Are Criminals in Body Armor a National Problem?

Science, technology, and life.
Aug. 14 2012 2:22 PM

Killers in Kevlar

How many gun-toting criminals are wearing body armor? A Slate investigation.

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James Holmes appears in court in Centennial, Colo.

RJ SANGOSTI/AFP/GettyImages.

Brian Murphy, a 51-year-old police lieutenant, was the first officer to arrive at the scene of the Sikh temple massacre in Oak Creek, Wis., on Aug. 5. He was tending to a victim when he looked up and saw the shooter, Wade Page, standing over him. According to police, Page shot Murphy eight to nine times at very close range. Yet Murphy is alive today, thanks to a ballistic vest.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Body armor saves lives. When a cop in bullet-resistant gear faces an armed criminal in ordinary clothes, the cop has an advantage. Page wore no armor. Neither did Jared Loughner, who pleaded guilty on Aug. 7 to last year’s mass shooting in Tucson, Ariz. But armor, like guns, is easy to get, and bad guys are catching on.

James Holmes, the movie-theater shooter in Aurora, Colo., seems to have had this idea. According to Aurora’s police chief, Holmes opened fire wearing “a ballistic helmet, a tactical ballistic vest, ballistic leggings, a throat protector, and a groin protector.” A receipt indicates that Holmes bought a non-bullet-resistant assault vest, and law enforcement authorities, citing a judicial gag order, won’t say whether the vest on the receipt is the one he wore. But Holmes wasn’t the first shooter to get the idea.

Fifteen years ago, two bank robbers equipped with AK-47s, armor-piercing bullets, and 100-round clips fought off dozens of cops in North Hollywood, Calif. Both men wore Kevlar. One had a steel plate under his vest. The other had leg armor. Thirty-two officers returned fire. One later described hitting the robbers nine times without much effect. Eleven cops and six civilians were wounded in the 45-minute battle. After 27 shots to his limbs, buttocks, and neck, one robber finally went down. The other, after taking his 10th hit, killed himself. Bullets were later retrieved from their vests.

Three years ago, Jiverly Wong, an unemployed man angry at police, put on a ballistic vest, walked into an immigration center in Binghamton, N.Y., and shot 14 people to death. Then he took his own life, sparing police a firefight. The next day, Richard Poplawski, another cop-hater, girded himself in a vest—he called it his “suit for battle”—and ambushed police in Pittsburgh, Pa. The first cop at the scene died from a shot to the head. A second cop shot Poplawski in the chest but hit the vest, leaving only a bruise. That cost the officer his life. Poplawski gunned down him down, then blew away a third cop. Eventually, a sniper shot Poplawski’s assault rifle out of his hands. Again, a bullet was recovered from the vest.

Nobody knows how many crooks, lunatics, gangs, and militias have acquired body armor. There’s no registration or required background check. The federal government and most states—but not Colorado—have laws against possessing body armor if you’re a violent felon, or using it to commit a crime. But those laws are poorly enforced or tracked. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms says that in the past five years, it has arrested 20 people for violating the federal statute. The Drug Enforcement Administration doesn’t apply the statute. The FBI doesn’t keep records on it. Slate interns Krystal Bonner and Natasha Geiling contacted law enforcement authorities in 10 states seeking their arrest totals. Only three could supply data. Illinois reported 87 arrests since 2005. Florida reported 41 arrests since 2010. New York reported 176 arrests from 2007 to 2011.

To get a clearer picture of the problem, I searched the Nexis news database from the beginning of this year to the day before the Aurora shooting. Judging from the Florida and Illinois data, my search captured only a fraction of the arrests in each state. I found 11 cases in which ballistic vests were used in confrontations with police. In several incidents, squad cars were shot up. In two cases, officers were wounded. In a third case, an officer and a locksmith were killed. One shooter used night-vision equipment. Another added ballistic leg and arm protection to his vest. Two wore gas masks. Another used his vest to block Taser darts.

In addition to those 11 cases, the search turned up eight incidents in which ballistic vests were found in the possession of people who killed, shot, or engaged in armed standoffs with officers, or who were suspected of, charged with, or convicted of plotting mass-casualty attacks. That’s not counting the six cases in which ballistic vests were worn during armed robberies or home invasions. Or the cases in which vests were brought along, but apparently not worn, during armed robberies or attempted murders. Or the cases in which vests were found in the possession of people suspected of, charged, with, or convicted of plotting armed robberies or murders.

In the incidents I located, vests weren’t always used against cops. Often they were worn during gunfights or other struggles between civilians. In five of these cases, the guy in the vest shot his adversary. In three cases, the adversary died. In 31 states, the search turned up incidents in which vests were worn or possessed by gang members or other crooks. Most commonly, vests were found with guns (often assault rifles), ammunition stockpiles, drugs, and lots of cash. Many cases involved silencers, bombs, or grenades. Some included helmets, telescopic rifle sights, sniper training manuals, or tear gas. Vests seem particularly popular among survivalists and drug dealers.

It’s possible, as the conflicting reports from Aurora remind us, that vests initially identified as ballistic may turn out not to be true body armor. But even in Nexis, there’s lots of evidence that bad guys are using the real thing. In dozens of cases, the vests were stolen from police, FBI or DEA agents, or the military. The theft problem is so bad that New York City sought to destroy its old vests, lest they fall into the wrong hands. Several reports specifically mention ceramic or steel plates, or prices of $300 to $800, which tend to distinguish ballistic vests from ordinary assault vests. Some reports mention “military spec” armor or certified bullet-resistant models, such as Diamondback Tactical ballistic vests. A guy in Illinois had 50 vests and badges from the FBI, the CIA, and other law enforcement agencies. A guy in Texas was caught with 68 “Max-Pro Police and Armor Level ballistic helmets.” Another case involved the transfer of “approximately 800 ballistic vests with ceramic plates.”

Three weeks ago, when I wrote about the Aurora shooter’s SWAT-like gear, gun-control opponents poured into Slate’s comments forum. They used the shooter’s receipt to dismiss the body-armor problem as a myth. And they insisted that armor doesn’t protect shooters from being incapacitated by a shot to the vest.

Tell that to the police in North Hollywood. Tell it to the crime-scene investigators who pull slugs from vests. And tell it to the family of Stephen Mayhle, the Pittsburgh cop who lost his life in the gun battle with Richard Poplawski despite firing an almost direct hit to Poplawski’s heart.* “That one officer was brave,” Poplawski told another officer afterward. “He shot me in the chest, but I had a vest on.”

Correction, Aug. 16, 2012: This article originally misspelled police officer Stephen Mayhle's last name.

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