SWAT officer shot, saved by vest for second time

Lifesaving equipment: The vest that Francis Whalen wore when he was shot in 2010 is shown. The 17-year Police Department veteran was shot again last week while attempting to issue an arrest warrant to a murder suspect at Woodhaven and Thornton roads. He was wearing a ballistic vest and survived. TIMES FILE PHOTO

Francis Whalen had seen and done it all before.

The 17-year Philadelphia Police Department veteran had participated in countless apartment raids and served an equally countless number of arrest warrants during his tenure with the SWAT unit. He had come face-to-face with gun-toting criminals. One stubborn fugitive even shot him in the chest about five years ago.

But Whalen’s vast experience surely didn’t lessen the blow that he took last Wednesday, but his equipment sure did. Again, a suspected murderer shot him as he and other SWAT members served another arrest warrant at a Northeast apartment complex. Just like last time, the only thing separating Whalen from a potentially fatal wound was his ballistic vest.

“The officer does have a pretty nasty bruise,” Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey told reporters that day outside the emergency room at Aria Health’s Torresdale hospital. “Had it been a regular patrol officer, he might not have been as lucky.”

Because of the high level of danger in their special duties, SWAT members wear extra-robust protection. They don military-style helmets and body armor that’s thicker and provides more coverage than the standard flak jackets worn by patrol cops.

On July 22 at about 6 a.m., Whalen’s squad went to the Northbrook Apartments at Woodhaven and Thornton roads in pursuit of what they considered a high-risk objective. Police had obtained information that Devon Guishard was holed up there. Guishard, 27, was wanted for the murders of a pregnant mother of two and her unborn daughter on the 1500 block of Adams Ave. last Sept. 14. At the time of the slayings, authorities described the case as a particularly heinous shooting in which Guishard fired repeatedly and haphazardly at a moving car. Megan Doto, 25, ended up in the line of fire as she sat in front of a neighbor’s house basking in the morning sun.

Last Wednesday, the SWAT officers made their way to the second floor of a building on the 800 block of Riverside Drive, “breached” the door to Guishard’s apartment and entered the living room, according to the police department’s official account. The suspect allegedly grabbed an object that turned out to be a gun and ran toward a bedroom with Whalen and his colleagues in pursuit. Guishard turned and fired a shot that struck Whalen in the stomach, police said. Whalen fired back and struck Guishard in the chest.

Both Whalen and Guishard were taken to Aria-Torresdale. Guishard was pronounced dead at 6:42 a.m. Whalen spent about three hours in the hospital then recounted the shootout for investigators. He probably knew the drill.

Criminal suspects, particularly those wanted for the most serious crimes, can do desperate things when staring face-to-face with a return to prison. That’s what makes serving arrest warrants such a difficult duty.

Back in 2004, a team of warrant officers from the First Judicial District went to a building in East Oak Lane searching for an accused rapist, drug trafficker and absconder. Northeast resident Joseph LeClaire, a retired U.S. Marine gunnery sergeant, led the squad. A woman allowed them inside the suspect’s apartment unit. The officers saw a figure lying on a bed in a dimly lit room and ordered him to surrender. The suspect threw off his covers and opened fire, striking three officers. LeClaire, 53, suffered wounds of the forehead and abdomen and died hours later, leaving behind a wife and two adult daughters.

Whalen, a married father of two, and another SWAT officer walked into a similar ambush three days before Christmas 2010. They went to a rowhouse on the 800 block of Sanger St. at about 4:30 a.m. in search of a man wanted for shooting another police officer weeks earlier. The SWAT officers surrounded the home and were met by a woman resident who confirmed that the suspect was inside. She directed Whalen and Sgt. Christopher Binns to the basement.

At the foot of the stairs, the officers opened a door to a sudden hail of gunfire. One .45-caliber slug struck Binns square in the forehead area of his Kevlar-coated helmet, leaving a half-dollar-size crater. Another bullet passed through a panel of drywall and struck Whalen in the upper chest. A ceramic trauma plate intervened before the bullet penetrated his sternum. The officers returned fire while retreating from the house. Both walked away relatively unscathed. SWAT negotiators eventually coaxed the fugitive from hiding and arrested him.

Whalen was unavailable for interviews after that episode and has not commented publicly about last week’s incident. The police department has placed him on administrative duty pending the outcome of a preliminary investigation by the Internal Affairs Bureau and District Attorney’s Office. ••