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What correctional officers need to know about stab-resistant body armor

Understanding the various performance standards for slash- and stab-resistant body armor is of vital importance for correctional officer safety


An officer displays a newly re-issued stab and ballistic vest. These vests are worn by all of the officers at the R.J. Donovan Correctional Facility.

Angela Carone/KPBS

According to the latest report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, over 2.2 million people are incarcerated across the country, a population roughly the equivalent to that of Houston, Texas. The responsibility for supervising these inmates falls on the shoulders of approximately half a million correctional officers, many serving in some of the most violent and dangerous workplace environments that exist.

The last four years have seen a significant increase in the number of unprovoked attacks against law enforcement officers. There is little doubt that this trend has extended beyond the streets of our cities and has permeated the walls of our correctional facilities.

While we do not have a current national database of correctional officers killed or injured in the line of duty, recent statistics indicate correctional officers experience 254 work-related injuries per 10,000 full-time equivalent positions. This is among the highest injury rate of any occupation in the country, with approximately 40 percent of those injuries resulting from assaults and violent acts.

Body armor in correctional settings

Although, by some estimates, nearly 90 percent of police officers have some type of protective body armor available, the percentage of correctional officers with similar protection is undoubtedly less. For correctional personnel who do have the ability to purchase and wear protective body armor, understanding the various performance standards for slash- and stab-resistant body armor is of vital importance.

How to select the appropriate type of body armor for corrections

There are three main types of body armor available:

  • Ballistic-resistant body armor;
  • Stab- and slash-resistant body armor;
  • Combination body armor that protects against both ballistic and stab threats.

In the United States, ballistic-resistant body armor that protects against blunt force firearm trauma is the most widely used by street-level police officers, while stab- and slash-resistant body armor is often the choice for correctional officers. A simple assessment of the most likely types of threats encountered will determine the most appropriate type for each application.

Understanding the NIJ body armor performance standards

The NIJ’s standard for body armor performance, last updated in 2008, is the only national standard for police body armor. These standards provide five different standard levels for ballistic-resistant body armor, and three different levels for stab- and slash-resistant body armor.

The key to understanding these standards and applying them appropriately is recognizing that the standards are directly related to the anticipated level of threat likely to be faced by the officer.

Stab- and slash-resistant body armor performance standards

Providing adequate protection against weapons such as knives depends, among other things, on the sharpness, pointedness, blade design, attacking angle and the skill of the attacker. Because of these many dynamics, stab- and slash-resistant body armor standards are separated into two distinct threat classes of three distinct protection levels each:

  1. Edged-blade class: The first protection class is intended to deal with threats that might be expected on “the street” from high-quality, commercially-machined edged knife blades. This class is referred to as the “edged-blade” class.
  2. Spike class: The second protection class is intended to deal with threats that might be expected in a corrections environment where lower quality knife blades and improvised spike style weapons are prevalent. This class is referred to as the “spike” class.

Within each protection class there are three protection levels to consider. These levels are differentiated by the amount of force energy required for a knife blade or spike to impact the test armor sample at two distinct energy levels.

The protection levels outlined by the NIJ are the results of studies conducted using several stabbing techniques of a male attacker in which the amount of force generated in the attack was calculated and measured against the protective level of each class of armor.

The actual protection levels are quite detailed and include estimations of penetration depth likely to cause internal injuries, and ensure that there is an adequate margin of safety in the armor design. As a general guideline, however, level 1 protection class of body armor is designed to handle 85% of potential force levels encountered. Level 2 is designed to handle 90%, and Level 3 is designed to handle 96%.

While all types of body armor can provide protection against attacks with edged or spiked weapons, no protective armor is 100 percent stab- or slash-proof. Read the NIJ’s report on the Stab Resistance of Personal Body Armor here.

Finally, when purchasing a vest always make sure it meets the requirements of the standard and the NIJ Compliance Testing Program (NIJ Standard 0115.00) and is listed among the models on the Stab Armor Compliant Product List.

Barry Reynolds is an author, speaker and public safety consultant specializing in police policy and leadership issues. He is the former founder and director of The Center for Excellence in Public Safety Leadership, and Associate Professor of Criminal Justice. In addition to 31 years of experience as a law enforcement officer and supervisor, Barry also served with the Wisconsin Department of Justice as the Senior Training Officer for career development and leadership. He is a columnist on law enforcement management and leadership issues, and regular presenter at state and national conferences. Barry holds a degree in Business, and a Master of Science in Management.