Deputy deaths spark questions about protection for Colo. LEOs
Two deputies were fatally shot while wearing body armor, prompting questions about whether the area's LEOs have enough protection from powerful ammunition
By Noelle Phillips
The Denver Post
DENVER — Two Colorado sheriff’s deputies died in separate shootings since Dec. 31 even though they were wearing body armor, prompting questions about whether the area’s law enforcement officers have enough protection from the powerful ammunition they face on the streets.
It’s a question that law enforcement agencies are asking themselves, too. The average ballistic vest issued to cops on the street is not strong enough to stop rounds fired by assault rifles.
“Those rounds are so high velocity, they go right through those vests,” said Westminster Police Department Cmdr. Gene Boespflug. “If it’s a solid-nosed bullet, it goes through a quarter inch of steel like butter.”
Even the strongest ballistic material is not fail-safe, experts said, because bullets can find their way into vulnerable places. Still, police deserve the best protection available to them, experts said.
“Every now and then, the devil will have his due,” said Dan Montgomery, a Colorado-based law enforcement consultant. “They’re certainly better than nothing, but they’re not an end-all.”
In Boulder County, Sheriff Joe Pelle has asked his staff to research the best equipment available and write a proposal for purchasing ballistic plates that deputies can use to strengthen the body armor they already wear, said Cmdr. Jason Oehlkers, who is leading the project.
Pelle’s son, Douglas County sheriff’s Deputy Jeff Pelle, was seriously wounded in the New Year’s Eve shooting that killed Deputy Zack Parrish and wounded six other people. Jeff Pelle was struck by bullets fired from high-powered rifles that pierced the vest he was wearing.
But his injuries weren’t the sole motivation for the sheriff to beef up protection for Boulder County deputies, Oehlkers said. A couple of local incidents, including a recent attempt to serve a warrant to a man armed with multiple rifles, have concerned the sheriff, Oehlkers said.
“We’ve had a number of officers that have asked about it,” he said.
In the past year, at least two Front Range police departments — Aurora and Castle Rock — have provided their street cops with ballistic vests and helmets designed to stop high-powered rifles.
“We think it’s important to give our officers the best equipment possible,” said Castle Rock Police Chief Jack Cauley. “We felt it was another layer of protection that was important for our officers to have. You never know where you’re going to encounter it.”
At other agencies, police officers and sheriff’s deputies are spending their own money to buy ballistic helmets and vests that can better protect them from high-velocity ammunition such as the .223-caliber bullets fired from AR-15s and other high-powered, semi-automatic weapons.
In the Douglas and Adams counties shootings, it is not known exactly what type of body armor Parrish and Deputy Heath Gumm were wearing. Parrish’s shooter fired an M-16, an M-4, a shotgun and a 9mm at officers during the encounter, although no autopsy or ballistic reports have been issued to show exactly which were fired at Parrish. Gumm’s shooter fired a .45-caliber handgun, according to an Adams County Sheriff’s Officer arrest affidavit.
Neither Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock nor Adams County Sheriff Mike McIntosh has responded to questions about the type of body armor their deputies were wearing and what was available to them.
On the national level, mass shootings such as those at the Route 91 Harvest music festival in Las Vegas in October, at the Orlando Pulse nightclub in 2016 and in Dallas, where five police officers were killed in 2016 by a man firing an assault rifle, have underscored the dangers police face when they encounter a suspect with a high-power weapon.
Officers interviewed about the issue said they did not believe there were more dangerous weapons on the streets today than in the past.
“We face the same amount of weapons we did 10, 20 years ago,” said Nick Rogers, president of the Denver Police Protective Association. “It seems to me we have more individuals turning the violence on us. It’s always been a dangerous job. We accept that’s part of what we do every day.”
In the Pulse nightclub shooting, a review found that police responding to the scene were ill-equipped to protect themselves and that first-responders should have access to ballistic helmets and vests to protect themselves.
“Specifically, the body armor issued to patrol officers and others who were not assigned to specialized units did not provide sufficient protection against the .223-caliber rounds fired by the suspect,” said the review conducted by the federal Community Oriented Policing Services and the Police Foundation, a nonprofit that researches technology and tactics to protect officers.
Local governments should invest in the ballistic gear to protect their officers, said Police Foundation president Jim Bueermann, a retired police chief.
“If an agency doesn’t do that, then they are not taking advantage of the technological and scientific advances that can be used to protect their officers,” Bueermann said. “They have an obligation to give their officers the best available equipment. And it’s up to the officers to use it.”
In Aurora, officers on the front lines have been issued body armor that can stop rifle rounds, much like the gear worn by U.S. military in combat zones, said Officer Bill Hummel, a department spokesman. They also have helmets and gas masks in their cars, and it is up to officers to decide when they need to it.
The gear can be cumbersome and heavy to wear.
“It’s not practical to wear every day, all the time,” Hummel said.
Police officers also must be aware of the image they project when wearing the heavier body armor. Showing up at a scene in full military-style gear can escalate some situations, he said.
“There’s a delicate balance,” Hummel said. “As police officers, we’re constantly making judgments on what the call will be based on our experience. We may not always be right. You may be called out because a car horn is stuck on — and the next thing you know, you’re under fire.”
Even when officers wear body armor, there are no guarantees that deaths will be prevented, experts said. Bullets still find their way though gaps around the neckline, waist or armpits. They also can travel along bones in the outer extremities to reach vital organs.
“There’s still going to be tragic situations,” Bueermann said. “The bullets will still find that one spot not protected. Still, every community has a moral obligation to give the guardians of the community the best protection available.”
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