Sgt. John Howsden on Body Armor, Superman, and More

Sgt. John Howsden on Body Armor


They stink, chafe, and make you look fat, but they also stop bullets, and for cops, that’s a good thing. Bullet-proof vests are made of a fabric called Kevlar, which is five times stronger than steel.

Vests don’t deflect bullets, but catch them; much like a net stretched across the goal posts catches a soccer ball. Although bullets don’t penetrate, they still deliver a mean punch. Depending on the caliber, the distance and angle of the bullet, it’s been compared to being hit with a line-drive baseball traveling at 130 mph. Bruising and broken ribs still occur, but the survival rate is still improving.

Fewer officers are killed due to this great invention, but just as many, if not more, are still being assaulted. In addition to wearing safety equipment, cops practice “officer safety tactics” that go unnoticed by the casual observer. The following tactics soon became second nature to police officers, thus increasing their chances of surviving on the street.

Police officers always keep their gun hand free. They can’t grab their gun if their hand is filled with a ticket book or flashlight.

When knocking on a door, cops stand to the side. Wooden doors don’t stop bullets.

Police officers, like soldiers,  know the difference between cover and concealment. Concealment, such as the door mentioned above, hides them, but doesn’t protect them from bullets. A car or large tree trunk on the other hand hides them and stops bullets; this is called cover.

To protect their backs, cops, like gunslingers of the old west, keep their backs against the wall. Something the late Wild Bill Hickock forgot to do the night he was shot in the back while playing cards.

Officers stand sideways with their gun-side facing away from the suspect. Not only is it harder for a person to grab an officer’s gun, but the officer is less apt to be kicked in the groin.

Fear of death or injury invokes its own sense of humor. Some cops wear emblems or mottos embossed on our vests. One night I found myself laying on a gurney in the emergency room after a major police crash. When the nurse leaned over me and undid my shirt, she saw my red and yellow Superman emblem ironed onto the front of my vest. Without missing a beat she said, “Hit some Kryptonite, did ya?”

Body Armor


Front and rear sections of an officer’s vest. Desgned to be worn under the officer’s uniform. Vests are custom-fitted for each officer.


Front  Kevlar panel with rectangular pouch for steel trauma plate. Front and rear panels are inserted into a protective, canvas-like covering. The cover (in the picture above, the covering is blue) is not made from Kevlar.


Vest worn on outside of officer’s clothing. Usually worn during search warrant service and other high-risk situations. Also worn by SWAT, undercover officers, and plainclothes detectives.


Reflective lettering on the rear of the vest easily identifies the wearer as a police officer. A smaller reflectice patch is sewn to the front of the vest, too.

About Sergeant John Howsden:

John Howsden is a retired police sergeant with over thirty years experience with the Fremont California Police Department. During those thirty years, he served as a detective, SWAT team member, post-trauma counselor, and verbal judo instructor.

Sergeant Howsden was once involved in a shootout with a murderer/robber. The killer escaped during the gun battle and went on to kill four other people before his capture and ending up on San Quentin’s death row. Sgt. Howsden attended the murderer’s execution as a state’s witness.

* Tomorrow we continue our lesson on fingerprinting with a tutorial on Cyanoacrylate fuming and the use of Ninhydrin.

44 replies
  1. Catherine V.
    Catherine V. says:

    Hello: This is off-topic, and I’m sorry about that. I have been searching for years for Doreen and Darlene. Are you their brother. I lived 2-1/2 blocks from them in Mt. Eden, changed to Hayward, California. We were good friends and went from kindergarten through 12th grade together.

    If you are their brother, could you please let me know how to get in touch with them. My phone number is (503) 658-2820 Portland area, Oregon.

    My brother Joe retired from police work a few years back.

    Thank you.

  2. williamtmb
    williamtmb says:

    I was wondering if you could tell me where had your vest made with the superman emblem on? what brand is the vest?

  3. Peg H
    Peg H says:

    Thank you, John, you were a marvelous guest blogger and I look forward to some verbal judo. And thank you again, Lee, for providing us with this fantastic blog site.

    🙂 Peg H

  4. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    I’d like to thank Sgt. Howsden from taking the time out of his busy schedule to visit with us today. What great information. In fact, everyone pitched in to help out. What fun.

    I think I speak for us all when I say I’d certainly like to see him back, soon. So, let me know whenever you’re ready, John.

  5. Peg H
    Peg H says:

    Hi John,

    Yes, drunks and pets are great fodder for use in some of my upcoming books.

