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Vest saves Hempstead officer in shootout

At left, a cone marks the gun at

At left, a cone marks the gun at the scene where a Hempstead Village police officer was shot in Hempstead. At right, the bulletproof vest that officials say saved the officer's life. The arrow indicates where the vest was hit by the bullet. (Dec. 2, 2011) Credit: Howard Schnapp (left), NCPD

A Hempstead Village police officer shot twice during a gunfight with a robbery suspect early Friday was saved by his bulletproof vest, authorities said.

The 25-year-old uniformed officer, who was not identified, managed to return fire and wound the alleged gunman, who was arrested along with another suspect.

The officer was shot once in the back and once in the forearm. He was treated and released from Mercy Medical Center in Rockville Centre, police said.

"Thank God! I'm so glad that the police officer had that vest on," said Hempstead Village Mayor Wayne Hall, who visited the officer in the hospital.

Police charged Michael Benitez, 22, of Roosevelt, with attempted murder of a police officer in the shooting.

The other suspect, Derick Hernandez, 20, of Roosevelt, was charged with obstruction for refusing to step away as Benitez was being arrested, authorities said.

Police Chief Joseph Wing commended the wounded officer's calm under fire. "He certainly acted bravely -- to maintain your composure when you're being fired upon and hit twice -- it certainly says something about the officer's discipline," Wing said.

The shooting erupted shortly after 3 a.m. on Washington Street near Cooper Place. Minutes earlier, police said, two plainclothes officers had tried to question the suspects near Washington and Fulton Avenue, in connection with two street holdups reported about 12 blocks away at 2 a.m.

The officers thought the suspects roughly matched the description of the muggers, said Nassau's Det. Lt. Kevin Smith.

Benitez fled, according to Smith. About the same time, the uniformed officer arrived in his patrol car to assist the plainclothes officers. Smith said Benitez reached into his clothes and grabbed a .38-caliber handgun, prompting the uniformed officer to go into a crouch and pull out his own weapon.

Benitez, firing from a distance of about 12 feet, shot the officer first in the back, then the left forearm, Smith said.

The righthanded officer, who had twisted his body defensively when the shooting started, managed to return fire, hitting Benitez in the forearm, leg and groin, Smith said.

The alleged gunman is scheduled to be arraigned Saturday morning from his hospital bed at Nassau University Medical Center in East Meadow. He remained hospitalized Friday night. His condition was not immediately available.

The incident is being investigated by the Nassau County police homicide squad, which is standard practice in police-involved shootings. Neither suspect has been linked to the street robberies, which remain under investigation, authorities said.

A revolver and a ski mask were recovered at the scene, they said. It was not immediately clear how many shots were fired.

The mayor said the wounded officer has been on the force for less than two years.

"There was at least one round that we recovered in the officer's vest, so that definitely saved him from possible death -- certainly from an additional injury," Wing said.

He said the plainclothes officers did not fire any shots.

The shooting was the first of a Hempstead police officer since 1975, when Officer John Simonitsch sustained nonfatal gunshots to the neck and buttocks, Wing said.

The use of bulletproof vests by Hempstead Village police officers is mandatory, Hall said.

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