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, Pa. police Officer James Kuzak's body April 4 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.
Kuzak, 39, survived the shooting, and though still critical, was alert and talking two days later, fellow officers say. But others 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. 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 police sergeant who in November 2004 was shot in the groin just under his bulletproof vest. 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."
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 Kuzak, who normally handle less intense calls while on day-to-day patrol.
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, 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.