Police investigate a crime scene after a shooting in Philadelphia.(Photo: Joseph Kaczmarek, AP)
WASHINGTON -- 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
"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.
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.
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.
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."