Ballistic vests have been in use for centuries, but the modern lightweight, flexible vests as worn today by officers first appeared with the development of Kevlar in the 1970s. Since then, bulletproof vests have become a staple for law enforcement and military officers worldwide, either as stand-alone protection, or supplemented with metal or ceramic plates for increased protection. In the United States, NIJ regulation and oversight provide a baseline for the level of safety an officer can expect to receive from their equipment, with the standards provided being used as a model for many overseas requirements.
National Institute of Justice Bulletproof Vest Standards
The National Institute of Justice and its predecessor, the National Institute of Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice, have been involved in the development of lightweight body armor since the 1970s. The requirements NIJ has developed, most recently updated in 2008, remain the only nationwide standards for police vests, and have grown to include the stab-resistant armor most often used by correctional officers (combination vests, more commonly used in Europe, are not included in US standards). Vests are divided into five categories, from Type IIA armor, rated against small handguns, to Type IV tactical armor or inserts, tested against armor-piercing bullets. In addition to ballistic types, the standards examine durability at varying angles, environmental conditions, and response over the lifecycle of the vest. The full set of current standards is available here.
To facilitate the purchase of safe, effective vests, the NIJ maintains a list of approved vendors and their contact information. The list includes the type of armor, opening, available sizing, warranty period, and whether the company produces armor for males, females, or both. It may also be sorted by any of these factors for ease of use.
The Bulletproof Vest Partnership
The financial investment involved in outfitting a department can be a challenge for small and rural agencies. To assist with these costs, Office of Justice Programs under the US Department of Justice has developed the Bulletproof Vest Partnership (BVP), a reimbursement program that provides up to a 50% match for purchases made by law enforcement organizations. Since its implementation in 1999, the Partnership has provided $277 million in funds for the purchase of more than one million vests, 13 of which have been directly credited with saving the lives of officers in 2012 alone. Beginning in 2009, the program implemented an additional assistance measure that allows departments that have experienced a natural disaster, or are otherwise experiencing financial difficulty, to apply for a “Hardship Waiver.” The waiver allows qualifying departments to apply for 100% reimbursement for vests up to $1,200 per unit, excluding taxes, shipping, and handling fees.
To apply for the program, register for an account using the online system. During an Open Application Period, complete the forms identifying the number, type, and projected cost of vests required by your department. Three to four months following the end of the Application Period, the BVP will notify applicants about the funding level they have been approved for; applicants may then purchase the vests and submit a form for reimbursement. To be eligible for the program, vests must conform to NIJ compliance standards. Applicants must also have a written “Mandatory Wear” policy in place prior to receiving funds; this should include all uniformed officers engaged in patrol or field activities.
New Research and Development
Bulletproof vest development takes many directions, from enhancing current equipment capabilities to the creation of entirely new materials and methods of construction. Armor needs to be flexible, light, and unobtrusive to not only allow for everyday activities, but also to encourage the habit of wearing the equipment over the course of every shift. One possible solution, a new type of fiber under development by Northwestern University, has demonstrated the ability to dissipate energy without breaking at a higher level than Kevlar. The material uses carbon nanotubes bound by a polymer and spun into yarn to create a strong, potentially versatile product.
Another challenge of Kevlar is that it is not permeable by water, an obstacle to comfort and for some climates a hazard caused by additional heat under a full uniform. Swiss company Empa has found a possible solution; an internal cooling system composed of water pads and small fans that circulate cold air over the device. The vest is lightweight, and operates for three to four hours before the pads need to be refilled and the batteries changed. Initial tests in Zurich have thus far been positive.