Oakland police switched to heavier badges this year, and that might have saved an officer’s life early Christmas Eve.
Officer Joshua Smith’s new badge protected him during an exchange of gunfire following a traffic stop about 1 a.m. Thursday, Oakland Police Chief Keith Hogwood said.
Police were still looking Thursday night for two men who fled the scene.
Hogwood said Smith was wearing a bullet-proof vest, but the badge, heavier than the ones Oakland officers wore earlier this year, stopped the bullet.
“The chief said the officer was complaining about it being too heavy,” Oakland Mayor Bill Mullins said. “He said he wouldn’t be complaining anymore.”
While on patrol, Smith stopped a dark-colored gray or green Chevrolet Tahoe or Suburban on U.S. 64 near Cherry, police said.
The vehicle had a Tennessee temporary tag, designed for use on recently purchased automobiles, that had an expiration date of Sept. 9, or 9/9/09.
Hogwood said Smith pulled the vehicle over because it was weaving. He ordered the driver out to the back of the vehicle and was going to administer a field sobriety test.
The passenger got out, and refused to get back in the vehicle, Hogwood said.
Then the passenger said something to the driver in Spanish and pulled out a knife. The driver whipped out a gun and shot Smith in the chest, knocking him to the ground.
Despite hitting his head on the ground, Smith was able to fire at least one shot at the fleeing suspects.
Police didn’t know whether he hit either of the suspects.
Hogwood, who became police chief 13 months ago, made some changes including going to the thicker badges a few months ago.
“I ordered them because I liked the way they look,” Hogwood said of the new oval shields.
The badge may have saved the officer’s life.
He said the badges used in the past likely would not have stopped the bullet, and the bullet could have penetrated the officer’s protective vest.
The suspects escaped in the vehicle, fleeing west on U.S. 64 toward Memphis. Oakland, in Fayette County, is about 35 miles east of Downtown Memphis.
Oakland police put out alerts to all surrounding agencies and have checked area hospitals for anyone with a bullet wound.
Both men were described as Hispanic. The driver, who shot the officer, was about 6 feet tall, of average build. He had a bad hair dye job that left an orange or red streak in his hair and wore a black, long-sleeved shirt and blue jeans.
The passenger was about 5-foot-10, with an average build and a shaved head. He was wearing a long-sleeved white shirt.
The officer was able to walk away. He was examined at Baptist Memorial Hospital-East and released.
“God was watching out,” Hogwood said.
Smith has been an Oakland officer for about 8 months.
He was a Shelby County Sheriff’s reserve officer before that, he said.
Hogwood said he will let Smith keep the dented badge as a souvenir.