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Twice Stung, Cop Plans to Embrace Vest

KNOXVILLE , Tenn. — Knoxville, Tenn., police officer Norman Rickman had no reason to believe he was in danger five months ago when he checked out a blaring home burglar alarm on the city's northwest side.

Yet he was on the ground within minutes, blood pouring out of bullet wounds to his chest and left arm as one of three suspects stood over him and fired two more shots into his upper back at point-blank range.

Miraculously, the officer survived. "God was on my side that day," Rickman says.

More extraordinary, perhaps, is that the May shooting marked the second time in seven years that Rickman had been seriously wounded while not wearing a bullet-resistant vest.

Rickman's experience may be extreme, but it underscores the concerns of law enforcement officials and training officers who estimate that up to half of the nation's approximately 700,000 officers do not regularly wear protective vests.

"In my day, if you were wearing a vest, you were considered chicken," says Ed Nowicki, executive director of the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association. He survived six shooting incidents without a vest while he was a Chicago police officer. "Now, there is no excuse."

Since 1987, an estimated 3,050 officers have been saved from fatal or potentially disabling injuries by body armor, according to data from the International Association of Chiefs of Police/DuPont Kevlar Survivors' Club, which tracks such incidents. "It's stunning to me that all active-duty officers wouldn't be wearing body armor," says Jeff Fackler, a member of the IACP Foundation board and global marketing manager for DuPont Personal Protection, which provides body armor to police agencies.

Fackler estimates 40% of officers may not be wearing protective vests. For prison and jail guards, it may be as high as 85%, he says.

When Rickman, now 45, joined the police agency in 1989, he says he wore a vest regularly for the "first five or six years," even though the department had no requirement that vests be worn all of the time.

Gradually, Rickman says, his use of the vest became more situational. The heat and humidity of Tennessee summers and the types of assignments he got often dictated whether he wore it.

That changed in 2001, when Rickman was wounded by a suspect he stopped for a faulty brake light. Rickman says he was hit in the upper left chest, just above his badge.

He returned to duty with his vest — responding to his wife's pleas that he wear it at all times.

"She would get on me all of the time," he says. Fellow officers made informal inspections, periodically thumping his chest to check for the extra padding.

Yet again, he says, the passage of time and old habits contributed to a break in his safety routine.

Shortly after the start of his shift May 20, Rickman was dispatched to the northwest Knoxville neighborhood to check on the tripped alarm.

Burglar alarms are among the most common police calls and often do not involve violent confrontations, he says. Had the call clearly involved a violent incident, he says, he may have acted differently. This time, he approached the house without a vest.

Shots rang out shortly after he spied the suspect through a basement window in the back of the house. The first shot struck him in the chest and knocked him to his knees. He lost consciousness sometime after rolling onto his stomach.

Rickman says witnesses reported that the suspect continued to fire and pumped the last two rounds into his back shoulder area as he came to stand over Rickman.

The officer regained consciousness as a neighbor helped tend his wounds and called for help. The first ambulance carrying Rickman broke down on its way to the hospital, requiring a call for a backup. The three suspects, including the alleged shooter, later were arrested.

Rickman, who is expected to make a full recovery, calmly recounted the incident Thursday.

"You don't expect this to happen again, but it did," he says.

Since the shooting, Rickman says, the department started requiring officers to wear body armor.

He doesn't know when he'll return to duty. When he does, he says, he will be wearing the vest.

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