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In the Know: Armor - an unfortunate necessity

Human beings have been using armor to protect themselves and others for centuries. Hardened cloth and leather were used to create armor, and once metal became available, a wide variety of personal body armor and shields were created. Full suits of body armor and helmets were created for cavalry soldiers, and armor was even made to protect their horses. Infantry soldiers wore less armor to stay more mobile while fighting on the ground. During the Hussite Wars of the 1400s, Bohemian armies created and very effectively used armored wagons to assemble mobile forts. They were able to transport soldiers safely and keep them safe in the wagons until they were needed while using the wagons to hold off attacks. With the creation of gunpowder and firearms, the armor that was available became ineffective. For the next few centuries, soldiers would fight without armor.

Military forces continued to try to find ways to protect their soldiers. In World War I, military forces began wearing metal helmets and armored vehicles began to appear. Armored personnel carriers were designed to protect and transport soldiers. Body armor (flak jackets) started to be used for specialized assignments such as aircrews during World War II and with better designs, became widely used by combat soldiers in Vietnam. Because it was heavy and uncomfortable, it was not worn all of the time or while in low risk areas. With the invention of Kevlar and similar lighter weight materials in the 1970s, Kevlar helmets and body armor began to be used by the U.S. military in the 1980s.

For civilian law enforcement, the history of armor is much shorter. Until lighter bullet resistant materials like Kevlar became available, it simply was not practical for a law enforcement officer to wear body armor all of the time. When I began my career at the Douglas County Sheriff's Office in 1987, body armor was available to all deputies, but was not worn regularly by all deputies. In the 1990s, body armor got a little more comfortable, and more deputies were wearing their vest all of the time. Today, all uniformed deputies wear their ballistic vests while working. The vests they wear only protect their midsection and do not protect against every firearm. The squad cars they patrol in are not armored vehicles. The cars are made of the same metal and glass that everybody's cars are made from. Specialized equipment such as helmets and armored vehicles are reserved for events that are known to be or have the potential to be high risk events. That equipment is used to protect officers and the public.

Several years ago, the federal government recognized the need for civilian law enforcement to have specialized equipment available in order to effectively respond to violent situations or to prevent violent situations. Since then, the federal government has assisted civilian law enforcement by making military surplus available such as weapons, helmets, armored vehicles and other equipment.

The Douglas County Sheriff's Office has received some of this equipment. In the early 2000s, we received a 1981 Peacekeeper. The Douglas County SWAT team, which is comprised of Douglas County deputies and Alexandria police officers, utilize the Peacekeeper. It is a smaller armored vehicle that can carry six officers wearing their tactical gear. Its purpose is to keep the responding deputies and officers safe while approaching an event where violence is ongoing, has occurred, or potentially could occur. It provides protection from most firearms and some explosives which in turn offers a higher level of safety to officers and medical personnel while responding to a threat area. An armored vehicle was used in Fargo, ND to approach and assist an officer that had been shot. The armored vehicle was struck 16 times by gunfire while rescuers retrieved their fallen partner who tragically died later. Several other officers could have been injured or killed in the rescue mission if they had not been protected by the armored vehicle. Locally, armored vehicles have been utilized recently and several times in the past to safely transport officers into high risk areas.

Armor is still an unfortunate necessity in our world. Law enforcement officers are at risk every shift they work. The need for ballistic vests for civilian law enforcement is widely accepted by the public. There have been some concerns expressed when civilian law enforcement utilizes specialized equipment such as armored vehicles. I think of us like the Bohemians of the 1400s — armored vehicles are utilized to protect those responding and to provide a safe haven for those that need it.

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Troy Wolbersen is the Douglas County sheriff. "In the Know" is a rotating column written by community leaders from the Douglas County area.