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Overview of Body Armor

Date Published
December 16, 2012

Firearms are one of the most dangerous threats faced by law enforcement officers in the United States. During the past three decades, ballistic-resistant soft body armor has saved the lives of more than 3,000 police officers. Body armor is critical safety equipment that law enforcement and corrections officers need for personal protection.

NIJ establishes and updates voluntary minimum performance standards for body armor, conducts testing against these standards to ensure that body armor complies with the standards, and sponsors research to improve body armor.

NIJ's predecessor, the National Institute of Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice, began developing lightweight body armor in 1971 and testing it in 1978. Today, police body armor is one of the best-known products resulting from NIJ-funded research.

NIJ's police body armor performance standard for ballistic resistance, most recently updated in 2008, is the only national standard for police body armor.[1] Recognition and acceptance of the NIJ standard has grown worldwide, making it the performance benchmark for ballistic-resistant body armor.

Body Armor Protects Against Injury and Death

Unfortunately, there is no such thing as bullet- or stab-proof armor. However, ballistic-resistant body armor can protect against a significant number of types of handgun and rifle ammunition, and stab-resistant body armor can help protect against knives and other sharp weapons.

A study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene found that officers who do not routinely wear body armor are 3.4 times more likely to suffer a fatal injury from a torso shot than officers who routinely wear body armor.[2]

Different Types of Body Armor

Protective vests for law enforcement officers include ballistic-resistant and stab-resistant body armor that provides coverage and protection primarily for the torso. Different kinds of armor protect officers against different kinds of threats. Ballistic-resistant body armor protects against bullet penetrations and the blunt trauma associated with bullet impacts. These vests include soft body armor that protects against handgun bullets and less flexible tactical armor composed of soft and hard components that protect against rifle bullets. Stab-resistant body armor protects against knives and spikes. Manufacturers also make combination armor that protects against both types of threats. When purchasing body armor, law enforcement agencies must consider the kinds of threats their officers will likely face and choose body armor with suitable properties to protect against those threats.

Law enforcement officers rarely wear protective vests that are only stab resistant. In the United States, law enforcement officers are more likely to wear ballistic-resistant armor, whereas correctional officers are more likely to wear stab-resistant armor. In other countries, such as the United Kingdom, law enforcement officers wear combination armor.

Law enforcement personnel must keep in mind that armor is categorized and rated for different threat levels. They should select the appropriate level of protection based on an officer's role. SWAT members, for example, might need body armor that offers a higher level of protection than the body armor worn for regular duty.

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Date Published: December 16, 2012