A rising number of law enforcement officers are required to wear body armor after two consecutive years in which police were being killed by gunfire with increasing frequency, a new Justice Department study has found.
Ninety-two percent of officers reported that their agencies now have mandatory body armor policies, up from 59% in a similar 2009 survey.
The jump also comes in the wake of a 2010 directive by Attorney General Eric Holder, who warned that local police risked losing millions of dollars in federal aid if body armor did not become mandatory.
The new report, based on a survey of more than 1,000 officers, also found that 78% of police said their agencies had written policies related to mandatory body armor use, up from 45% in 2009.
Although the 2009 report surveyed 782 police agencies, the new study drew information from officers on the street — mainly from large agencies — to measure their understanding of and compliance with new or existing policies.
Nearly 90% of officers at agencies that required body armor to be worn said they complied with the mandatory-wear policies “all of the time.”
“For a number of years, the data has shown that police have been targeted simply because they are police,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a law enforcement think tank which performed both studies.
“The Justice Department had a responsibility to mandate this, and the police departments had a responsibility to institute these policies,” Wexler said. “This clearly shows that departments are stepping up.”
The report comes as firearm-related police fatalities have declined 34% so far this year, compared with the same period last year, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, which closely tracks fatalities involving law enforcement in the line of duty.
Wexler said that while it is “encouraging” that the number of firearms fatalities is declining this year after increases in 2010 and 2011, the study did not examine body armor policies and compliance among the officers who were killed.
“Can we say there has been a cause and effect (related to the new mandatory policies)? No,” Wexler said. “But it is not unreasonable to say that these policies may be a contributing factor.”
Police use of body armor has long been a source of contention, especially in the South where sweltering summer heat is often the leading explanation for why bullet resistant vests remain in the trunks of patrol cars.
Houston police officials faced the same complaints in 2007 when the department began requiring all officers to wear body armor while in uniform. But police Chief Charles McClelland said much of the opposition disappeared two weeks after the policy was announced when an officer was shot—and saved—by a bullet-resistant vest.
McClelland said the officer, who had never worn armor before the directive was issued, was shot at multiple times by a gunman who was armed with a 9 mm handgun. One of the rounds struck the officer “in the center of the chest,” the chief said. “I don’t think there is much doubt that the vest saved his life.”
In addition to firearms-related incidents, Craig Floyd, chairman and chief executive officer of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, said body armor also protects officers in car accidents and in knife attacks.
“Clearly, the new data indicates that message on officer safety is sinking in,” Floyd said.
It is unclear whether the increase in mandatory armor policies was driven by the threat of losing federal aid or whether two years of rising officer deaths prompted the actions.
But the Justice report found that 90% of officers who comply with their department policies cited “critical” safety reasons. Nearly 50% referred to agency requirements and 14% cited “family pressure” as among the factors in their decisions to wear the equipment.
“I would like to think that my contemporaries are putting these policies in place for the right reasons, not simply out of concern that they might lose some (federal) money,” McClelland said. “No chief wants to be in a position of having to present a folded flag to a loved one of a police officer when there was something that could have been done to prevent a death.”