A reader recently asked if I wore a bulletproof vest during my police career.
All cops know that “bulletproof” vests aren’t bulletproof. Powerful enough rounds will penetrate a cop’s vest. People in the know call them Kevlar vests, body armor, or bullet-resistant vests. Cops have a love-hate relationship with their vests—they know their vest could save their lives, but they’re hot, heavy, and uncomfortable.
Vests have come a long way since I was issued my first one nearly 40 years ago. Oakland PD was one of the first departments to issue protective vests, and was the first in the nation to mandate their wear for every uniformed officer. My first vest was nicknamed the postage stamp by the cops at the time. It consisted of a front and rear Kevlar panel, each about a foot square in size, held in place by straps. If a bad guy shot you in the middle of the chest, the vest would probably save you, but if his aim was off a bit, or shot you from an angle, the bullet would miss the vest. But it was better than nothing.
A few years later, the department upgraded to Safariland vests. Some studies at the time had shown the performance of Kevlar vests diminished significantly when they got wet, so Safariland’s solution to prevent body sweat from contacting the vests was to encase it in heavy plastic. Although the vests covered much more of our torsos than the old “postage stamp” vests and protected against more powerful firearms, it was like wearing a garbage bag under your uniform shirt. My tee-shirt became sweat soaked by the time I walked to my patrol car at the beginning of shift and stayed that way for the next eight hours.
Many of us decided to buy our own vests, but they were expensive back then. I remember paying a week’s salary for a more comfortable vest that offered the same protection as the plastic encased departmental issued vest, but when you wear it for 40+ hours a week and your life might depend on it, it was money well spent. As technology improved and the old vests wore out, the department issued new vests, and with each new generation, the vests became more comfortable, lighter and offered better protection.
The last vest I was issued was the Extreme by American Body Armor. It had an added Kevlar insert in the middle of the chest, in lieu of the metal trauma plate in my older vest, and it was by far the most comfortable vest I ever wore. I still have it (yes, the department did not take it back to reissue when I retired—it would be like passing on your old underwear to someone), and I keep it in the back of my closet in preparation for a potential zombie invasion.
The ballistic vests I’ve been discussing here are considered concealable body armor, meaning they’re meant to be worn under a uniform shirt. However, they’re not truly concealable; if you look closely, it’s easy to tell if a police officer is wearing a vest under his shirt. Manufacturers make more concealable vests specifically designed to be worn under civilian clothing, but they’re thinner and offer less protection. The vests police officers wear will stop most handgun rounds, and they’ve saved thousands of officers lives over the years.
While concealable body armor is made from Kevlar and is considered soft body armor, there’s another category termed hard body armor. This is what SWAT teams and the military wear. They cover more of the body than concealable vests and include steel or ceramic plates, which will stop most rifle bullets. I wore military body armor at times when I was in Iraq in 2003 with the US Army. With the front and back SAPI plates (Small Arms Protective Insert), it weighed sixteen pounds, and to say our body armor was hot in the 100-plus degree desert heat is an understatement. But, it would stop an AK-47 round.
So, to the reader who wanted to know if I wore my vest during my police career: when in uniform—always. A few times, I wore my vest under a dress shirt and business suit when working dignitary protection details, but plainclothes officers and detectives don’t normally wear ballistic vests unless engaged in high-risk operations such as planned arrests or serving search warrants.
The reader also asked what it felt like to be shot in a vest. I’m very grateful to have no first-hand knowledge to share. I’ve seen some really nasty bruises and heard stories of cracked ribs from officers who were shot in their vests. They compared it to being hit in the chest with a 100 mph baseball pitch or struck in the chest with a hammer. Painful—heck yea, but a whole lot less than the alternative.