contacting Cynthia Bir at 313-577-3830 or cbir@wayne.edu. It is also online at http://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/233645.pdf. Backface signature injuries occur when a ballistic vest is successful in containing the round, but it is not fully effective in dissipating the energy that allows vest deformation at the area of impact.

Mississippi State University (MSU), Center for Advanced Vehicular Systems, has under way a NIJ-funded project dealing with the adequacy of ballistic cover for officers. This study is focused on injuries and deaths suffered by police while wearing body armor. The research phase of this work is nearing completion and a report will be forthcoming. A likely outcome for this study is improved understanding about the potential value of body armor worn as outer equipment and as fully integrated equipment load.

A new research area by MSU is in the proposal stage. Daniel Carruth and his team are seeking NIJ funding to study issues related to body heat related to wearing body armor. Carruth explained that it is commonly understood that body armor is considered uncomfortable when worn in a warm, humid environment. The purpose of this study is to bring scientific understanding as it relates to core body temperature when body armor is worn. Agencies with interest in participating in this study may contact Daniel Carruth at 662-325-5446 or dwc2@cavs.msstate.edu .


IACP Initiatives

The IACP is advancing two programs: SafeShield and the National Center for the Prevention of Violence Against the Police.

SafeShield. The SafeShield program was first conceived in the early part of this millennium in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks on the United States. The IACP Division of State Associations of Chiefs of Police (SACOP) expressed concern over what many perceived to be increasing dangers to police practitioners.

During the 2002 midyear SACOP meeting in Park City, Utah, SACOP membership overwhelmingly voted to adopt officer safety as a division project and formed a committee to look into the problem. Initially named Peace Officer Safety and Technology (POST), this project was renamed SafeShield in 2005 to more accurately convey the sense of the project.6

A goal of SafeShield is to gather empirical data to aid in better understanding the causes of police disabilities in a way that is complementary to the continuing work of the FBI LEOKA project.

Stephen K. Keiser, PhD, DuPont Consulting Solutions, conducted a pro bono survey of nearly 700 police organizations to gain a sense of the scope and nature of the police disability issue. The findings, while not complete, provided strong indicators that police disabilities are a serious problem often resulting in long-term disabilities that are harmful to the officers, the families, the work associates, and the agencies involved. In addition to the human pain, the suffering, and the life disruption, police disabilities create a yet undefined fiscal burden on governments. Good men and women are prematurely lost from police service as the result of career-ending injuries.

The most troubling revelation from the Keiser study came when it was finally understood that there is no central repository where aggregate data about police disabilities are collected and analyzed. Data that identifies the number of police officers disabled and what caused the disability could lead to effective countermeasures to reduce future disabilities.

A copy of this survey may be obtained by contacting the IACP.

The SafeShield committee evolved into a partnership involving SACOP representatives and members of the private sector. SACOP carefully selected the corporate partners. The private-sector participants pledged to noncommercial participation, to use their market knowledge to aid in defining the cause of police injuries, and to bring to the workplace cost-effective solutions to reduce police disabilities.

The SafeShield committee identified that the police culture is far too accepting of police disabilities and deaths with a commonly expressed view that death is an inherent risk of policing. It was determined that a new officer safety paradigm was required.

Upon recommendation of the SafeShield committee, SACOP put forth a proposed officer safety resolution. This resolution, “A Vision for Officer Safety,” was adopted as the official policy of the IACP by vote of the membership during the 2006 annual conference. The members of the IACP, by adoption of this resolution, set in play a new officer safety model. The police culture began the journey toward crafting and maintaining a safer work environment for police employees.

Limited federal funding was recently provided by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Assistance to allow SACOP to conduct pilot research within a small sample of law enforcement agencies comprising state, county, and local organizations. The goal of this work is to better define the scope of the police disability problem. A desired outcome is the creation of a national database to gather and analyze the causes of police disabilities. The preliminary report from this pilot study should be ready for review by late summer 2011 and will certainly be a topic of discussion at the annual IACP conference held this year in Chicago, Illinois, October 22–26.

The SACOP Division is committed to increasing officer safety by continuing the journey toward the vision of zero officers killed or injured.

The National Center for the Prevention of Violence Against the Police. The IACP is developing the National Center for the Prevention of Violence Against the Police. This program is the outgrowth of the changing violence pattern experienced by police officers and the increased frequency of a single felonious incident with multiple police casualties. Immediate Past IACP President Michael J. Carroll issued a call for action. This program is supported by a federal grant. Program planning is under way and incident analysis is scheduled to begin late 2011.

