The motto of law enforcement has long been “Protect and Serve.” However, to continue to perform their critical role in ensuring public safety, officers must also be protected. Their training, education, and equipment all serve as important components of keeping them safe.
In spite the efforts made toward ensuring officer safety, however, a nationwide average of 167 law enforcement members have been killed annually over the past decade, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund (NLEOMF). The leading cause of death in the past decade was gunshot, except in 2003, when that number was exceeded by the number of auto accidents.
While many of the dangers of law enforcement may be difficult to prevent, the wearing of body armor offers a critical opportunity for officers to improve their odds of surviving a firearms attack. According to the FBI’s, Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted (LEOKA), the relative risk of fatality for officers who did not wear body armor was 14 times greater than those who did.
Furthermore, the effectiveness of wearing body armor is confirmed by the more than 3,000 members of the IACP / DuPont Kevlar’s Survivors’ Club, each of whom has survived deadly attacks and impacts, both ballistic and non-ballistic, with the protection of his body armor. Required By Policy
While many departments still do not require their officers to wear body armor, the number of those that do is increasing. According to the BJS report, Police Departments in Large Cities 1990-2000, the percentage of police departments in cities with populations over 250,000 requiring all of its patrol officers to wear body armor rose from 21% to 48% over that decade. During this same time period, the percentage of departments that required at least some patrol officers to wear armor increased from 31% to 69%. Another BJS report, Sheriff’s Offices, 2003, indicated that, in that year, 76% of officers were employed by a department that had a body armor requirement for at least some officers. That percentage was up from 30% in 1990.
Despite an increasing trend in wearing body armor, however, tragic cases continue where police officers not wearing body armor were killed in the line of duty. According to the 2006 LEOKA, only 26 of the 46 officers who were killed with firearms that year were wearing body armor. The 26 who died while wearing vests suffered wounds to other areas of the body, such as the head or the neck, or the bullets circumvented the protective armor. The remaining 20 were not wearing body armor.
Body Armor: Con
A number of excuses exist for not wearing body armor. One is the perception that wearing armor may be uncomfortable or inconvenient. Some officers use the excuse of discomfort from the extra heat generated as a result of wearing an additional layer. Likewise, the excuse of discomfort from a poorly fitted or designed vest is used by some to avoid donning their armor. Those who may be required to wear armor containing rifle plates may decline to do so as the extra weight may cause them to become more readily fatigued. The inconvenience of having one’s movements restricted by wearing a vest or experiencing difficulty in concealing it may seem like sufficient justifications to avoid wearing body armor.
The cost of body armor may also be a prohibitive factor for many. While many departments shoulder the burden of the cost of protective gear, others that face budget shortfalls may leave that financial responsibility to the officer. For those departments that fund protective gear for their officers, the expenditure can be both a significant one (with the cost of protective vests between $500 to $1,000) and an ongoing one, due to the fact that vests must be tested and/or replaced on a regular basis.
To assist police departments in the purchasing of protective armor, the Bulletproof Vest Partnership was created with the passage of the Bulletproof Vest Partnership Grant Act of 1998. Since 1999, this Department of Justice program has supported the purchase of about 450,000 vests for nearly 12,000 jurisdictions.
Body Armor: Pro
It is vital for law enforcement members to recognize that protecting themselves, by utilizing their training, skills, and equipment—which includes the wearing of body armor—is an important part of the role police perform in protecting others. The impact of a law enforcement death is a considerable one. The death of an officer not only removes that individual from the critical role he performs in the pursuit of public safety, but also leaves an indelible wound in the hearts of citizens, members of the law enforcement community, and the surviving family that is left behind.
Perhaps the most obvious survivors in the aftermath of law enforcement death are family members. Families experience the incalculable grief of losing a beloved spouse, parent, or child. Many face this ordeal with the additional trauma of dealing with the sudden or violent nature of their loved one’s death. Further, they endure their grief amidst an often widely publicized incident.
Organizations such as the Concerns of Police Survivors (C.O.P.S.) exist to help survivors of law enforcement death. C.O.P.S. hosts annual survivors’ seminars in Washington, DC, during National Police Week and offers specially tailored camps throughout the year, such as the C.O.P.S. Kids Summer Camp. C.O.P.S. provides both immediate and long-term assistance in an effort to work toward its goal of “rebuilding shattered lives.” Despite the support made available to them, though, surviving family members experience enormous suffering with the death of their officer.
Law enforcement members are also often devastated by the death of an officer, and many describe the loss as tantamount to that of a family member. The impact on fellow officers is so potentially distressing that departments often provide grief counseling and stress debriefing to officers after the death of one of their own. The C.O.P.S. organization also recognizes that officers are vulnerable to the trauma of a line-of-duty death as well and, as such, opens its membership up to those officers who have been affected by such. The death of an officer is often very traumatic for law enforcement brethren. One officer described the day a fellow officer was killed as “the worst day of my life.”
Many citizens feel the pain of losing law enforcement members, as well. Often, following a line-of-duty death, citizens take the opportunity to demonstrate their appreciation and respect for police. Against the backdrop of police vehicles in a memorial procession, both adults and young children wave flags and display signs with the words “thank you” and “hero” written on them. Community members who have been touched by the tragedy of the loss of an officer may create makeshift memorials where they can express their sentiments by leaving flowers, balloons, and thank you cards. They may host candlelight vigils as an opportunity for people to come together and pay homage to their officer.
Or, they may organize toward another means of paying tribute. In one community, citizens were so moved by the murder of a police officer, they raised money for the design and creation of a memorial statue to stand as a permanent symbol of their respect for law enforcement.
In an effort to cope with their tragic loss, the many victims of law enforcement death—citizens, fellow law enforcement officers, and surviving family—often look for meaningful ways to express their profound appreciation, devotion, or love for their officer. Each year, more than 200,000 people visit the National Law Enforcement Officer’s Memorial in Washington, DC. They leave behind flowers, notes, and pictures, and make an etching of one of the more than 18,000 officers whose names are engraved there. Online sites designed to pay tribute to fallen officers, such as the Officer Down Memorial Page, also receive numerous visitors who often leave behind personal messages and notes of thanks for an officer who has touched their lives.
These expressions of appreciation demonstrate how challenging it is for citizens, law enforcement members, and family to cope with the loss of an officer. In some cases, the death of an officer is coupled with the difficult knowledge that the officer’s death may have been prevented if he or she would have been wearing body armor.
DuPont, which makes the Kevlar™ used in many types of vests, estimates that more than 30% of the approximately 1,200 officers who have been killed in the line of duty since 1980 could have been saved by wearing body armor. In these tragedies, the grief experienced by all survivors may be greatly compounded.
Survivors may be tormented by the question as to why the officer didn’t do everything possible to protect his loved ones, friends, and community members by maximizing his safety. One widow whose husband was fatally wounded by a gunshot outside of his vest said, “If I didn’t know that he did everything he could to be safe, I know there would’ve been times I would’ve thought he didn’t care enough, and he left us here alone in a nightmare…and then I would have felt so guilty for thinking that, that I would have hated myself.”
To continue the quest for public safety and to protect citizens, law enforcement community members, and their families, all police officers must wear body armor at all times. Police chiefs and county sheriffs must require the wearing of body armor and ensure officers’ compliance of such at all times. With the incalculable amount of trauma associated with the death of a law enforcement officer and the inestimable loss on society, the choice to wear body armor is not one of comfort or convenience, but about rising to the noble challenge of protecting others.
Vicki Bilton is a law enforcement death survivor who remains active in police safety issues. She can be contacted at email@example.com. Photos courtesy of Captain Pam Carrier