Not so bulletproof

I’ll depart from the usual lighter tone of this blog to discuss something that touched a nerve with me. Recently a police officer in the Bay Area was killed by “friendly fire.” That is, another officer with him shot him in the chest, causing a fatal wound.

The exact circumstances of the shooting have not yet been made public. It may have been a case of misidentification, i.e. the shooter thought his fellow officer was a “bad guy,” or it may have been an accidental discharge. What has been made public is the fact that the victim was wearing a “bulletproof vest” and yet died from a chest wound. Some people may assume there must have been a defective product for this to have happened. Not so.

The vests we were issued in the FBI were called BPUs, or Ballistic Protective Undergarments. We were supposed to wear them for all arrests and other potentially dangerous situations, such as some searches. Unlike patrol officers, we did not wear them on a day-to-day basis. Ours were ridiculously thick and bulky. They were so wide at the shoulder that it was difficult even to steer a car while wearing one. They dug into the upper arm and kept it from moving straight to the front. No patrol officer would put up with such a design for a full shift, much less every day. That’s why the typical vests worn by police officers are thinner and have much larger armholes.

Armholes are one of the biggest areas of vulnerabilities with these vests. The area of the chest just below the neck is another. The abdomen is yet another, and of course, they do nothing to protect the head and neck. Perhaps the least known weaknesses, but significant nonetheless, is the overlap at the sides. The vests are shaped somewhat like double aprons – two flat pieces joined by straps in the middle, forming the head hole. The head is slipped between the straps; the flat pieces hang down in front and back. They are wide enough to overlap on the sides, where there are Velcro closures to pull them snug. The problem there is that the overlap can catch a bullet and direct it inside the vest instead of outside. The wearer is supposed to pull the front piece over the back piece to prevent this, since most shots are presumed to originate from in front of the officer, but a shot can come from the rear.

The opening scene of my third Cliff Knowles novel, Fatal Dose, describes a scenario where an officer receives a chest wound despite his vest. That scene is not fiction. I described as accurately as I could a very scary video I saw at firearms training years earlier. That video was taken from an officer’s dashcam.

There are several lessons to be taken from this. First is not to trust these vests to be bulletproof. Not only do they have uncovered areas such as i described, but they also can’t stop high-powered rifle bullets. Second, don’t be too quick to judge officers who shoot quickly. Certainly in the latest shooting someone screwed up somehow. But officers make arrests and enter hostile locations regularly. It is easy to understand why some feel the necessity to be quick on the trigger.

There was a saying I heard in the FBI more than once:

It’s better to be judged by twelve than carried by six.