Body Armor Gives Felons Upper Hand

On any given night in the city of New Orleans, special operations officers have also become the fashion police, because, CBS News Correspondent Lee Cowan reports, what a suspect might be wearing these days has officers worried.

"Some of their vests even have better capability in stopping bullets than what we have," says New Orleans Police Lt. Mike Cahn

One of the vests he's talking about can stop an AK-47 round and is just one of some two dozen seized from criminals this year alone.

"I look at the body armor thing as being almost as serious as carrying a gun," says New Orleans Police Superintendent Edwin Paulcompess.

Seven years ago, when police shot it out with armored bank robbers in North Hollywood, it proved that not only could police be out-gunned but also out-protected.

One vest maker advertises its equipment by showing a man shooting himself, so it's no wonder that criminals think that vests can make them invincible.

That kind of insurance is all over the Internet and marketed not just to police professionals.

Some of the vests recently confiscated had gang logos embroidered on the front, appearing to taunt police officers into a confrontation.

Which is why police want to make them harder to get.

There's already a federal law prohibiting felons from buying or even possessing body armor, but few, if any, background checks are ever done, and tracking the vests is nearly impossible.

For example, CBS News purchased a used vest off the Internet for less than $250. The only background check was a credit card number. The only question: "Where do you want it mailed?"

This might explain how one man, a convicted felon, got his vest before robbing a New Orleans credit union.

"I think the vest made him more aggressive," says detective Claude Nixon.

He was so aggressive that he chose to face down Nixon in a gun battle rather than flee.

"They think they're God, and they just start firing at anything and everything that's moving - police officers, citizens, it doesn't matter," says Nixon.

Body armor has certainly saved more lives than it's hurt, a victim of its own success in the streets.

"They're prepared to go to war out here, and what we're trying to do is handle ourselves the best we can during that war," says Cahn.

The dilemma is how to protect those who serve without protecting those who don't.