A goal of this program is to provide speedy and accurate analysis of an incident after an officer is the primary or secondary target of an attack. Researchers will be seeking evidence of preattack physical, verbal, and other indicators that an officer may be perilously close to becoming an assault victim. The question for researchers is the potential to educate officers in human behavior to develop refined assessment skills to allow for de-escalation or acceptable preemptive action to avoid an assault.


FBI LEOKA Program

The research work for the National Center for the Prevention of Violence Against the Police is envisioned to augment the FBI LEOKA program. The current design of the FBI LEOKA research lacks the agility required to provide timely officer alerts about emerging safety threats.

The FBI LEOKA program provides thoughtful review of officers killed and assaulted in an annual report. The most recent FBI LEOKA annual report covers the year 2009.

The FBI LEOKA program has produced a trilogy of excellent publications: Killed in the Line of Duty (1992), In the Line of Fire (1997), and Violent Encounters (2006). The annual FBI LEOKA report and above listed publications should be considered as must reads by all current and future police practitioners.

The FBI Criminal Justice Information Service Division provides no-cost safety and survival training for law enforcement personnel. FBI instructors are deployed regionally to ensure that FBI LEOKA trainers are geographically accessible to the police community. Training is offered in four- or eight-hour blocks of instruction. The aforementioned FBI LEOKA annual report and publications provide the core curriculum for this training. Agencies interested in more information about this training should contact the FBI Criminal Justice Information Services Program Analyst Melissa Blake at mblake1@leo.gov.


Other Officer Safety Issues

This article has touched on only a small percentage of issues that impact officer safety. The failure of police officers to use vehicle safety restraints is another issue. The argument that seat belts prevent an officer’s rapid exit from a vehicle when a potential tactical situation is encountered is seriously flawed. One need only consider the frequency with which police officers not wearing seat belts are injured or killed in motor vehicle crashes, and the validity of the argument disappears. A recent study funded by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration determined that nearly 40 percent of U.S. police officers do not wear seat belts.7 Police officers, as much as any other individuals who respond to motor vehicle crashes, must understand that seat belts save lives—including those of officers who have the good sense to buckle up for survival.

In summary, what is desperately needed is a new officer safety paradigm. The IACP membership has come forward with a vision of zero officers killed or injured. The naysayers claim that this is impossible given the nature of the job. But if the vision is other than zero officers killed or injured, what is a reasonable number for annual police causalities? A vision is not about reaching an end point. A vision is about defining a path to lead stakeholders in a common direction. Establishing a vision of zero officers injured or killed is the only acceptable approach. ■


Notes:

1National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center, National Institute of Justice, Selection and Application Guide to Personal Body Armor (November 2001), 7, http://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/189633.pdf (accessed March 17, 2011).
2Michael A. Fuoco, “Failure of Officer’s Bulletproof Vest Shakes Confidence,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, October 19, 2003, http://www.post-gazette.com/localnews/20031019vests1019p4.asp (accessed March 11, 2011).
3The BJA/PERF Body Armor National Survey: Protecting the Nation’s Law Enforcement Officers, Phase II Final Report to BJA, August 9, 2009, 20, http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/BJA/pdf/PERF_BodyArmor.pdf (accessed March 11, 2011).
4SACOP, “Use of Soft Body Armor by Law Enforcement Personnel,” IACP Resolution adopted at the 115th Annual Conference of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (San Diego, 2008), http://www.iacp.org/resolution/index.cfm?fa=dis_public_view&resolution_id=348&CFID=73926579&CFTOKEN=53159486 (accessed March 11, 2011).
5“Bulletproof Vest Partnership,” U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bvpbasi (accessed March 11, 2011).
6“Current SACOP Projects,” International Association of Chiefs of Police, http://www.theiacp.org/About/Governance/Divisions/StateAssociationsofChiefsofPoliceSACOP/CurrentSACOPProjects/tabid/463/Default.aspx(accessed March 11, 2011).
7Moises Mendoza, “Unbuckled, but Unbowed,” Houston Chronicle, March 1, 2010, http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/metropolitan/6890303.html (accessed March 17, 2011).


Please cite as:

Ron McBride, “Officer Safety: A Multidimensional Challenge,” The Police Chief 78 (May 2011): 28–33.

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From The Police Chief, vol. LXXVIII, no. 5, May 2011. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.








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