Editor’s note: There are few technologies in the history of law enforcement as revolutionary as ballistic armor. Introduced in the early 1970s, it immediately contributed to officer safety, and almost as soon began to improve. Sadly, too many officers go without it, either because they choose not to wear it or because they can’t afford it. The time has come for armor to be as common as gun belts and badges. AP Photo/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, JoeAppel
Vest for Life gets quality, used vests in the hands of officers who need them. Among the first requests came from an officer in New York state. To request or donate vests, visit www.vestforlife.com. Photo courtesy Travis Yates
FEATURED IN BELOW 100
Proved its Worth—Body armor works, but only if officers have it & wear it.
Last August, RAND Corporation released a study of the effectiveness and benefits of police officers wearing ballistic armor. Among its findings: Wearing armor more than triples the likelihood an officer will survive a shot to the torso. Despite that, the study found that approximately 25% of police departments don’t require their officers wear ballistic armor. Of those departments, many don’t even provide armor to their officers. Approximately 236,000 officers in the U.S. today don’t have armor, according to the study.
A tenet of Law Officer’s Below 100 initiative is “wear your vest.” The question arises: Is the fact that officers are getting shot while not wearing armor the result of a lack of armor availability? Or is it a lack of compliance—that is, are officers in departments who have policies in place and who are issued armor simply not wearing it?
“People presume that those who aren’t wearing armor are in departments that don’t require or provide it. But that’s not necessarily the case,” says Tom LaTourrette, the study’s author and a senior scientist at RAND. “So where do we prioritize our efforts? My calculations are based on the assumption that increased armor use would come from increased deployment, but people have argued that we also need to focus on compliance. We don’t have any good data on this.”
LaTourrette studied 561 line-of-duty shootings between 2004 and 2007. Among the 262 torso shootings studied, officers who were not wearing body armor had a 68% chance of dying; of those wearing armor, there was a 20% chance of dying.
The study estimates the benefit and cost of extending body armor use to all law enforcement officers not currently wearing armor. The findings show that outfitting all police with armor would result in a benefit that is nearly twice the cost, indicating that such an effort is strongly justified economically. But, of course, it’s more than dollars and cents.
American police culture must address this head on: Nearly half of the 51 officers killed in the U.S. in 2011 have been shot, at the time of publication. Meanwhile, 236,000 officers in this country are hitting the streets everyday without the proven protection of ballistic armor. Bottom line: Wear your vest. If your department doesn’t have vests, put together a plan to get them.
Vest for Life—A program addressing an urgent need
In 2008, the Vest for Life program shipped three vests to the Philippine National Police Department. Just days after receiving the vests, an officer—who hadn’t had a vest in eight years of duty—was shot in the chest during a vehicle stop. His life was saved by this donation. When the news made it to the U.S., Vest for Life began hearing daily from American officers who also went without vests.
The thought of a police officer not being provided a bullet proof vest to wear on duty sounds ridiculous to most of us. When you discover that a significant number of police officers in the U.S. aren’t provided this basic piece of safety equipment to keep them safe, it goes beyond ridiculous: This is an outrage.
“I really couldn’t believe it,” says Capt. Travis Yates, who co-founded Vest for Life. “Our first request was from an officer in the state of New York, and his fiancée was literally crying about the situation, and I thought, well, that’s probably a unique case. And then the requests just continued.”
Vest for Life was founded to provide immediate help to officers in need. Used vests are donated to the nonprofit by police agencies replacing their vests. Donations are sent to police officers working without one. With more than 1,800 vests sent to officers to date, along with two officers shot and saved, demand is growing from officers in need.
The program has not been without controversy.
“Many agencies are hesitant to provide vests and actually choose to throw them away,” says Yates. “But you have to look at who we are trying to help. The majority of these officers will never be able to afford a new vest and they’re working the streets without one. We consider our efforts a temporary solution for them and we encourage them to pursue a new vest as soon as they can.”
Ultimately, Yates says that he and his partner, Lt. Clint Reck of Muscle Shoals, Ala., will never send a vest that they themselves would not feel comfortable wearing. With two lives saved, the proof is there: No officer should go without a vest.
The organization is financed by individual donations and all of the funds go toward the shipping of vests across the country to officers in need. Vest For Life is a 501c(3) nonprofit organization. For more information, visit www.vestforlife.com.
Helping with the Cost—Resources for getting armor