Bulletproof vests for police officers are an essential precaution, as well as plates, carriers, and other equipment depending on your field and responsibilities. Read on for some of the best body armor for law enforcement and how to choose the right armor and armor levels for your department.
How to Choose Body Armor for Your Department or Individual Officer
If you’re at all familiar with the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) body armor standards, you likely know they’re categorized by five different threat levels:
- Level IIA: Level IIA body armor has been NIJ-tested and rated to withstand .40 S&W and 9mm ammunition from slower-moving bullets out of handguns. It doesn’t offer protection from rifle ammo — probably not the best choice for SWAT teams, FBI agents, or anyone doing raids.
- Level II: Level II armor can stop faster moving Full Metal Jacket (FMJ) 9mm and .357 magnum rounds. It also doesn’t protect against rifle rounds.
- Level IIIA: Level IIIA body armor can stop .44 magnum rounds and 9mm FMJ. It does not provide rifle ammunition protection.
- Level III: Level III armor can withstand FMJ 7.62mm lead core rifle rounds. At Atomic Defense, our level III body armor plates will also stop 5.56 FMJ from AR-15s, surpassing the industry and national standards.
- Level IV: Offering the highest level of protection, Level IV body armor can stop steel core .30cal armor-piercing rounds like 30-06 M2 AP.
Law enforcement agencies often use these NIJ threat levels to determine what types of body armor they need. As you can probably imagine, they'll want to invest in armor that can stop the same handgun calibers they use in their own service pistols in case their weapons are taken from them.
Below, we’ll look at some examples of law enforcement operations and the types of armor they generally require.
Regular Response and Patrol
In most patrol scenarios, a level II or IIIA vest can withstand many ballistic threats police officers face from handguns. A soft ballistic vest is a lightweight, low-bulk way to get maximum coverage for your torso.
For most patrol officers in metropolitan areas, there isn't a ton of value in stacking as much body armor as possible into your plate carrier. Rifle plates — either 10x12 or 11x14 inches in size — are best for minimizing weight and bulk while offering rifle-rated protection to those vital organs in your torso. Of course, this also depends on the material you choose. Obviously, steel is going to be heavier and bulkier than a material like PEAD™ or ceramic that you can get with us.
These plates will fit into most concealable plate carriers. In patrol situations, rifle-level threats rank considerably lower in a daily risk profile compared to regular pistols — but they're always a possibility, especially with active shooters becoming more common and the many calls officers receive about armed individuals with rifles.
With that in mind, small rifle plates are excellent options for officers looking to upgrade their body armor for an added protective layer.
In terms of plate carriers, a quickly accessible full-size 10x12-inch is becoming a more common choice for many patrol units nationwide, especially as mass shootings become more unpredictable and sporadic. For larger officers, 11x14-inch armor and carriers are a more common choice.
As you can probably imagine, crowd and riot control typically requires more substantial body armor and equipment compared to everyday patrol and response. When you hear “riot control,” perhaps you think of rubber bullets, tear gas and stun grenades. Let’s face it — dispersing, and sometimes detaining, large groups of rioters is no small or easy feat. That’s why it’s always best to come highly prepared.
When it comes to special units like SWAT or other departments and agencies involved with riot control, surveillance, serving warrants and other high-risk assignments, Level IV body armor — including bulletproof vests, plates, and plate carriers — is usually the best choice. With the significant risk of being fired upon with high-power weaponry, you’ll need maximum protection. In addition to general body armor, riot control officers are typically equipped with active threat gear like bulletproof helmets, masks, visors, shields, and tactical gloves.
Types of Body Armor You May Need
Still aren’t quite sure what types of body armor you might need? Not to worry. We’ll give an overview of the most popular gear for police officers and when you’ll likely need them.
Concealable bulletproof vests are designed to be worn underneath police uniforms and casual wear so they aren't visible to criminals and regular citizens. As such, a bulletproof vest is likely essential if you're an undercover detective, FBI agent or plain clothes investigator.
Even if you're a front-line officer who needs to be approachable to the public but requires protection during extended shifts, you'd likely want to invest in a vest. Keep in mind that the lower the level, the easier it is to hide that you're wearing body armor.
Worn by all types of law enforcement, body armor plates are inserted into plate carriers and tactical vests. When struck by a bullet, they're designed to deform the bullet and significantly reduce blunt force trauma to your vital organs.
Ballistic plates' strong fibers are securely woven in a perpendicular weave, forming a solid sheet of material. PEAD™ and ceramic are two common armor plate materials.
Tactical headgear safeguards one of the most vulnerable body parts — you guessed it — the head. Just like taking your Harley out for a spin requires a sturdy helmet, you'll need proper headgear to protect against various bullets, blunt impact weapons and thrown projectiles.
The head is a commonly targeted area by felons where law enforcement officers are concerned. While helmets aren't the standard wear for regular patrol and response officers, they're essential in active shooter instances and other violent assault risks. You might survive a chest shot for anywhere from minutes to hours, but a shot to the head will either end someone's life in an instant or cause extremely rapid blood loss.
For full head and facial coverage, bulletproof visors can be equipped to your helmet as well.
Bulletproof masks can vary by the amount of facial coverage. Half-face masks leave some of the forehead exposed since they’re designed to be paired with ballistic helmets. Meanwhile, full-face masks enclose the whole face from under the chin to the top of the head, typically worn without a helmet.
Bulletproof masks are generally recommended for dicey situations like narcotics busts, riot control, hostage rescues and active shooters.
It’s no secret that ballistic face masks impart a downright daunting and formidable appearance, giving the message that the wearer is not to be messed with. That said, you might want to steer clear of this one if you’re a community peace officer.
Tactical shields and blankets offer an extra safety barrier from potentially armed individuals while reducing the exposure of multiple police officers. Typically, they're employed for tactical entry scenarios like drug busts, search and arrest warrants, and hostage rescues. They're also commonly used by riot control squads and even patrol officers that arrive first on the scene.
Tactical shields can be used for car protection purposes, too. You can put them in your trunk or use them to cover doors and windows. Pretty versatile, huh?
Find Law Enforcement Body Armor at Atomic Defense
You can probably see that body armor is pretty important for police officers, right? At Atomic Defense, we can help you find the right gear based on your law enforcement needs and operations. Whatever type of vests, plates, carriers, headgear or other equipment you need, we have a quality selection to choose from. Contact us today for help in finding the right body armor for the job.