    I was fortunate that in the city where I worked all of the patrolmen/women knew I was married to a police officer, I always had coffee on hand, and happily welcomed them when they’d stop in for a chat. They also knew that the only time I would call was when I couldn’t handle a problem on my own. 🙂

    Peg H

  6. John Howsden
    John Howsden says:

    Hi Peg,

    Verbal Judo is wonderful and one of the best tools for officer safety. It avoids fights, and I also say the best fight is the one you didn’t get into. Drunks and pets, you must have some stories there.


  7. Peg H
    Peg H says:

    I know my hubby bought his own vest the first time. The next department provided them. He never went without it while working and at the time we didn’t know he had MS, heat is the enemy of anyone with MS, and summertime heat while wearing his vest was truly miserable for him.

    I’d love to see some stuff on verbal judo, it’s amazing how well that works once you’ve learned it. (Even works in retail, especially when you are running a pet store next door to a bar. Drunks and pets, oh fun… never again!)

    Peg H 😉

  8. christammiller
    christammiller says:

    That was your first entry? I hope you do more (I mean regularly). It was a good one.

    Thanks for not minding about my answers. I don’t write many articles anymore, so this is one of the few things I can talk intelligently about. 🙂 Second Chance still exists, as of 2005 it’s now a subsidiary of Armor Holdings (which owns about a dozen companies), but Zylon is off the body armor market and Davis obviously was replaced. Their Kevlar product is still sound and they still have their SAVES club (more than 1,000 documented saves, which is why Davis’ greed is so astounding).

    LOL about all the new gadgets!! I got my start writing about all those gadgets, mainly for Law Enforcement Technology. It figures they make cops’ lives harder. My husband jokes that I do everything the hard way, so why shouldn’t that extend to my readers? 🙂

  9. John Howsden
    John Howsden says:

    HI Lee,

    This is a great blog, but I have to be careful. Passing out information that was valid in the 70’s make me feel like I was Fred Flinston’s FTO.

  10. John Howsden
    John Howsden says:

    Hi Christa,

    I just got back and saw your message. Excellent information. I’d lost track of Second Chance and didn’t realize they had been sue and gone belly up. Talk about ignorance is bliss. Lee’s right, we just wore the things and hoped for the best. So many gadgets and tools get sent our way that promise the moon that it’s hard to stay on top of it all. It’s great to read your comments to get brought up to date. Not only am I learning how to blog, this is my first day doing so, I’m getting brought up to date on some new things. This is certainly a good place to get the straight scoop.



  11. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    I remember my sheriff complaining about the price of our vests. They were $550. This was back when Fred Flintsone had his learner’s permit.

  12. John Howsden
    John Howsden says:

    Hi Kathleen, sorry for not getting back to you right away, but I had to meet someone for a few hours. I got my first vest in the mid seventies. It was called a Second Chance and I think it was the first ompany around or at least one of the first. Look up Second Chance and they might be able to give you a date when they started selling them. They were just catching on, so more than likely a small town cop didn’t have one in 1982. I forget how much they cost, but at the time it was expensive. Of course the argumentment than and still is, was how much is your life worth.


  13. christammiller
    christammiller says:

    Hi Lee,

    Yes, let me adjust my pocket protector and wrap more tape around my glasses. LOL

    I was interested to see John mention the guy who used to shoot himself to demonstrate his body armor. That was Richard Davis, CEO of Second Chance. The fact that he went and used Zylon for his vests, even knowing the degradation rates, really was the ultimate betrayal of so many cops who had relied on his product for so many years. Disgusting.

    And, good point about just using the name Kevlar… 🙂 I just wanted to point out the reason why vests have been getting lighter (I don’t think anyone has a pure Kevlar product anymore), and also mention some of the cool new things manufacturers are doing with the technology. Oh, and I forgot to say about the NIJ standards… II is least protective, V is most protective (again, mainly for military use)… it is possible to look up general standards as to what each level will protect against.

  14. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    Hi Christa. Thanks for stopping in and adding the technical informational about body armor. We just wore it and hoped it worked.

    Since John’s away for a few minutes I’ll add my two cents. I remember when Second Chance went belly-up over its faulty product. Their situation is why so many officers still insist on tried-and-true Kevlar.

    Of course, as with any other beauracracy, money is the key. Whichever company that comes in with the lowest bid, or has the best lobbyist, gets the deal. The lives of the officers who have to depend on the product are last on the list.

    By the way, a lot of cops use the term Kevlar when referring to their vests, no matter who made it. Same thing with using Mace as a common term for all chemical sprays. Mace is the name of a company that just happens to sell pepper spray. They also make weapons and other police equipment.

