There are several perspectives in today’s tactical world around what type of ballistic body armor an operator should wear. As with everything and anything we experience or do in our world, there are pros and cons to each perspective. In making such a critical and important decision, a solid process is to utilize the tactical decision-making principle that the situation dictates the tactics.
There is a move today to go back to more dynamic movement. The verbiage may be different, but the action is still the same. This desire to dominant, engage, etc. has been adopted from some of the clearing actions now used by the military. This has also driven the choice of style of body armor. If we look back at policing in the 90’s, there was a move to slower, more methodical movement. This by necessity, required operators to wear increased body armor. They were moving slow and wearing only front and back plates and were being shot from the side. Helmets with ear covers and ballistic vests that included side panels and shoulder covers became the norm.
During early 2000’s combat, this body armor was adopted by the military. While it is still seen today, many of the special force operators began to remove sections of vest to accommodate their missions. They needed more mobility than the cumbersome vests gave them. Also, there was a bullet consideration. If you are only getting shot at by rifle rounds you may as well only have rifle plates on and save the weight of essentially useless pistol protection.
I have talked to operators in my SWAT classes who say they prefer the lighter plate carrier configuration. They explain their preference by their time wearing such in combat. This mindset and perspective are where the “situation dictating the tactics” gets turned around in a bad way.
To determine that a vest configuration works for US civilian police tactical teams because it works in a foreign war environment is faulty for a few reasons. The main reason being the environment. Police are not at war, no matter what some trainers may say. What we do is not combat, it is policing. As I always say, “words matter” and if we use language like “war” and “combat” to describe what we do in our own neighborhoods, we will do the wrong job. But that is a talk for another time.
If we use the principle I said earlier, we will make our vest type decision based on our mission. Now it is financially impossible for most agencies to outfit all operators with multiple vests, so we should purchase the tool that will be most useful across the broadest spectrum of situations. And in policing, if you are a team that subscribes to mission-based movement (you should, if you do not), you will move slowly more often than quickly.
On my team we wore either a Safariland or Point-Blank full entry vest with side panels, shoulder covers, and neck collars. And I wore it on hostage rescues; one where I had to run, and carry two little kids. I never noticed the extra bulk or weight. Our main missions were either barricade operations, suspect searches, or high-risk warrant services. In 15 years, I was on 3 true hostage rescues (with tactical intervention), but over 500 warrants and probably 150 barricades where we had to clear a building.
My point with that is not the number, there many operators who have a TON more experience than me. The point is if we apply the principles, we are moving slow much more often than quick. If we apply the first principle of policing, the Safety Priorities–unless we are doing an HRT–the operator is at the top of the priority list, and our tools and tactics should support operator safety. Moving quick towards an armed suspect–without a hostage–does not support that principle. Nor does moving slowly while wearing minimal body armor.
I have looked at numerous SWAT and street shootings where the officer was hit through the shoulder or the side. I see the increase of body armor as an easy way to reduce injury and death. I understand less armor is more comfortable during training and hot weather. My comeback to that is always, “I would rather be hot and uncomfortable than cold and dead.”