However, buying the right body armor requires more than simply checking a box and placing an order. Vests are not one-size-fits-all. Many require custom fitting, and it’s important to know the differences between the various armor options and threat ratings. Plus, there’s the challenge of funding.
1. MEASURE FOR CORRECT FIT
A ballistic vest that doesn't fit correctly might be uncomfortable, or worse, not provide enough coverage. Body armor should protect all vital organs, especially on the sides, where most officers are shot. If a vest isn’t sized correctly, coverage across the sides is often not complete.
In order to get accurate measurements, it’s important to have someone else measure with a soft measuring tape rather than taking self-measurements.
Be sure to take both sitting and standing measurements to ensure that vests fit comfortably whether you are sitting in a cruiser or on foot, says Skip Church, vice president of Propper International’s armor division.
He recommends taking the average of these two measurements so that when an officer sits down, the vest doesn't hit him or her in the throat or interfere with the duty belt but still offers enough coverage while standing.
It’s also important to consider the difference between tactical and concealed armor. Concealed armor is usually custom-fitted, while tactical armor often comes in alpha sizing, which can range from XS-2XL depending on the model.
2. MATCH THE ARMOR TO THE MISSION
When deciding what armor to buy, first determine what threats you and your agency anticipate and what your budget will allow.
The National Institute of Justice categorizes ballistic armor based on bullet resistance, with levels I, IIA, II and IIIA in the softer materials, and III and IV for harder armors. The higher the rating, the higher level of protection the vest offers. The higher ratings offer greater protection but often come with heavier and stiffer materials and higher costs.
It’s important to understand the difference between soft, semi-rigid and hard armor. Soft armor is flexible, made to wrap around the wearer and stop handgun rounds. As the majority of firearm threats officers see are from handguns, this is the most popular type of armor.
Semi-rigid plates can offer protection from rifle rounds and absorb blunt force trauma while still remaining lightweight. Hard armor plates made from ceramic or metal must be able to withstand multiple shots from a high-powered rifle, making them generally much heavier and less comfortable. Ceramic plates, which “catch” a bullet, are preferred over metal. Metal (typically steel) plates cause bullets to spall and shatter, putting the officer and those nearby in danger from the shrapnel.