  15. christammiller
    christammiller says:

    Great post, John! Couple of points I wanted to address quickly (having become somewhat familiar with body armor in the last 4 years I’ve been writing Police & Security News’ annual BA report!)…

    Not all vests are made exclusively of Kevlar. It is the best known fiber, because it revolutionized body armor, but it’s no longer the only one. Some vests are made of different materials – either another aramid fiber (Twaron), or polyethylene fibers (trade names Dyneema, Spectra). Sometimes they’re combined to form hybrids. Every company has its own proprietary weave, as well as its own way of putting ballistic panels together to form a vest. Some are introducing new technologies like “shear thickening fluid,” a nanotechnology that can render the vest like steel when it is hit. They continue to compete to make vests both stronger and lighter…

    … which led directly to many LE agencies (if not all) replacing vests for officers, after Second Chance was sued (successfully) because its Zylon-based vest (a non-aramid non-poly fiber) degraded within months of its purchase and ended up getting at least two cops killed.

    The National Institute of Justice has been testing vests since this happened. They have found (I believe) that some Kevlar vests degraded prior to the five-year limit. Testing is ongoing and I don’t have latest data on that either (though it’s probably on the NIJ website). Agencies can get a grant to replace vests… more info here:

    By the way, the NIJ tests (and certifies) different vests at different levels. I believe most cops wear Level IIIA-certified vests. The levels go from II all the way up to V and that is for military applications primarily. Also, the NIJ is planning to make its standard stricter, but I don’t know when this is going into effect.

    I’m in a bit of a rush so please let me know if anything here doesn’t make sense!!

  16. John Howsden
    John Howsden says:

    HI Mary,

    I was just getting ready to leave, but I couldn’t resist your excellent questions.
    Vest way about five pounds. For specifics I would google “bulletproof vests” and see if you can find a manufacturer who might be more specific. Weight isn’t too much of an issue because the vest are drapped over the shoulders with straps and the load is spread out. Here’s something most cops know but won’t mention. The vest tends to rest on the gun belt when you sit. If your overweight it can pinch your spare tire and remind you that you’re fat. When you run, or more speciffically chase a suspect, not only does the weight drag you down, the constriction of having a vest wrapped around your chest makes you feel like someone has you in a bear hug while your’e gasping for air. To tell you the truth I don’t know how we catch these seventeen-year-old kids wearing tee shirts, levis and tennis shirts.

    I’ve seen tapes of people getting shot while wearing a vest. Some fall, while others remain standing. It depends on the size of the bullet, how well the person was balanced and if he was expecting to be shot. The person who first started selling vest used to shoot himself to demostrate how well the vest worked, and he never fell. It’s like getting punched in the stomach. Some people go down and some don’t.

    Yes, many different types of bullets will go through the vests. High powered rifle bullets will go through the vest. A small caliber bullet like a 22-cal will make it through the weave of the Kevlar. A vest will not stop an ice pick but probaly will stop a butche knife. Remember a vest is like a cyclone fence along a freeway. It will catch most cars and slow them down until they stop. But take a big semi truck and it might be too much and crash right through it. Bullets designed to penetrate metal will go through a vest like a hot knife through butter.

    The one thing cops have going for them is most weapons used to shot at cops are pistols, and the vest will stop most of those bullets.


  17. mfmakichen
    mfmakichen says:

    Hi John,
    Thanks for being here today. I was wondering how much (approximately) a vest weighs. Also, for the purpose of fiction, if an officer is shot while wearing a vest would it drop him to his knees, knock the wind out of him, what would you say? Lastly, on television they talk about bullets that can pierce kevlar. Is that accurate and if so how prevalent a problem is that for officers.


  18. John Howsden
    John Howsden says:

    Hi Terri

    I don’t know of any other logos ironed onto the vest by other cops. I was thinking that would make for an interesting collection, kind of like nose art on the WWII bombers. Any suggestions on how I could get the word out via the computer that I’m collecting such information?


  19. John Howsden
    John Howsden says:

    Hi Lee,

    No I didn’t try the mesh shirts, and yes, once the vest was sweated in, you could never recapture that “new car smell.” Our department police asscociation worked out a deal that the department would buy everyone a vest proviced every uniformed officer wore the vest. Before that, vest were not required nor provided. If you wanted to replace the vest at the end of five year, you had to do it at your expense.

  20. John Howsden
    John Howsden says:

    Hi Joyce,
    Hi Joyce,

    I imagine the vest will continue to get lighter and more comfortable. It funny how at first vests are cumbersome, but after awhile, they can beome a security blanket. I felt a lot better wearing a vest when I did traffic stops. I found myself hoping that if someone did shoot me, they would aim for my heart and not my head of legs. A strange concept I had to get use to considering when I first joined the force, bullet proof vest were unheard of.

