Policies on bulletproof vests were catapulted into the forefront of local discussion when Cape Coral, Fla., police officer David Wagoner was shot three times during a traffic stop in April 2011.
Wagoner survived, with his ballistic vest having blocked two of the three rounds. In a growing number of jurisdictions, officers are required to wear such body armor at most or all times, according to new data.
"In a nutshell, everybody wears it," said Lt. Tony Sizemore, a spokesman for the Cape Coral Police Department.
About 92 percent of officers in a national survey said their agency requires them to wear body armor at all or most times on duty, according to a nationwide survey of more than 1,000 officers released by the Police Executive Research Forum last week.
The trend follows two years marked by an increase in the number of officers killed by gunfire as well as a push from U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, experts say.
An October 2010 directive by Holder said law enforcement agencies must have a written mandatory wear policy to be eligible for the Justice Department’s Bulletproof Vest Partnership, which provides body armor to local law enforcement.
"First and foremost, the new requirement is intended to promote the use of body armor in order to reduce line-of-duty deaths among law enforcement officers," officials in Holder’s office wrote.
Of the officers most recently surveyed, 88 percent said they obeyed their agency’s policy all the time, although 73 percent said they had never been shot at or in a position where they were protected by body armor. The survey found 90 percent called their equipment "critical for safety." Others said they wore their vests because it was policy or because they felt pressure from their families.
Not all jurisdictions require the vest.
Deputies in Collier County, Fla., can choose whether they want to wear a protective vest, although those who choose to go without must keep the vests in their vehicles for easy access.
"Maybe it’s a traditional thing that we haven’t come out and made it mandatory, but at this point we feel officers can make that determination on whether they should wear it or need to wear it based on what they feel is best," said Tim Guerrette, a captain in the patrol division.
Guerrette estimated 60 percent to 65 percent of deputies in Collier County choose to wear their vests while on duty.
"A lot of it has to do with the individual supervisor -- if their own sergeant is wearing the vest, they have a tendency to wear it," he said.
Those who choose not to wear body armor on a regular basis often say the vests are uncomfortable, Guerrette said.
"If you’re not used to it for a 12-hour period, you feel it, but the more you wear it every day, it’s not as noticeable," he said. "What happens I think over time is you get a false security and sometimes it takes a situation or something to happen to say, I think it’s time to wear it."
Guerrette said most of the law enforcement population realizes the importance of body armor.
"There’s no best time to wear your vest," he said. "It’s kind of hypocritical to say I only wear mine when I go out at night or at times when I do certain things. Shootings happen when you least expect them."
(Contact Jessica Lipscomb of the Naples Daily News in Florida at JELipscombnaplesnews.com