Hot and bothersome but vests save lives

Stab-proof vests have left officers with serious back pain, sprains and rashes, and restricted their breathing. But they are worth putting up with because they are saving lives, police say.

Documents released under the Official Information Act show there have been about 160 workplace injury reports – including complaints about sprains, muscle spasms and chafing – since the vests were introduced three years ago.

Officers have also complained about "extreme discomfort" from overheating while wearing the vests, problems when sitting at a computer or making an arrest, and having to see doctors or physiotherapists to deal with chronic back pain.

Some developed rashes and fungal infections.

One officer even managed to chip a front tooth when his vest snagged on his seatbelt, throwing him back and jarring his jaw, as he tried to get out of a police car at a serious crash.

The vests, which include two wraparound Kevlar and chain mail plates, weigh about five kilograms – with 3kg added on when police attach their handcuffs, radios and other gear.

The police operations, projects and uniforms manager, Inspector Tom Ireland, admitted there was a compromise between comfort and protection.

"The additional weight on any person will perhaps lead to some discomfort but compared to the discomfort when someone is not wearing the vest and is stabbed and killed ... we can live with that.

"For a lot of staff it also provides psychological protection ... they feel naked without it."

Mr Ireland said stab-resistant body armour, costing about $1500 a vest, protected a person's internal organs and could stop bullets from handguns, as well as knives and other sharp objects.

The armoured plates would not stop large rifle rounds but they help disperse the energy of other impacts, such as those from human fists.

There are about 7700 vests in use, they are tailored to fit the individual officer, and the plates can be removed and put into lighter vests that can be worn under clothing.

Mr Ireland conceded they could get hot in summer, and the weight could slow police down, but said they had saved three or four lives and saved numerous other police from serious injury.

On the West Coast in 2008, a vest is credited with saving the life of Senior Constable Grant Freeman, who hit a fallen tree branch at about 80kmh on his police motorbike and was thrown 12 metres on to the road.

Mr Freeman had been no fan of the vests and had stopped wearing one while using the police BMW motorbikes during summer because of the intense heat.

"I hated it to start with, but I've sort of had to eat my words," he said.

Last year, Christchurch Sergeant Nigel Armstrong's life was saved when his vest stopped a knife being plunged straight into his chest.

"There were a number of small pinprick injuries from the knife, but nothing serious at all," he said.

Constable Jeremy Snow's life was saved by his vest – and the notebook in the chest pocket – when he was shot four times with a rifle in South Auckland before Christmas.

Although Sergeant Don Wilkinson was not wearing a vest when he was killed by shots from a high-powered air rifle in Mangere in 2008, another undercover officer with him was.

The vest is credited with saving his life.

At the trial for Mr Wilkinson's murder, another undercover officer voiced concerns about the vests, saying they were too hot and bulky for undercover work in confined spaces.

"It's a shame for the police department and it's a shame to bring it out in this arena, but it's something that has to be addressed," he told the court.

Mr Ireland said police were awaiting the outcome of the coroner's investigation into Mr Wilkinson's death and would not comment further on the matter.

While it was compulsory for most frontline officers to wear the vests at all times, once out of the police station, some – including those working undercover and in the CIB – could make their own decisions based on the situation.

A review of the stab-resistant vest was under way, Mr Ireland said, which would look at associated health problems and who should be using the vests.

The Dominion Post