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How can Body Armour Help Keep Police Officers Safe?
13 Mar 2015

Every day, police officers across the UK place themselves on the front line of a war to help keep our communities safe. Statistics show that, between 1900 and 2012, 24 police officers have been killed by stabbing, and another 71 have been shot; other dangers include being run over (with 28 officers killed in this way in the same 112-year time-frame), and assault (with 33 deaths). In this time, the protective clothing available to officers has evolved considerably: many officers now wear stab vests while on patrol in certain areas, while bullet proof vests are typically worn by armed police entering extreme situations, such as sieges or terrorist attacks.

In order to stay as safe as possible while defending our communities, the police need to combine the best training with the best resources available, and body armour is one element of the latter demanding the utmost attention if officers are to be given the best security. With multiple types of body armour available, how do you know which is right for you? If you have some experience on the force, you may already be familiar with the options on offer, but what if you are new to the job and want to learn more about keeping yourself protected? This guide is for you.

Choosing the right body armour for your needs

There are three main types of protection in body armour: ballistic, edged blade, and spike. Each of these features various levels, as based on research and ratings performed by the Home Office’s Centre for Applied Research and Technology (CAST), formerly known as the Home Office Scientific Development Branch (HOSDB) here in the UK. The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) governs the specifications in the USA. Most suppliers here in Britain refer to the NIJ's ratings, and we will here, too.

Ballistic Armour

Ballistic armour is made with Kevlar, and is designed to stop certain bullets by absorbing their energy on impact, before dispersing it throughout the materials, flattening the tip in the process. These are available in six levels, with each shown to protect against specific ammunition-types. Level 1 bulletproof vests stop bullets of a .22 calibre, as well as 380 ACP ammunition. Level 2A vests defend against 9mm bullets of a lower velocity (impacting at 332 metres per second), with Level 2 stopping higher-velocity 9mm bullets (impacting at 358 m/s) and .357 Magnum bullets. Level IIIA vests are designed to stop sub-machine gun 9mm bullets, as well as those in the .44 Magnum range. These first four levels are classed as soft armours, as they're made with multiple layers of Kevlar, and feature no rigid plates, as those vests in the next two levels do.

Hard armours, then, are designed for more extreme threats. Level III stops such rifle fire as 223 Remington, 12 gauge, and 30 Carbine, while level IV vests feature tough plates alongside the standard Kevlar, made from ceramics or steel, to stop armour-piercing rounds. The more protective a bulletproof vest is, the heavier and bulkier it will be; vests at levels III and IV can only be worn over your uniform, and are obviously unsuitable for undercover operations.

Authorised Firearms Officers (AFOs) and Specialist Firearms Officers (SFOs) are permitted and trained to carry guns, able to fire upon suspects to stop an imminent threat to life. SFOs receive more advanced training over AFOs (such as storming buildings and using specialist weaponry), and will be sent into such high-stakes situations as armed sieges. AFOs protect key institutions or persons, monitoring trials at Woolwich Crown Court, protecting the Prime Minister, the Royal Family, and Heathrow Airport, to name just a few. AFOs will wear ballistic armour over their uniform (in most cases), to maintain a smart appearance while still being protected; SFOs, on the other hand, will wear the bulkiest level 3 or 4 vests alongside ballistic helmets, goggles, gloves, and arm- and leg-protection. Both classes of officers are trained to move and operate as comfortably and smoothly as they can while dressed in these extra layers and accessories, to ensure they can perform at the best of their abilities.

Edged Blade Armour and Spike Protection

Edged blade armour is designed to protect you against knives and other sharp objects, featuring multiple layers of tightly-woven Kevlar to cause friction against the blade, preventing it from tearing through. These are available in three levels, based on the varying amounts of force attackers may use. Many stab vests also feature spike protection, to stop attacks made with pointed items, such as hypodermic needles or shivs; these vests have an extra-tight weave, to trap the tips before they can pass between the fibres, as they would in standard clothing.

Body armour is available in covert and overt styles (as mentioned earlier, though the bulkier ballistic vests cannot be worn under clothing). Covert designs are thinner, and more lightweight, with breathable fabrics to provide greater comfort over prolonged use; these are ideal for plain-clothes tasks, where discretion is vital, without compromising on safety. Overt armour is worn over clothing, and is best used when a high level of visibility is required.

Officers patrolling certain areas will wear stab vests, particularly if said location has a history of stabbings and youth-crime – knives remain a common threat in many areas of the UK, particularly among gangs: between 2005 and 2014, 168 teenage murders occurred, with 109 of these caused by stabbing. Statistics released in 2013 revealed London to be one of the UK's most significant knife-crime hotspots, with up to 1,000 people threatened or attacked with a blade each month. This staggering figure highlights just how dangerous some areas may be, and, combined with inherent aggression towards police (due to numerous complex factors) can make confronting youth-gangs incredibly dangerous for officers. While officers may never face the threat of being stabbed, wearing armour to patrol high-risk locations is a vital precaution.

Is Fit Important?

In a word, yes. When you wear body armour, it absolutely has to be the right fit for your shape, otherwise you may leave yourself exposed to danger in ways you might not expect. For example, if you choose a vest which is too big for your size, you'll find it pushes up into your throat or drops away from your chest at times – a terrible distraction when you need it least; likewise, a vest which is too small may prove highly uncomfortable, digging into your skin or leaving you feeling restricted.

To get the most out of your armour, you need to feel as if you can move exactly as you have to – whether to run, give chase, defend yourself against physical assault, or forcibly restrain a suspect. To be sure you get the best size, measure your height and chest before you order, and check these against your supplier's size chart – never be afraid to seek expert advice before you buy.

This educational article has been produced by Chris Taylor, who has been in the body armour industry for the last ten years and is an expert in body armour and bullet proof vests for SafeGuard Clothing. The goal is to help better protect and educate police officers about available protection options in order to increase their safety. He can be reached at ctaylor@safeguardclothing.co.uk

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