Like Sgt. Michael Wilson, slain by a suspect’s bullet Monday, more than half of U.S. law enforcement officers killed on the job in 2011 and 2012 were wearing body armor.
Of 119 officers killed through a criminal act, 71 were wearing armor, according to FBI data.
“Of course the face, throat — it’s vulnerable,” Fort Myers police Officer Alain Gagnon said. “But ... it’s more odds on your side when you wear the vest.”
Wilson was responding to a domestic call for the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office when a bullet struck him in the torso above his protective vest. He was killed by the unlucky angle of the shot, with the suspect shooting from above.
Bullet-resistant vests can’t prevent all risks, but Gagnon and many officers in Southwest Florida wouldn’t go without one. Made of layers of synthetic fibers, the vests are designed to absorb a bullet and dissipate its kinetic energy.
The Fort Myers Police Department has 189 vests, purchased for about $600 each with funds from a Bureau of Justice Assistance grant, according to Police Department spokeswoman Shelly Flynn. The vests, which are worn hidden under an officer’s uniform, are replaced every five years.
The Fort Myers and Cape Coral police departments require the use of vests unless an officer is working behind a desk or under severe weather conditions such as heat or humidity.
“They are 4.5 pounds of very thick plastic that doesn’t flex very much and holds in all the heat,” said Sgt. Dana Coston of the Cape Coral Police Department.
Motorcycle officers in Cape Coral have suffered heat sickness wearing vests, Coston said. Some officers purchase hoses that hook into the air conditioning of their patrol cars and blow cold air down their shirts.
The Lee County Sheriff’s Office requires uniformed personnel to wear vests. The Collier County Sheriff’s Office highly recommends, but does not require, deputies to wear vests. The Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office requires deputies wear vests during certain hazardous situations.
Cape Coral police Officer David Wagoner was shot three times during a 2011 traffic stop — two of the bullets struck his vest, but one tore through his abdomen. He needed surgery and seven months to recover before returning to work.
Fort Myers police Officer Andrew Widman was wearing a vest when he was killed in 2008. The suspect shot him in the face.
The suspect also shot at Gagnon, who was Widman’s partner at the time. That night, it was training, not his vest, that saved Gagnon’s life.
Officers are trained to take cover under fire, so Gagnon ducked.
“That’s when he missed,” Gagnon said. “So he hit the wall right where I was.”
Cathy Lowe, vice president of domestic sales and marketing at Survival Armor, has an emotional thank-you card from a Massachusetts officer’s daughter as evidence her equipment saves lives.
Survival Armor, a Fort Myers company that supplies the city’s Police Department, is constantly striving to make officers safer. For example, the armpit area is particularly vulnerable when an officer is wearing a vest, so Survival Armor takes care its vests cover that area. But ever-evolving weapons pose a challenge, Lowe said.
“You can’t stop everything,” she said, “because the minute you make armor that stops something, the ammo manufacturers are making something else.”