TAMPA — The body armor strapped to the chest of Tampa police Cpl. Mike Roberts was strong enough to stop a variety of bullets.
But the one that killed him Wednesday night evaded the vest, slicing into his right shoulder at a downward angle and piercing his exposed arm pit.
The shot is a deadly reminder that not even state-of-the-art equipment provides complete protection.
In 1988, 25-year-old rookie Tampa police Officer Porfirio Soto Jr. died from a single shot that burrowed below his left arm pit. As with Roberts, this area was not protected by his vest.
"It is the nature of body armor, the way it is made," said Hillsborough sheriff's Cpl. Roland Corrales. "It does leave some openings."
Corrales evaluates body armor for the Sheriff's Office. The vest Roberts wore is made of flexible, synthetic fiber that, when woven together, mimics the imperviousness of steel even though it weighs much less. It's similar to the type of vests worn by deputies, Corrales said. Vests that cover the arm pits aren't popular because they are too confining, he said.
"They don't allow the body to lose heat, so they feel like your body is wrapped in a plastic baggy," Corrales said.
The manufacturer of the ABA Xtreme HP Level II vest worn by Roberts is Safariland, a company based in Ontario, Calif. A spokesman, Mark Berman, said until the company knows more about the shooting, it can't comment.
Body armor was introduced to law enforcement in the 1970s through a pilot program by the National Institute of Justice, a research arm of the U.S. Department of Justice. About 3,000 officers have been saved by vests since the mid '80s, said Debra Stoe, who manages the NIJ's standards and testing programs. She said the Kevlar vest that Roberts wore is on a list of vests the NIJ recommends.
A growing concern for the NIJ is officers being shot in vulnerable areas on the sides of the torso that aren't covered by the vest. Stoe said that a study under way is showing a high rate of these wounds from bullets that penetrate the shoulder first.
"What we thought was happening was that officers were getting shot under the arm," Stoe said. "It wasn't until now that we learned the bullets were going through the arms."
But covering that exposed area with the vest is not so easy.
"We want to make sure the officer wears the vest every single day," Stoe said, "which won't happen if it's really uncomfortable to wear."