By John Meyer The Denver Post
DENVER — As Jake Skifstad stood guard over the body of the man who killed two and injured three at the New Life Church in 2007, he was struck by the frightening realization that his Colorado Springs Police Department patrol officer’s vest would not have saved him if the suspect had shot him.
The shooter, who killed himself after he was shot by a member of the church’s safety team before police arrived, was armed with a rifle. Skifstad knew the “soft vests” patrol officers typically wear will stop handgun rounds, but not rifle bullets.
“Every police officer plays the ‘what if’ game, especially in those situations,” said Skifstad, founder and president of Shield 616, a Colorado Springs nonprofit organization that provides patrol officers around the country with enhanced vests that will stop rifle fire. “What if I would have been the first officer here? How would I have responded? One of the ‘what ifs’ was, what if this guy had gotten shots on me? He’s shooting at me with a rifle and I have no protection against it. Zero. That bullet would have gone right through me.”
Launched in 2015, Shield 616 has raised almost $3 million and outfitted more than 2,400 police officers in 18 states with kits that include armor vests that are impenetrable from rife fire, along with ballistic helmets and wound trauma kits. Each kit costs the organization about $1,500.
Last week, the organization delivered 26 kits to the Golden Police Department at a “vest presentation” ceremony in the City Council Chambers.
“The armor itself, it’s hard to put into words how important that is to us,” Golden Sgt. Mark Donohue said after he received his kit. “This is another tool in our tool box. It’s not an everyday use, but when you need it, you need it. When you need it and you don’t have it, it’s a very bad day for us. This is huge.”
It took a while for Skifstad to bring Shield 616 from idea phase to fruition. First, he had to figure out a way to piece together his own enhanced vest, purchasing rifle-stopping armor on Craigslist from a retiring Army sergeant. When other officers saw his homemade vest, they asked where they could get one.
“I would say, ‘I actually had to buy it from five different websites and I got the armor on Craigslist, so good luck,’ ” Skifstad said
In 2012, some officers who responded to the Aurora theater shootings who knew Skifstad asked how they could get vests like his.
“I decided, ‘We’ve got to do something. We’ve got to put together a package that’s designed by street cops for street cops,’ ” Skifstad said. “We took a year-and-a-half, doing all kinds of research and prototypes, getting stuff made, to come up with a kit that would be very effective, very safe, yet very simple and very quickly deployed.”
In July 2015, he applied for nonprofit status. The day after Thanksgiving that year, he was on the SWAT team that responded to the Planned Parenthood shooting in Colorado Springs. Three were killed, one a police officer, and nine were injured, including five officers. While racing to the scene, he heard deeply disturbing reports from officers already there over his police radio.
“I remember thinking, ‘These guys have no protection against the threat we are up against. They’re out there, putting their lives on the line, trying to end this, and they have no protection whatsoever.’ My heart broke for them.”
He could wait no longer to launch Shield 616, which came three days later, and he left the Colorado Springs police force in 2017 to lead the organization full-time. The name comes from a Bible verse, Ephesians 6:16, which reads, “Take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one.”
When the organization holds a vest presentation ceremony, it pairs each officer with a donor or someone else willing to begin a support relationship with the officer. The officer and their support person each get a refrigerator magnet with the other’s contact info.
Because the Golden vest presentation involved a donor who wanted to remain anonymous, Shield 616 worked with the police department to find supporters willing to take on that role.
“We had to find 26 support folks and say, ‘Hey, we don’t need money, but would you be willing to get to know an officer, would you be willing to support him, would you be willing to pray for him?’ ” Skifstad said. “We want to make sure every officer has one.”
In an era when highly publicized police shootings arouse strong emotions, the personal support Shield 616 arranges can be comforting to police and their families, who also attend the vest presentations.
“This organization and their commitment to police is incredible,” said Donohue, a Marine vet who served in Afghanistan and Iraq before joining the Golden Police Department six years ago. “Moving in the direction of pairing us with the community, it’s neat and it’s really unique. There is a lot of bad press out there, and it is nice to see the community really does support us.”
“When you need it, you need it”: Colorado’s Shield 616 helps outfit cops with lifesaving armor https://t.co/9z0AufPwSX
— The Denver Post (@denverpost) November 26, 2018