Express Twins ·

Many New York City detectives take great care in selecting their professional wardrobes, from the necktie and pocket square to the wingtips. They buy specially tailored coats to conceal a sidearm on the hip, with a little extra give in the sleeves to accommodate a shooting stance.

But one part of the uniform is seemingly optional, worn only on certain occasions — and yet, it is the one that is intended to save a detective’s life. A bulletproof vest.

The Police Department’s Patrol Guide dictates that detectives must wear the vest when performing enforcement duty, such as making an arrest. Other times, it is up to the detective.

The stakes behind that decision came tragically to the forefront last month, when Detective Brian Simonsen, responding to a call of a robbery at a cellphone store, was fatally shot in the chest in police crossfire. He had sped to the scene from an unrelated surveillance operation, dressed in business attire, and had not been wearing a bulletproof vest.

Police officials have declined to say precisely where Detective Simonsen’s vest was when he was shot. It may have been in the unmarked car he and his sergeant, Matthew Gorman, were driving, or in his locker at the 102d Precinct station house in Queens. Sergeant Gorman had also not donned a vest. He was wounded in a leg but survived.

Detective Simonsen’s choice to leave his vest behind is far from unusual within suit-and-tie detective squads. “If I was just going to interview somebody, and you don’t feel that there’s a threat, me personally, I wouldn’t wear it,” said Steve Panagopoulos, a former detective in Brooklyn who retired in 2015. “I don’t think the majority of detectives wear them just conducting investigations.

A veteran detective, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to be quoted, said days went by without him touching his vest, which he leaves behind in the office.

“You’re going to talk to some 80-year-old lady who got her credit card stolen, you’re not bringing your vest,” the detective said, even as he acknowledged the danger of leaving without it. “If you get caught up in something, you’re kind of like, ‘Oh God.’”


Promotion to that rank generally follows several years as a police officer, likely on patrol in a uniform, when the vest is mandatory. With the promotion comes a welcome flexibility in attire, and detectives have described the care they take in being fitted for suits and finding favorite designer brands. A bulky bulletproof vest is generally unwelcome.

“It’s almost like a nuisance,” said another retired detective from the Bronx, who likewise asked to remain nameless out of respect for Detective Simonsen’s family. “It’s like wearing a Hefty bag full of sand and taping it around your back and chest. It’s heavy, it’s hot, it’s cumbersome — and it’s vital.”

He said he often urged younger detectives to “vest up” as they left the squad room. “It saves lives,” he said. “It saved several of my friends’ lives.”

Michael J. Palladino, the president of the Detective’s Endowment Association, said it may be time to re-examine the vest policy for detectives, to “rethink the gray area.” He said he encouraged detectives to wear their vests at all times — “It’s the unexpected situation that occurs without warning that you want to be ready for” — even as he noted various exceptions.

“Dealing with the victim or witnesses could be characterized as being fragile or delicate, depending on the nature of the crime,” Mr. Palladino said. “Sometimes the victims or witnesses are children, and the more delicate approach is warranted. Interviewing them while wearing a bullet-resistant vest might be counterproductive.”

A detective conducting surveillance — as Detective Simonsen was in the minutes before his death — would not be inclined to wear a vest. “Wearing a bulletproof vest is going to blow you up,” revealing a police presence, Mr. Panagopoulos said. “They’re going to know who you are. It’s going to defeat your surveillance.”


At one point, the Department issued detectives vests that resembled those from three-piece suits, with pockets that allowed for bulletproof plates to be added or removed. They were not popular.

“You dress it up to look like whatever you want it to look like,” the retired detective from the Bronx said. “It’s still a ballistic vest.” His still-on-the-job colleague remembered them, too: “I’ve never seen anyone wear it.”

The familiar blue vests returned, and are in use today. Occasionally they enter the spotlight, as in 2014, when a detective’s vest stopped a bullet from striking his chest. But mostly, detectives said, they stay behind in the lockers.

“After you’ve been working for a while, I won’t say you blow it off, but you say ‘It’s not going to happen to me,’” Mr. Panagopoulos said. “You just don’t wear it.”