Cedar City officer recalls surviving shooting in 2007, training with Sgt. Wride
"I look at a vest almost like a seat belt. A seat belt isn't going to save you every single time, but it's the one thing we have that gives us the best chance of survival," he said, praising the Cedar City Police Department's vest policy and similar requirements at other departments. "
With every stop there is a risk that something unpredictable, unprovoked and dangerous could happen. It's a balance, Thomas said, between taking necessary precautions and respecting the public's trust.
"We can't walk up to every traffic stop with a SWAT vest, a helmet, your gun out, with a rifle. That's not what we want to portray," he said. "But with a traffic stop or a motorist assist, we don't know what their motives are. We need to keep ourselves safe."
Protective vest policies in Utah are set by individual departments, and there is no statewide mandate, according to Utah Department of Public Safety spokesman Dwayne Baird.
Going back to work
Thomas calls himself fortunate as he recalls his injuries: broken ribs, a bruised lung and a number of penetration wounds from shotgun pellets.
"Every one of us know, and my family and families of a lot of other officers out there unfortunately know, that there's a chance we might not come home that night," he said. "But we choose to come to work every day. We're here for our communities and to protect our communities. That's what we're invested in."
When he recovered, Thomas credited his relationship with his K-9 partner for getting him back on the job.
"I didn't think it was fair for me to quit and him to stay," said Thomas, who feels a similar bond with other K-9 officers. "We all have a love for what we do. It's a camaraderie between us. It puts us into kind of a unique group. We love to use these dogs to catch criminals, or to help find people who are lost. We have a common bond."
As a K-9 officer, Thomas met Wride in 2004 when he began training with his police dog in Utah County. They would reconnect at regular trainings for the dogs and their officers.
"He spent a lot of time in our class working with us. I remember him being a funny guy but serious in what he did," Thomas said. "He was a great dog handler."
When Thomas learned it was Wride who had been shot, his first thought was for Wride's family. It's the pain of survivor's guilt, he said, something he has struggled with for seven years.
"That's something I thought of during this incident. How did I survive a shotgun blast to the chest from 5 feet away, and this guy was successful with a handgun from somewhat of a distance away?" Thomas asked. "It came out again in this, too. Why did this have to happen to them? Why did I survive but others don't? It's a hard reality to grasp when we're all doing the same job."
He now trains other officers across the state about his experience and life on the other side. Like so many others, Thomas said he will continue working in law enforcement as a tribute to officers such as Wride, Johnson and others who have lost their lives on the job.
"We come to work the next day, whether it be the day shift, the swing shift or the graveyard shift. That's what we do," he said. "We overcome our fears. We overcome any hesitations we have, and we go to work doing the same thing we did before this happened. We rely on our training, good luck and good support systems."
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