Do You Have the Right Body Armour for the Job? A Guide to the Different Vests Available for Police Officers

The Police Service features a wide range of officers in a number of different roles, all of which have their own responsibilities. Coming with this are a wide range of threats and potential attacks, which are again diverse and different depending on the role the officer is in. However, whatever the role, our police services need to be protected to ensure they can perform to the best of their ability and avoid injury. Body armour is a necessity for all in the police service, but just as there are different roles a Police Officer can fill, so too does body armour cover a wide range of protective vests. Body armour is designed to protect against specific threats, so Officers in different roles facing unique threats will require specific body armour.

Different Types of Police Armour

For many in the Police, stab proof vests will be the most basic protective equipment required. This is not because they are commonly used, but because they are the most common weapon available. Unlike elsewhere in the world, firearms are very rare in the UK and the majority of Officers are unlikely to face firearms. However, there are sadly a number of instances over the past several decades of Officers being killed with firearms, and even though crimes involving firearms make up only 0.2% of all recorded crime, the threat still remains, and some may wish to have protection against firearms. For some branches of the Police, a bullet proof vest is not only recommended but vital; Armed Response Units and other Firearms Officers are deployed into the most dangerous situations where firearms are often likely to be faced. For these Officers, a bullet proof vest is absolutely necessary. However, many may not realise that bullet proof vests come in several levels depending on the protection they can offer. Officers working in such extreme situations may need the highest available protection, which utilises hard plates of Ceramic, Steel or Titanium. These are naturally quite heavy and bulky, and will be uncomfortable when worn for extended periods, and so are only recommended for those who will be facing extreme threats. For the majority of Officers, a ‘hard’ bullet proof vest that can protect against high calibre bullets will not be necessary. These Level III or IV armours do offer increased protection, but the added weight and bulk will restrict movement and sap energy over a long time. For those who feel they need a bullet proof vest- perhaps Officers, plainclothes or otherwise, working in especially dangerous areas of the country- will likely want a vest at Level IIIa or lower. These levels outline what exactly vests can protect against.

Testing Body Armour

Body armour is tested and standardised by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) in the USA and by the UK Centre for Applied Sciences and Technology (CAST, formerly the Home Office Scientific Development Branch). These institutions are seen as the world leaders in ballistics and edged/spiked weapon testing respectively, and apply Levels to body armour to outline exactly what threats they can protect against. Both institutions share testing methods and equipment, and so armour that meets the standard for one organisation will meet the equivalent standard. For bullet proof vests, as seen above, Levels III and IV are seen as ‘hard armours’, and can protect against 7.62mm Full Metal Jacketed bullets and .30 calibre armour-piercing rounds respectively. Bullet resistant vests upto NIJ Level IIIa, like stab and spike proof vests, utilise Kevlar and similar plastic-based materials that are flexible and lightweight. These para-aramid based materials have an incredibly high strength-to-weight ratio, and allow for vests that can be worn comfortably all day. This is of particular interest to Officers on patrol that will be required to wear armour for the duration of their shift.


If an Officer is likely to be facing a firearm, it will most likely be a handgun. Handguns were the most common of all firearms, being used in 28% of offences involving a firearm. ‘Soft armour’, as it is known, at Levels I-IIIa will protect against most handgun ammunition. This benefits Officers in Armed Response Units, for example, who will need to have a full range of movement to perform appropriately. Having a vest that does not restrict movement, is comfortable, and offers protection against handgun ammunition- as armour upto NIJ Level IIIa does- is ideal (for more information on the specific ammunition each level protects against, see here). This is equally true for any Officer who is likely to face the threat of a firearm, for example Plainclothes Police Officers. These Officers may still require protection due to the dangerous nature of their operations, but may not realise that bullet proof vests do not necessarily have to be worn over clothes.

Body Armour and Uniform

Both bullet and stab proof vests are available in covert and overt styles. While the ‘hard armours’ mentioned above are only available in an overt style due to their bulk and weight, vests utilising Kevlar and laminate for example are much lighter and thinner, and can be worn underneath clothes. These covert vests are flexible and breathable, and can be worn for long periods. Manufacturers also incorporate temperature-regulating technologies into covert vests that can draw moisture away from the skin and help keep the wearer cool. For Officers who need to keep their body armour concealed this is ideal. Some Officers, such as Community Support Officers, may not wish to display their body armour for a number of reasons; some feel it further distances the Police from the public, or can even mark Officers as a target for violence. Whatever the reason, for these Officers a covert vest will again be ideal. However, for Community Support Officers as well as many other Officers, a stab proof vest will be a much more suitable option.

How do Stab Proof Vests Work?

Stab proof vests utilise the same materials as bullet proof vests- Kevlar or Dyneema- because of their extremely high strength-to-weight ratio. However, while Kevlar vests ‘traps’ bullets in its strong fibres, dispersing its energy and slowing it to a stop, they cannot stop knives and edged weapons in the same way. Weapons with an edge cut through these protective fibres, rendering the vest useless. Stab proof vests therefore incorporate either chainmail or laminate coating in addition to Kevlar to help stop a knife from penetrating. This is ideal for Officers who, if facing a weapon, will most likely encounter a knife or similar weapon. Knives were over three times as prolific as firearms in recorded crime, and a stab proof vest (often called a knife-resistant vest) is a vital piece of equipment for Officers. These are again available in both covert and overt styles, with overt stab vests available with high visibility strips, logos and insignia, and additional pouches for equipment, meaning they can be worn as part of a uniform. Furthermore, some feel that wearing a stab proof vest is a sign of authority, and this show of preparedness may deter potential attackers.

Can Stab Proof Vests Stop Needles?

However, an important point to note is that just as a bullet proof vest cannot protect against a knife, a stab proof vest cannot always protect against a spiked weapon. The bullet proof fibres found in bullet and stab resistant vests, while woven tightly to give them their protective qualities, still have gaps that a spiked weapon can pass through, making them useless against spiked weapons like needles or ice picks. This is just as true in stab vests that utilise chainmail, which naturally contains large gaps for spiked weapons to pass through. Spike protection is ensured with layers of laminate, thin plastic added to the protective materials to present a tough barrier to slow and stop spiked weapons. Stab vests that utilise laminate will therefore offer some protection against spiked weapons, but it is important to ensure that body armour meets the correct level as outlined by CAST.

Added Benefits

One of the added benefits of body armour is the general protection it will offer thanks to the Kevlar and chainmail in the plates. This means that while a bullet or stab resistant vest will protect against weapons, it will also provide protection against blunt force trauma, meaning that body armour can protect Officers in nearly any situation. This includes traffic collisions in particular, and DuPont- the manufacturers of Kevlar- honour several American Police Officers a year who have been saved from traffic collisions thanks to body armour.

With Officers being called to a wide variety of dangerous situations, having a protective vest that can mitigate the damage of falling debris, high temperatures, or even simple brute force is essential. Furthermore, there has been increased research into creating body armour that can protect against CBRN (Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear) attacks, which consolidate the protective equipment already being used by Specialist Firearms Officers for example.

Protecting the brave men and women that support our communities is of utmost importance. It is a sad fact that many Officers may face violence, even involving weapons, and this should not be treated as simply part of the job. Equipping them with protective and appropriate clothing in the form of a bullet or stab resistant vest is a necessity and will help Officers to confidently and safely perform their duties.

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