    Speaking of hearts, I should mention the shock plate. It’s a square ceramic plate about that fits inside a pock on the front of the vest that covers the heart area. Even though the vest stops the bullet, it still penetrates a few inches into the chest cavity, which means the heart can still be damaged. The plate prevents the penetrations and spreads the force out over the chest.

    One officer took the security blanket too far. He started wearing it off duty, even when he took his wife to the grocery store. He wasn’t cut out for police work. His wife was a nervous wreck, thinking any day she would get the dreaded call that her husband got shot. You can’t live that way and he did the smart thing and moved on to something else.


  21. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    Did you ever try wearing one of those really uncomfortable mesh undershirts that are supposed to make you cooler? I tried it, but hated wearing it as much as I did wearing a vest.

    You know, it really doesn’t matter how much you wash the outer covering, the odor stays in the Kevlar.

    So, after five years when the vest is supposed to have a decreased stopping power, how many of your officers were able to get new ones? I worked for two departments and neither of them ever replaced an officer’s vest.

  22. KathleenE
    KathleenE says:

    Thanks so much for all the *great* information, gentlemen!

    My WIP is set in a small Wisconsin town in 1982. How likely is it that the cops would have had vests then? (The current officers there have been great about answering questions, but none of them were then in ’82.)

  23. John Howsden
    John Howsden says:

    Hi Lee,

    Now that you mention it, we were measured for the vest, I guess because regardless of size they still fit like cardboard, I didn’t feel like I was custom fitted. Of course the comments really got interesting when they started making vest to custom fit our females officers.

    We were told the vest would last five years. After five years of being exposed to the elements, body heat and perspiration they were used up. Speaking of persipiration, vest come equiped with a sack. The kevlar fits inside a cotten sack. That’s what my superman emblem was glued to. When the sack failed the nose test, you simply removed the vest and threw the cotten sack into the washer. Sack is not the right word, but at any rate, your fellow officers appreciated the washing.


  24. Joyce Tremel
    Joyce Tremel says:

    The guys in our department just got new vests. I don’t know what brand (or anything else about them for that matter) but they are a lot less bulky than the old ones. The guys used to look 20 pounds heavier.

    In our dept. everyone in uniform is required to wear a vest. The detectives don’t normally wear them on a daily basis–just when necessary. I don’t know if any of them have any logos on their vests. Fortunately, I’ve never seen them in that state of undress.

  25. John Howsden
    John Howsden says:

    Hi Pabrown,

    Wearing a vest varies with each department. Some require it as a matter of policy and some don’t. In Fremont, anyone wearing a uniform was required to wear the vest, regardless of the weather. Detective, being in plain clothes, had the options, but the smart ones usually wore them. It’s tough trying to second guess when someone is going to pop a cap at you. It’s right up there with seatbelt, by the time you realize you going to need one, it’s too late. And yes, they do chafe, especiailly if over the years you’ve manged to lose your rookie physique.

    If I were a LA detective, not only would I wear a vest on the job, I would wear it to and from the job. I have a lot of respect for those guys working that city, and from what I can tell, a vest is a good investment.


  26. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    Hey John, what’s the average life expectancy of a Kevlar vest? I know the stopping power decreases if they’re exposed to prolonged sunlight and water.

  27. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    John – Years ago (I won’t say how long) we were custom-fitted for our vests. They took measurements like we were getting fitted for a new suit. Of course, this was when vests first came out, too.

  28. John Howsden
    John Howsden says:

    Hi Lee,

    The sun is present and accounted for on the west coast. Good morning to you.


  29. John Howsden
    John Howsden says:

    Hello Wendy,

    Although vests are not custom made, they do come in different sizes. When first worn they are stiff, but in time take on the shape of the individual, especially after a few months of working in the heat. On one hot summer day, a hot and sweat drenched officer commented that he felt like he was stewing in his own jucies. Not a pretty thought, but an accuate one.


  30. Terri Thayer
    Terri Thayer says:

    Hi John! Great post! I love your Superman vest, but your pose just shows how much you’re still exposed. Yikes.

    What other mottos or emblems have you seen on vests?

  31. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    Hi guys. John is on the West Coast, so it may be a few minutes before he checks in. I know, Bill, you’re over there, too, but not everyone gets up at the crack of dawn to write. Actually, Now that I think about it, I believe they do…

  32. pabrown
    pabrown says:

    You say that plain clothes detectives wear Kevlar vests. Would this be all the time, or only when they were going out on a potentially dangerous call? My protag is an LAPD homicide detective. What would be the protocol here? I would imagine on a hot L.A. day they would get very uncomfortable. Would they chafe?

  33. wendy roberts
    wendy roberts says:

    Wow, this is fascinating! Oh and I love that some cops wear emblems or mottos on their vests and I had no idea the vests were custom made for each officer. Great stuff!!

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