In 1984 I bought a used Kevlar vest from another officer for fifty bucks. I couldn't afford a new one but the knowledge that four officers of the Knox County Sheriff's Department had been shot over the preceding two year period made the body armor an important item on my agenda.
True, one officer had been shot in leg and the vest would have made no difference; and a round had penetrated a second officer's vest and filled her side with fiber that continued to push its way out for a long time. But one of my friends, who had not been wearing a vest, died from numerous gunshot wounds that might have been stopped by the soft body armor. Most importantly, another friend and fellow officer was walking around alive
because his vest had stopped six rounds on a deserted stretch of highway one night.
It made sense to me to take every precaution I could. A few years later, the sheriff's department issued vests and made the wearing of them mandatory. Of course, with so many cops being the way they are about change, there was a lot of grumbling. The vest debate reached the same proportions as would the semiautomatic versus the revolver for police work a few years later. One veteran officer came in with a note from his doctor stating that a medical problem prohibited his wearing a vest. After he was transferred to
the bowels of the jail to work where he didn't need a vest. Everyone else fell in line -- pretty much. A supervisor walking around at roll-call and randomly thumping officers on the back to check for compliance persuaded the few still resisting that the general order was not going away.
On long, hot Tennessee summer nights, when the humidity was almost thick enough to drink, I was sometimes tempted remove my vest. I knew that some officers were taking them off after roll call, but the idea of being wounded and suspended at the same did not appeal to me. I always wore mine when I was on patrol.
The last two Knox County officers shot while I was still on the streets, were ambushed with a deer rifle while responding to a domestic disturbance. One officer nearly lost an arm and the other did lose fingers and suffered a head wound. The body armor was not a factor in the double shooting because of the location of the wounds. And the armor probably wouldn't have stopped those rounds, anyway.
Still, I kept wearing my vest because I felt like it was an edge I owed my family.
The subject of vests has been on my mind since last week when a friend of mine who works for the Knoxville Police Department was shot and survived one of those so-called "routine traffic stops" civilians talk about.
The veteran KPD officer did everything right, went by the book, and was still shot because he was up against a man who was apparently nursing a grudge against cops and was willing to die. And die he did. After being shot numerous times by the wounded officer and a backup officer, the perp shot himself in the head as he and the officer both lay bleeding.
KPD does not require its officer to wear a vest, though this may change soon. The officer was not wearing body armor and -- once again -- it was a situation in which it would not have changed the outcome. The suspect drew and fired back over his shoulder as the officer was apparently leaning forward, attempting to pat him down. The round went downward, collapsing a lung, destroying his spleen and exited somewhere in the officer's lower back.
As you may have figured out, I'm an advocate of anything that increases a cop's chances of going home after a shift. In only one shooting with which I'm personally familiar did soft body armor play a role of paramount importance. That was enough, though. Almost 20 years, that officer is still going home to his family after work.
And to tell you the truth, I always look both ways before crossing a one-way street. It makes sense to me.
David Hunter is a retired detective and the author of several books. His e-mail address is: firstname.lastname@example.org