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Police Vests Are Bulletproof, Not Foolproof

Police Vests Are Bulletproof, Not Foolproof

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Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via YellowBrix

April 07, 2011

CLAIRTON, PA – A surprising number of officers killed and injured each year were wearing bulletproof vests that gave them comfort and mobility but left key body parts uncovered and vulnerable, national statistics show.

The bullet that tore through Clairton police Officer James Kuzak’s body Monday struck him in the left shoulder, just beyond the coverage of his protective vest, a virtually unavoidable danger officers face as they try to strike a balance between maneuverability and safety.

Officer Kuzak, 39, was in critical condition Wednesday at UPMC Mercy, and fellow officers said he was alert and talking. But others shot in the line of duty have not been so lucky. Thirty-three officers who were fatally shot in 2009 were wearing body armor, according to the most recent FBI statistics on the subject. Most were struck in the head, but others were hit in the neck, throat and upper torso.

“There’s just those areas of the body that can’t be protected without hindering mobility,” said Ed Hinchey, a former Forest Hills police sergeant who in November 2004 was shot in the groin just under his bulletproof vest. Mr. Hinchey is now an armor technical specialist for Safariland, a major manufacturer of body armor worldwide. His job is to explore how to create better protective gear by studying actual events.

“We’re working to find materials that do have the ballistic capacity to stop rounds and still give you the mobility, but the technology is not there yet. There’s no way to give that 100 percent protection.”

Allegheny County police on Wednesday continued to search for the second of two gunmen who barged into a home on Miller Avenue in Clairton on Monday night, demanding cash and drugs, a home invasion that ended in the shooting of Officer Kuzak, one of three officers who responded to the call. Police said they need the public’s help identifying the man, whom they described as a “biracial male with a light complexion.” They said he is in his 20s, 5-foot-9 and 150 pounds with a thin build and a shoulder-length, braided ponytail.

Myles J. Hutchinson, 21, of McKeesport was charged Tuesday with attempted homicide, assault on a law enforcement officer and a string of other crimes. Allegheny County police Superintendent Charles Moffatt called the shooting “just one of those fateful things. The bullet was right above where the vest was.”

There are plenty of products on the market that offer additional protection for tactical officers, whose duties include riot control and hostage situations. But items such as ballistic collars, chaps, helmets and shields are impractical and cumbersome for patrolmen like Officer Kuzak, who normally handle less intense calls while on day-to-day patrol.

“It’s far more imposing-looking to the general public when you see someone with this [equipment], and some of these devices require the officer to use one or more of their hands when we want our officers to have their hands free,” said Fox Chapel police Chief David Laux, who is president of the Allegheny County Chiefs of Police Association. “It’s a trade-off.”

Most patrol officers’ vests are hidden under their uniforms. The vests cover most of the shoulder and the front and back of the torso to the waistline, allowing an officer to access items on his duty belt and turn his head to talk into the microphone on his lapel. Manufacturers are seeking ways to make vests that offer more coverage but are light enough for movement, such as a T-shirt style vest, which is not yet feasible, Mr. Hinchey said.

From 2000 to 2009, 36 of the 97 slain officers who suffered torso wounds despite wearing vests took a bullet through an armhole or shoulder area of the vest. In 16 of those cases, the round penetrated through the vest or was more powerful than the vest’s capabilities, according to the FBI’s statistics. In 14 cases, the bullet entered through the abdominal or lower back area.

The FBI’s data include several high-profile local cases including the November 2008 slaying of FBI Samuel Hicks, who was killed by a bullet that struck his left collarbone above his bulletproof vest. Pittsburgh officers Paul J. Sciullo II, Stephen J. Mayhle and Eric G. Kelly, gunned down in Stanton Heights on April 4, 2009, were all wearing vests. And so was Penn Hills officer Michael Crawshaw, who was killed in December 2009 by rounds that struck his head and arm as he sat in his squad car.

The last Clairton officer to be shot before Officer Kuzak was John Dunlap, who survived shots to the leg, arm and side in October 2000. Police at the time speculated that the bullets may have gotten under or around the vest in some way.

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