LEE COUNTY, Fla. - Sergeant Michael Wilson was wearing a bullet proof vest when he was killed Monday night. The Charlotte County Sheriff's Deputy was responding to a domestic violence call at the Lakes of Tuscana Apartment Complex in Port Charlotte. Deputies say he was shot in the chest, just above where his vest covered, allegedly by Jay Vanko.
Officers who wear body armor know they're not protected everywhere. But, they know it gives them better odds when faced with potentially deadly situations. Some of that protection is made in our area.
Employees at Survival Armor in Gateway work long hours to keep officers in Southwest Florida and around the world safe. "This is why we do it, so they can go home to their families," Vice President of Domestic Sales and Marketing Cathy Lowe said.
Each vest is sewn by hand, the raw fibers forming layers of protection that are certified by the National Institute of Justice.
"The crucial parts are your chest area over your heart and the back of your kidneys and the side," Lowe demonstrated with a vest. "Our patterns are basically what we call a max fit which gives it a little wider across the the chest area and higher up on the armpit area. So, when the officers are pulling their guns or in a situation where they need the vest, you still have that coverage."
Lowe says the vests are made to protect while not impeding upon officers' mobility. "What people don't understand is you can't cover the entire body," Lowe said. "The officers have to have the mobility and flexibility to react to situations. We cover it as much as possible."
According to preliminary data from the FBI, 47 officers were killed in the line of duty last year. 20 of them were wearing bullet proof vests. While it doesn't make them invincible, Fort Myers Police Officer Alain Gagnon says it increases their odds. "Every day, every day, yes," Gagnon said. "That's all we have to protect us."
Fort Myers Police have 189 vests. Each vest costs $600, purchased through a grant from the Bureau of Justice Assistance.
Wearing bullet-resistant vests is mandatory in the department with a few exceptions. Gagnon doesn't go without it. "It's terrifying looking at a barrel of a gun and being fired," Gagnon said. "I've been shot at but not a strike, a miss."
He was with Officer Andrew Widman July 18th, 2008, the night Widman was shot and killed by Abel Arango. Widman was wearing a vest but was shot in the face. It's a night Gagnon relives each time he hears of another officer-involved shooting. "Oh yeah. it brings back memory," Gagnon said. "You never know when a situation will escalate. There's a lot of guns out there. You never know. It could be a traffic stop, it could be domestic response."