Bulletproof Vests Ain’t So Bulletproof

Bullets fired in government tests penetrated more than half the police body armor vests containing the synthetic fiber Zylon, already the subject of lawsuits over reliability.

As a result, the government announced that it would no longer help local police forces pay for bullet-resistant vests that contain any Zylon but would add $10 million to the $23 million already available for police vests.

The Justice Department tests showed that vests made with Zylon lose strength over time, well before their standard five-year warranty expires and even when the armor appears to be in good condition, according to the study released Wednesday by the department’s National Institute of Justice.

“Visual inspection is not enough to tell you if there is a problem with the armor,” said NIJ’s director, Sarah V. Hart.

New standards for vests that are under development will measure how they perform over time, not just when they are new, Hart said.

The prime factor leading to Zylon’s degradation appears to be moisture, the study said, adding that more research is needed. Keeping protective material dry is an especially tricky problem _ officers often perspire and sometimes work in rainy or snowy conditions.

The tests were the most extensive, independent examination of Zylon ever, and they included vests made by nine companies. Until now, complaints about Zylon vests have focused on Second Chance Body Armor Inc., the top U.S. supplier of bullet-resistant police vests. Toyobo Co. Ltd., Zylon’s Japanese maker, has acknowledged Zylon may lose up to 20 percent of its strength within just two years.

An estimated 200,000 of the nation’s 700,000 police officers wore Zylon vests last year, according to the Fraternal Order of Police.

Many police departments have sought to replace their Zylon vests, which can cost $500 to $700 each, as questions about them have arisen in recent years, said Joseph Estey, president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

“The study seems to verify what was suspected,” said Estey, the police chief in Hartford, Vt. “The idea of testing longevity is something that needs to be looked at.”

Hart and Estey stressed that officers with Zylon vests should continue wearing them. “A Zylon vest is better than no vest at all,” Estey said.

Police departments around the United States provided 103 used vests as part of a 21-month Justice review that was begun in response to complaints that Zylon vests were putting officers’ lives in danger. In June 2003, an Oceanside, Calif., police officer was killed and a Forest Hills, Pa., officer was seriously wounded while wearing Second Chance vests made of Zylon.

The vests were subjected to six shots from 9-millimeter pistols and other weapons. Sixty vests, 58 percent of the total, were penetrated by at least one round.

Even among the armor that stopped all six shots, all but four vests failed another test that measures the impact, or blunt force trauma, an officer could expect to absorb.

The government is suing both Second Chance and Toyobo, contending they conspired to hide evidence that the body armor could be defective. Toyobo Co. is paying $29 million to settle class-action litigation, but faces still other suits against it and Second Chance.

Second Chance has acknowledged that the vests may not be safe and urged its customers to replace them. Toyobo says Zylon works well in body armor that is properly constructed.


On the Net:

Justice Department police vest page: http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bvpbasi/

© 2005 The Associated Press