Raising the bar for body armor

By Rachel Fretz

If you ask any officer what product he or she relies on most for safety, the answer will more likely be body armor.

More than 3,000 police officers' lives have been saved by body armor since the mid-1970s when the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) began testing and developing body armor and performance standards for ballistic and stab resistance.

Recently, the NIJ Body Armor Safety Initiative of the Department of Justice issued a new level of standards that far exceeds those published in ’04, and specifically addresses safety standards in light of wear and tear on the product.

“We need to give some comfort to law enforcement that performance of armor will still meet the standards after the warranty expires,” Marc Caplan explained during an educational seminar at the 114th IACP Conference. “It’s easy to manufacture to the standard, but that doesn’t mean the body armor will continue meeting these standards in actual use.”

As a result, the NIJ, in conjunction with the Department of Justice, has added new, highly rigorous levels of threat at the testing level in order to maintain safety measures.

Updated changes for the ’06 standards include:

  • Standardized projectiles to include narrower ballistics
  • Increased potential threat level (e.g. a change in round threats; required submersion rather than shower testing for wet conditions)
  • Increased test sample quantities
  • Increased labeling and workmanship requirements
  • Added a new statistical analysis method that will play a role in the pass/fail criteria of ‘06 models
  • Reduced shot-to-edge distance
  • Require testing of multiple armor sizes
  • Retooled perforation backface signature requirements
  • Improved ballistic limit testing
  • Created new level of environmental conditioning to mimic field use (e.g. humidity and rough handling)

These improved standards go a long way in anticipating the degree of distress body armor will have after five or six years of use, and to augment safety standards accordingly.

“We want to provide that confidence,” Caplan said.

The NIJ released a draft of the ’06 standard in February of this year. Caplan encouraged all LE to visit the site and give their feedback. Visit the NIJ Body Armor Web page.

“All comments are encouraged in order for substantive, technical improvements to be made prior to publication,” said Caplan.

The website also maintains a list of currently compliant models of body armor.

As always, agencies are advised to require their procurements to meet or exceed the more recent standard.

IACP guest speaker Marc Caplan is Chief of Operational Technologies Division of the National Institute of Justice (U.S. Department of Justice) 

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