NIJ funded the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) to conduct a survey that asked law enforcement officers about their:
- Officer use of body armor.
- Care and maintenance of body armor.
PERF conducted the survey between October 2010 and May 2011. It sent surveys to 1,378 randomly selected officers. Of these, 1,080 (78.4 percent) of the surveys were completed and returned.
The body armor vests used in the study were intended to protect against handguns but not against rifles. (See Body Armor to learn about different kinds of body armor.)
Use of Body Armor
The survey findings suggest that body armor policies are effective and that officers understand the importance of wearing body armor.
Most officers work at agencies that require the use of body armor. Most officers (93.4 percent) reported that they are required to wear body armor. Fewer officers, however, reported that their agency had a written body armor policy — 22.1 percent indicated that they did not.
Most officers wear body armor when required to do so. Nearly all officers reported wearing body armor when required to do so, either obeying "mandatory wear" requirements or written policies all of the time (87.9 percent) or most of the time (11.4 percent). Nearly half (49.2 percent) of officers identified "agency policy requires it" as a reason why they wear body armor.
Most officers said they wear body armor because it is "critical for safety." Although 73.1 percent of officers said they had never been involved in situations in which their body armor protected them from possible injuries, 90 percent reported that they wear body armor because they believe it is critical to their safety.
Most officers said they did not think failing to wear body armor would result in severe forms of discipline. Self-discipline (e.g., resulting from a concern for safety), rather than concerns about severe disciplinary action, seemed to be a major factor in the decision to wear body armor. Most officers (58.3 percent) said they believed a first offense in failing to wear body armor would be a verbal reprimand and a second offense would be a written reprimand. Only 20.3 percent said they believed a second offense would result in suspension. Less than 1 percent reported that they had received discipline for a body armor violation.
Most officers estimated that their colleagues adhere to the body armor policy. More than two-thirds (68.7 percent) of officers said they believed compliance was 100 percent on shift or standard duty assignments. Another 27.9 percent estimated compliance to be between 76 and 99 percent.
Most officers said they wanted to see improved comfort and fit in the next generation of body armor. When officers were asked which features they want to see in the next generation of body armor, the most common responses were improved comfort (84.4 percent), improved fit (72.6 percent) and reduced weight (63.9 percent).
Recommendations for Increasing Officer Use of Body Armor
The researchers recommend that body armor policies be maintained by agencies that have them, strengthened at agencies that have weak policies, and considered by agencies that lack policies. In addition, police agency executives should make it a priority to maintain officers' high rate of understanding of the importance of wearing body armor. This can be done through educational and training initiatives.
Agencies also should consider involving officers in body armor purchasing decisions — when different brands of armor offer comparable levels of protection, officers can provide input on which armor is most comfortable. Having more comfortable body armor could increase the likelihood that an officer will regularly use his or her body armor.
Care and Maintenance of Body Armor
The survey revealed that most officers are knowledgeable about many body armor care and maintenance practices. A substantial number, however, do not understand aspects of some recommended practices or do not adhere to the practices they do understand.
Large majorities — between 89 and 99 percent — of officers indicated they understand that body armor:
- Is not designed to last indefinitely (99.2 percent).
- Cannot be relied upon to stop rifle bullets (97.2 percent).
- Should be replaced if penetrated by a bullet (95.4 percent).
- Should not be laundered with standard detergent in a washing machine (90.9 percent).
- Should not be stored in the trunk of a car (89.3 percent).
However, a majority (65.5 percent) of officers did not know that moisture could reduce the ballistic protection of body armor. Additionally, 55.9 percent stored their armor after use by hanging it on standard clothes hangers; 40.3 percent stored their vests flat, which is the practice recommended by most manufacturers.
Recommendations on Improving Care and Maintenance of Body Armor
The researchers note that these findings indicate a need for further officer training and education on certain aspects of body armor maintenance and care. Additionally, law enforcement executives should ensure that lockers can accommodate proper storage of vests or should provide alternate storage facilities.
Finally, 51 percent of officers said body armor is not available for immediate replacement should their armor become damaged or lost. The researchers recommend that departments maintain a limited inventory of body armor of various sizes so that officers do not have to wait for long periods without protection.
[note 1] Another component of the study examined how the in-service use and care of police body armor affects its ballistic performance over time. The researchers tested a sample of 30 used vests with known use histories from law enforcement agencies across the United States. Because the research design relied on a small number of vests and vest comparisons of different makes and models, the study authors caution against generalizing from the findings from this part of the study. More information about these findings is available in the final report.
[note 2] In 2010, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) would begin requiring jurisdictions to have a written "mandatory wear" policy in effect if they wished to receive federal funds for body armor through BJA's Bulletproof Vest Partnership (BVP) program. The requirement took effect in October 2010 and applied to FY 2011 BVP grants. Body armor purchased with money from either Justice Assistance Grants or BVP must have a mandatory wear policy and meet the NIJ standard.
[note 3] The researchers note that some manufacturers differ on their recommended practices. They suggest that law enforcement executives contact their individual body armor manufacturers to determine the best method for storing their particular vests.