D.C. police officer Donald G. Luning was killed this month when a suspected car thief shot him in the chest. Another officer, Pauline V. Howard, was critically wounded when a robbery suspect shot her in the abdomen. She is in fair condition now. According to the local police union, both officers would most likely still be on duty if they had been wearing bulletproof vests. Officer Gary Hankins, head of the labor committee of the Fraternal Order of Police, said his organization wants the lightweight body armor issued as a regular part of an officer's equipment.

The demand makes sense. The city's response -- that it cannot afford the life-saving vests -- does not. Hankins met yesterday with the police department's uniform and equipment board to press his union's demand. "The department has been studying the matter on and off for about seven years," he said. "The vests have been commercially available for a decade. There comes a time when you have to stop studying and do something. One problem is that the department, being an agency of the city, is not in the position to lobby the mayor and council for the necessary money."

The vest the department is interested in weighs about four pounds and costs $171. Hankins said the union's preference is for a model that, while it offers slightly less protection against penetration, is, cooler, lighter--some 21/2 pounds -- and, therefore, more likely to be worn by officers. It is also cheaper, at $150. But even this version would cost the department some half-million dollars for the 3,300 officers on street duty -- money the department says it doesn't have.

"False economy," says Hankins. With a $50,000 death benefit, two-thirds salary for life to the surviving spouse, plus benefits for minor children, the outlays for an officer killed on duty can run into hundreds of thousands of dollars, he said. Saving a life or two thus becomes a sound fiscal proposition. Which, of course, is not why Hankins wants the vests issued. "We're talking about human life. I've just been looking at a 1981 study on law-enforcement officers killed. Of 86 officers killed that year, 49 were killed as a result of being shot in the torso. And of these, all but four would have survived had they been wearing protective body armor."

The vests, a major improvement over the bulky, steel-plated flak jackets, are an accident of technology. They are made of a material -- Kevlar -- first developed as a replacement for steel in automobile tires. "Someone tried it for ballistics and found it, when woven into a mesh, to be more effective than steel," Hankins said. "It will stop most handgun ammunition, including the .357 magnum." If the vests are as effective as Hankins and the FOP claim, why don't the officers buy them for themselves? After all, a lot of cabdrivers invest upwards of $1,000 for bulletproof Plexiglas shields.

"A lot of us do buy them," Hankins says. "I would say that probably 250 officers have purchased them, or their families have purchased them as gifts. But that really isn't the issue. The point is if they clearly enhance the safety of the officer, they ought to be a part of the officer's regular equipment, just like a service revolver." The department doesn't disagree. In fact, it has already ordered 160 of the vests: a reasonable number if the idea is to set up a valid field test of the equipment. Hankins' view is that the tests have already been held and the life-saving results validated. "We're past the experimental stage," he said. "If the city wants its police offers to protect them, it has to provide the officers with some kind of protection, too."