About 21 percent of the U.S. law enforcement officers fatally shot in the line of duty were killed with high-powered rifles, according to a recent study of officer deaths over a five-year period, bolstering police officials’ arguments that officers should be outfitted with equipment like heavy-grade body armor, ballistic shields and helmets that can withstand rifle fire.
In the weeks since lone gunmen used high-powered rifles in deadly assaults on officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, police departments have begun to add heavy-duty body armor that would be resistant to shots from such weapons, citing the increased dangers that patrol officers face on the streets.
The New York Police Department will deploy 20,000 ballistic helmets and 6,000 heavy-duty bulletproof vests to officers by the summer’s end, and the Dallas Police Department announced last week it was purchasing 205 heavy-duty vests and helmets.
Meanwhile, dozens of other agencies across the country also are looking into acquiring additional protection.
“The men and women of law enforcement are facing a high number of incidents where the assaults and the assassination of law enforcement officers warrants the availability of this equipment,” said Michael McHale, president of the National Association of Police Organizations. “They are in many situations being outdone.”
The majority of the 129 officers gunned down were fatally shot by suspects with handguns as they responded to a call or self-deployed, but 27 officers were killed by a rifle, according to a study conducted by the Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services and the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. The study analyzed 684 officer deaths that occurred between 2010 and 2014.
“Although many cases involved officers shot in the head, where having body armor would not have prevented their death, there are several cases where data provided to us specifically calls out that a rifle round penetrated the officer’s vest,” states the report, titled “Deadly Calls and Fatal Encounters.”
The report notes that most officers are not equipped with body armor that could defend against rifle rounds, but that given the frequency of shootings in which suspects used high-powered rifles against officers, “there is a need to evaluate the issuance of hard body armor, helmets, and ballistic shields that can be quickly-deployed in high-risk incidents.”
A 2009 survey of 782 law enforcement agencies by the Police Executive Research Forum found that only 13 percent of the responding departments had Level 3 body armor, which protects from rifle rounds, while 10 percent said they had an even higher level of armor that protected against armor-piercing rifle rounds.
Among the Justice Department report’s findings, 14 percent of the responding or self-deployed officers killed in the line of duty were not wearing body armor.
Police departments have cited the recent targeted attacks on law enforcement, or the potential for terrorist attacks, as the worst-case scenarios in which such heavy-grade equipment would be necessary.
“In the event of multiple, simultaneous attacks, countless lives could be saved by equipping patrol officers with the appropriate weapons and giving them the training needed to engage terrorists immediately instead of waiting for specialized units to respond,” said Patrick J. Lynch, president of the NYPD’s Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association. “Every patrol car should be a mini-counterterrorism unit with heavy weapons, ballistic vests and helmets, and every officer should be fully trained to respond to a terrorist attack.”
But the report notes that the deadliest encounters for dispatched officers included responses to domestic disputes or general disturbance calls. Vehicle crashes accounted for another 211 deaths, including 78 that occurred while officers were responding to dispatched calls for service.
The recent high-profile announcements by police departments that they will purchase stronger body armor and other heavy-duty items for officers stands in contrast to movements focused on the demilitarization of police that gained traction over the last two years. The optics of officers atop armored tanks, training rifles on demonstrators who gathered in Ferguson, Missouri, to protest police brutality, enraged activists and spurred on an examination of a surplus program that funneled military equipment to local departments.
“After the shootings by police and the attempts to control those protests with military equipment, there was a movement to demilitarize, and now that there have been attacks against police, there is a push to protect them by having more military equipment,” said Inimai M. Chettiar, director of the Justice Program at the Brennan Center for Justice.
The Obama administration last year curtailed a Defense Department program that allowed excess military gear to be acquired by local police departments. Some items, like grenade launchers, bayonets and armored tracked vehicles, were banned from transfer to police departments. Other equipment, like battering rams and riot helmets and shields, are still available through the program but require more justification in order to obtain.
In response to attacks on police officers over the last month, officials from the Obama administration have been meeting with police organizations and promised to re-evaluate the list of surplus military items that departments were banned from obtaining.
Limiting body armor has not been part of the broader discussion on restrictions on military equipment, Ms. Chettiar said. But she cautioned that with calls for departments to arm themselves with heavy-duty protective gear, agencies should ask themselves whether the measures are reactionary and if they will address the root problems they are trying to solve.