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40-year anniversary for a cop's best friend

After a year that saw more than 100 officers killed by firearms, the Department of Justice in 1975 decided to try to curb the toll
40-year anniversary of bulletproof vests for cops 01:38

Friday marks 40 years since the Department of Justice announced a pilot program that would revolutionize law enforcement: bulletproof clothing. The announcement was previewed a day earlier in a 1975 "CBS Evening News" report by correspondent Fred Graham.

"The cloth will stop a .38 caliber bullet even at close range," reported Graham.

Slow-motion video shows a bullet striking a bulletproof vest. After the shot, the cloth is dimpled but not penetrated. The bullet is flattened and waffled with the imprint of cloth. DOJ

The initiative was spurred by a desire to reduce the number of policemen deaths; 116 officers were killed by guns in 1974, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. Under the program, 3,000 policemen in 15 cities would be given the new bulletproof equipment.

"The purpose of this program is to find out if the cloth is too hot and if it makes policemen careless or fool hardy," reported Graham.

An early bulletproof vest is displayed DOJ

There was another uncertainty: the prospect of criminals buying the vests on the open market and wearing them. The Department of Justice, though, was willing to see what would happen.

The man behind the creation of the vest was a government scientist named Lester Shubin, who would go on to be recognized as the co-creator of the Kevlar vest. Shubin developed the garments by using synthetic fiber created by the DuPont Company to replace the steel in steel belted tires, according to Graham.

Lester Shubin, developer of the Kevlar vest, 1975 CBS News

"These suits are supposed to be good enough so that an officer can be shot in the chest or stomach with a .38 and get up and walk away, is that right?" a reporter asked Shubin.

"We hope he'll also get up and do something about the person who shot him," Shubin answered.

That very situation would play itself out just ten months later on December 23, 1975. Seattle Police Officer Raymond Johnson was at a market when a robbery suspect shot him several times with a .38 caliber pistol.

Former Seattle Police Officer Raymond Johnson DuPont

Although Johnson's hand was hit, the two shots he took to the chest were stopped by the vest, leaving him with bruises and making him the first officer to be saved by the experimental clothing, according to the National Institute of Justice.

Decades later, bulletproof vests are now synonymous with law enforcement. The International Association of Chiefs of Police and DuPont say that more than 3,100 officers have been saved from death or serious injury by wearing body armor since 1987.

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