Police know better than to call vest bulletproof

December 16, 2006|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,Sun reporter

One was off-duty and returning home; another was serving a warrant to a man who had recently been released from prison. And Thursday, yet another was chasing down a suspect after an attempted robbery at a grocery store.

But all three police officers were shot and seriously injured in the past two weeks despite wearing bullet-resistant vests.

In each case, bullets - presumably by chance - found the vulnerabilities of the vests, which provide only partial coverage of the torso.

"For some reason, these bad guys get some of the luckiest shots off in the world," said Paul Blair, the head of the Baltimore police union.

David Garner, 39, a 16-year veteran of the Baltimore County Police Department and a member of its K-9 unit, was in serious condition at the Maryland Shock Trauma Center yesterday after being shot while chasing a suspect from a Super Fresh near Perry Hall.

His injuries included wounds to his right chest, lung, liver and diaphragm, and he had fractured ribs - all areas that would appear to be covered by a bullet-resistant vest.

But police said Garner's vest was not penetrated. Instead, the bullet might have entered through his side, where officers are considered more vulnerable.

Bill Toohey, a spokesman for Baltimore County police, said ballistic vests are not mandatory with the department, but he estimated that 95 percent of the officers wear one.

He declined to discuss the design of the vests that the department uses because "we don't want to reveal what could be vulnerabilities."

Ballistic vests have saved the lives of more than 2,500 officers since 1973, according to the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

Vests are a relatively recent part of an officer's equipment - when they were introduced in the 1970s, officers were originally fitted with just front protection plates. But after an officer was killed in the early 1980s by a shot to the back, the vests were expanded to cover the back.

Some officers were reluctant to wear them, said Gary McLhinney, the longtime head of the city police union who is now chief of the Maryland Transportation Authority Police.

"Older officers had them issued to them after being on the street awhile and found them very uncomfortable and often did not wear them," McLhinney said. "This generation has been wearing them from day one, and they're no different from the belt and badge."

As criminals' weapons have become more powerful, the vests have grown stronger. McLhinney said the city has raised its "threat level" - the level of protection offered by vests - multiple times in response to increasingly dangerous weapons.

Earlier this week, Trooper First Class Eric D. Workman was critically injured when a bullet entered his lung through his armpit. Baltimore City Officer Momodu Gondo, who was off-duty but wearing his uniform and vest under a coat, was struck Dec. 5 in the lower back. Another bullet grazed him and took out a chunk of the fabric just below the protective panels.

"Only the foolish would call them `bulletproof,'" said Sgt. Russell Newell, a spokesman for the Maryland State Police. "They drum it into us that [vests] will slow down or attempt to deflect the rounds, but they will not stop everything we encounter."

Department-issued vests can typically withstand most handgun rounds, and officers have the option of purchasing vests with higher protection.

"You've got to strike a balance between what allows you reasonable mobility and what gives you reasonable protection," said Bert Shirey, a retired deputy commissioner with the city police.

Troopers at the Westminster barracks often spend their own money on bulletproof Kevlar inserts to reinforce their state-issued ballistic vests, Detective Sgt. Chuck Moore said. Moore heads the barracks' criminal investigation unit, where he supervises Workman.

Troopers might spend $200 on those inserts, or even an extra $500 to $600 on better-fortified vests, Moore said.

"You can never have enough, but at least we're issued something," Moore said. "There's just always that vulnerable area."

Since October 2004, Officer Robert G. Cirello credits his body armor with saving him in two potentially fatal incidents.

The most recent occurred in September, when the North Jersey native and four-year veteran of the city Police Department was bashed over the head in Patterson Park and shot at close range in his upper chest.

Researchers are exploring everything from spider silk to so-called "liquid armor" to make vests more effective.

Paul Biermann, a material and process engineer at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab, said lab-generated spider silk could be combined with current fibers to make armor more resistant or as a replacement for current armor. He expects that technology to be rolled out soon if researchers can find an affordable way to mass-produce artificial spider silk.

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