Justice Dept: Common Body Armor Insufficient

A Department of Justice investigation finds that a type of bulletproof vest used by many police departments fails to stop bullets over time. One major manufacturer warns that the underlying Zylon fabric degrades at an unsafe rate. The Justice Department estimates that by 2003, upwards of 240,000 of the vests were in the field.

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Justice Department tests reveal that bulletproof vests made with the synthetic fiber Zylon fail after repeated use. The study included vests made by nine companies. Now the government has announced it will provide more than $33 million to help police departments replace those vests. NPR's Chris Arnold reports.

CHRIS ARNOLD reporting:

The Department of Justice gathered about 100 Zylon vests from police officers who'd been using them around the country. Testers then fired six rounds at them from .357 Magnums or other common handguns. Bullets punched clear through more than half the vests; 58 percent failed completely. Sarah Hart is the director of the National Institute of Justice, the arm of the DoJ that did the testing.

Ms. SARAH HART (National Institute of Justice): These are extremely significant findings and of great concern to us and I'm sure the law enforcement community. One of the things that we also found here is that a visual inspection of the body armor won't disclose whether it's gonna fail or not. You can't tell just by looking at it whether it's gonna stop a bullet.

ARNOLD: Starting in the late 1990s, Zylon body armor became popular with police officers because the fabric was much lighter and more flexible than Kevlar. The DoJ estimates that by 2003, upwards of 240,000 of the vests were in the field. But then a police officer from Pennsylvania was shot and the bullet penetrated his Zylon vest, leaving him paralyzed. That vest's manufacturer, Second Chance Body Armor, issued a massive recall and has been warning about safety problems. So many people have lost faith in Zylon already.

Lieutenant KEVIN SOMMERS (Police Officer): Zylon body armor is unsafe.

ARNOLD: Kevin Sommers is a police lieutenant in Michigan who chairs a safety committee for the national Fraternal Order of Police. He says the earlier reports of problems have driven many police departments to replace their Zylon body armor, though some haven't been able to afford to pay for new vests yet. He says one good thing that's come out of all this, though, is that the DoJ now realizes that its previous methods and standards for testing bulletproof vests were inadequate.

Lt. SOMMERS: The standards were you take a brand-new vest out of the box, put it up against a clay dummy, shoot it a couple of times. If there was no penetration or it didn't have a severe back-face signature, then it was certified and put out on the market. Well, what happens when you put a vest on someone 280 pounds, my size, sweating in the humidity of August in Michigan?

ARNOLD: It turns out that's what degraded the Zylon vests. Heat and humidity broke the fibers down much faster than the manufacturers said that it would. Doug Wagner is an attorney for Second Chance Body Armor. He says the DoJ findings vindicate his company, because a range of other manufacturers of Zylon vests are now shown to have the same safety problems.

Mr. DOUG WAGNER (Attorney): All manufacturers are affected. The real problem here is in the internal chemistry of the fiber itself.

ARNOLD: Wagner points the finger at the Japanese company Toyobo, which manufactures the underlying Zylon fiber used by body armor companies. The federal government, about a dozen states, police departments and others have filed lawsuits against Second Chance and Toyobo. Some allege that the companies knew there were safety problems long before they came to light. The companies deny that, and Toyobo, in a statement, said that Zylon is still a superior fiber for body armor applications when it's properly used. Chris Arnold, NPR News.

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