Research review: The effect of body armor on saving officers’ lives

Evaluation of LEOKA database further confirms the importance of officers wearing body armor

By Catherine R. Counts, P1 Contributor

A recent study in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene evaluated a decade of entries from the Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted (LEOKA) database to determine the effect of body armor on the survival of gunshot wounds to the torso.

The study period was from 2002-2011; in that time, 1789 assaults were reported to LEOKA. Nearly three in four officers were shot by a firearm, and about half of those officers had a wound to the torso. After excluding instances with missing data, the total dataset used for analysis consisted of 566 cases.

Interestingly, officers in the southern region were five times less likely to be wearing armor when compared to those in the western region.
Interestingly, officers in the southern region were five times less likely to be wearing armor when compared to those in the western region. (Photo/PoliceOne)

The outcome of interest was survival while the use of body armor acted as an additional dependent variable. The authors compared both individual officer-level characteristics as well as incident characteristics.

Of the 566 cases, 4.2 percent were female, 13.1 percent were non-white (mostly African American), 82 percent were line level officers, and the average BMI was 28. Half of the cases occurred in the Southern US, 77 percent occurred during a patrol assignment, and 55 percent of officers were shot by a medium caliber handgun.

A few individual characteristics were statistically significant predictors of body armor use. Namely age was inversely correlated such that with each additional year there was a 10 percent reduction of the likelihood an officer would be wearing body armor at the time of the incident. Likely interrelated with age and type of assignment, managers and commanders were 73 percent less likely to be wearing armor at the time of the incident.

Interestingly, officers in the southern region were five times less likely to be wearing armor when compared to those in the western region.

Non-white officers were twice as likely to be killed regardless of the presence of body armor, a finding that unequivocally warrants further study. Additionally, detectives were more likely to be killed than patrol officers, a potential consequence of their undercover work, or the authors suggest, even a reflection of their more sedentary roles leading to decreased physical fitness and thus the ability to withstand such an injury.

Memorable quotes on use of body armor by police

“Body armor has been long recognized by the law enforcement field to play a major role in reducing deaths and injuries from firearm shooting.”

“Over 30 percent of all officers killed in the line of duty between 2010 and 2012 were not wearing body armor.”

“The most significant obstacle to regular use of body armor for police officers is that armor can be bulky, heavy and uncomfortable for regular wearing.”

“Those with higher BMI were less likely to wear armor, with each unit increase in BMI decreasing the likelihood of wearing armor by about 8 percent.”

“Risk factors for not wearing body armor include age, status as a manager or commander, BMI status, region, and type of assignment.”

“Wearing armor quadruples the likelihood of a police officer surviving a shooting to the torso.”

Key takeaways on use of body armor by police:

Here are four key takeaways for police administrators on the importance of body armor for officer safety:

1. Body armor saves lives, yet it’s not always worn

Of the incidents included, over a quarter of the officers were not wearing body armor at the time they were shot. Incidents that create the possibility of a gun being present deserve a mandatory requirement of additional protection.

Perhaps controversially, an argument could be made that officers without body armor should delay their response until they are appropriately attired in order to not put themselves or others at additional risk.

2. Consider using the 3-E model for injury prevention

The authors recommend the three Es as an example for how to conceptualize the importance of injury prevention. First, the technology behind body armor must continue to advance such that it can be engineered to be lighter and more comfortable without sacrificing protection. Second, educating officers on the importance of their safety and the officers around them must be paramount. Third, departments must do everything in their power to enforce the expectation that body armor is a requirement rather than a suggestion.

3. Improve the capacity for research about violence against officers

While this study shed light on an important topic, research in this area is relatively limited. The continuous monitoring of violence against police officers must become a stringently studied priority. This will allow the more nuanced information about each incident to better inform our understanding of what makes a difference when an officer’s life is on the line.

4. Case vignettes help tell the story

The authors did a good job using vignettes of officers to show how the numbers worked out in a way that was easy to understand. Here’s one such example about an “average” officer:

“We can assume the victim is a male, white, average-aged (37 years) with average BMI (28 kg/m2), line officer on patrol duty in the Southern United States, who is shot with a medium caliber handgun at a distance greater than 10 feet, after year 2008. If he was not wearing armor the chance of him surviving a shooting to the torso is 0.53, and this increased to 0.83 if he was wearing armor, i.e., the marginal effect of wearing armor on probability of surviving from shooting is [30 percent].”

About the author
Catherine R. Counts is a health services researcher with Seattle Medic One in the Department of Emergency Medicine at the University of Washington School of Medicine. She received both her PhD and MHA from Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine.

Dr. Counts has research interests in domestic healthcare policy, quality, patient safety, organizational theory and culture, and prehospital emergency medicine. She is a member of the National Association of EMS Physicians and AcademyHealth. In her free time she trains Bruno, her USAR canine. 

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