Chris Bennett

Officer Chris Bennett had seen St. Joseph’s trauma team at work numerous times in his years as a Phoenix police officer. Part of his job includes accompanying the victims of shootings, car accidents and assaults to the Level 1 trauma center for treatment.

But on January 6, 2013, he became the patient. That evening, he had pulled over a suspicious bicyclist, who opened fire, shooting Officer Bennett six times. Three bullets to the torso were stopped by the officer’s body armor, but one shattered his jaw, one lodged in his back, and the other ripped through his forearm.

“Mental preparation is a big part of the job,” Officer Bennett says. “Literally daily when I went into work, I prepared myself for this process. In the academy they tell you to ‘what if...’ everything to death.”

He stayed calm, stayed conscious and called on his radio for help. But after the ambulance arrived, his life was in others’ hands.

“When I rolled into the trauma room and saw the doctors and nurses, I knew everything would be OK,” he says. “I knew at that point anything I had to treat, they could handle.”

Serving the community

As one of five Level 1 trauma centers in Phoenix, St. Joseph’s sees its share of officers injured on the job. Centers are designated Level 1 by the American College of Surgeons as being able to handle any and all kinds of traumatic injuries.

Though St. Joseph’s staff cares for all patients with the same high professional standards, knowing the patient is a police officer adds another dimension of urgency.

“It is different,” says Dana Stout, an RN who has worked in the trauma center for 10 years. “They’re out there protecting you and me and keeping intoxicated people off the street and keeping us safe.”

One wall of the center is decorated with photographs of Phoenix officers killed in the line of duty, along with rubbings of engravings of their names from the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington, DC.

“I go past that wall every day,” Stout says. “Whenever we get a call that an officer’s been injured, I just say to myself, ‘I don’t want to put his photo on the wall.’”

As a trauma clinician, Stout follows the patient from before their arrival throughout their entire time in the trauma center. She was working the night of Officer Bennett’s shooting. Among the small army of doctors, nurses, respiratory therapists, X-ray technicians, phlebotomists, chaplain and others attending to his care, she stood out.

“She communicated throughout the whole entire thing,” says Officer Bennett, five weeks after the ordeal. “I was fairly calm, but she communicated 90 percent of what they were doing and why they were doing it. It kept my fears at ease.”

Protecting the community

Bennett patrols an area in the Mountain View precinct that covers 37 square miles of the city, including a high-crime swath of central Phoenix.

The Phoenix Police Department does not keep specific statistics on the number of officers injured on the job, but its Employee Assistance Unit reported over 30 officer injuries, says Sgt. Trent Crump, a department spokesman. When an officer is hurt, the responding fire department determines which trauma center to take him or her to. St. Joseph’s is a favorite, he says, because of the quality of the care, but also because it has experience with high-profile cases such as Officer Bennett’s, which see an influx of concerned colleagues, family, city officials including the mayor, and media. St. Joseph’s provides a room to act as command center and has facilities for press conferences, such as the one held with Officer Bennett and trauma surgeon Raymond Shamos, MD, two days after the shooting.

“We are so taken care of,” Sgt. Crump says of St. Joseph’s.

Preparing for his return

The night Officer Bennett was shot, the trauma team initially focused on whether the bullet to his trunk had damaged any major organs. Once medical imaging had shown that Bennett did not suffer any internal bleeding, the pace changed.

“About halfway through, they started working a lot slower and things became very calm. That told me they could dial it down, that nothing was at a level that was going to be fatal or potentially fatal,” he says. “We see that as officers. When we arrive on a scene, there’s a high level of urgency, but then things start to calm down.”

Plastic surgeon Steven Wiener operated on Bennett’s jaw the following day, and after recovering for 24 hours in St. Joseph’s Trauma ICU, Bennett was able to go home to his longtime girlfriend and their two children. His jaw was wired shut for five weeks to allow the bone to heal. Despite a diet of high-protein shakes, he lost 21 pounds. He underwent several weeks of therapy to be able to move his jaw normally.

At the time of these interviews, the man who allegedly shot him was in county jail on several felony counts to which he’s pled not guilty. The case is expected to make its way through the courts over the next five years, Officer Bennett says.

The officer expressed his wish to return to his former beat once recovered.