More than one-third of police officers murdered last year were not wearing body armor, and law enforcement analysts estimate that up to half of all officers don’t wear bullet-resistant vests regularly while on duty.
Trainers, police officials and equipment dealers say the FBI statistics tracking murdered officers represent only part of a troubling phenomenon at a time when police confront suspects armed with higher-powered weapons. They worry officers will be put at increased risk.
The vast majority of the nation’s 700,000 officers own or have access to bullet-resistant vests, says Ed Nowicki, executive director of the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association. Yet he estimates thousands — up to 50% — choose not to wear them all or part of the time. The risk of dying by gunfire is 14 times higher for officers not wearing armor, Congress found in 2001.
“It’s like playing Russian roulette,” Nowicki says. “We know we have a problem. The question is, ‘What are we going to do to make this right?'”
The economy is partly to blame for slightly lagging sales of vests this year, says Michael Foreman of Point Blank Body Armor, one of the largest manufacturers. He says police agencies often don’t emphasize body armor in their training.
No national count tracks how many officers wear vests, which cost $500 to more than $1,000 each. Yet there is broad agreement over why thousands don’t: comfort.
Miami Police Chief John Timoney says the heat is the primary reason up to 85% of his officers do not regularly wear body armor. Every graduate from the training academy gets a vest, but there is no policy requiring them to be worn at all times.
In Philadelphia, police Lt. Frank Vanore says the department mandates use of body armor, but enforcement is difficult. At least two of the five officers killed there in the past two years were not wearing protective vests.
Earlier this month, Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey approved a plan to let officers wear vests over their uniform shirts to make them more comfortable and easier to remove.
Over the past decade, 43% of the 1,671 officers who died of any cause in the line of duty — including traffic fatalities — weren’t wearing vests, reports the National Law Enforcement Memorial Fund. In 2007, 27% weren’t wearing them, the third straight year in which the percentage declined.
The FBI statistics, though, show the percentage of officers murdered who weren’t wearing vests has stayed between 33 and 44 over the past decade.
Access to vests is a concern in rural departments, says Robert Mowery, who heads Fraternal Order of Police efforts that provide protective vests to needy departments throughout Tennessee.
In August, Justice Department officials issued new standards for the vests aimed at improving their power to stop bullets. Yet officials worry the new standards also could result in costlier and heavier products, possibly discouraging future use. “We don’t know how the (armor makers and police are) going to react” to the new standards, says John Morgan of the agency’s National Institute of Justice.