Injured in line of duty, he’s still a cop at heart

His assailant’s handgun boomed. The bullet tore into Paul Phillips’ left arm, removing vein and bone.

Phillips stumbled backward. Blood poured from his wounded arm. He aimed with his right.

His gun banged five times. Four shots stitched a pattern across Jay Dailey. Phillips ran to his patrol car to get more ammunition. He heard the screech of metal, the shattering of glass: Dailey was shooting at his car.

Phillips bounded back out. Dailey was on one knee, fumbling with his weapon.

“Drop the gun!” the Fulton County police officer yelled. “Drop the gun. Now!”

Wonder of wonders, he did. Phillips ordered the shooter to lie on his stomach, arms straight out.

Phillips sat in his car and reached for the radio microphone. He looked at his lap, pooled with blood. He looked at a nearby tree line; beyond it, he could see the roof of his house. He’d almost made it home.

Then he looked again at the man on the ground. The man who had just ended his career.

A man like him, a cop.

‘A challenge’

Paul Phillips made headlines again recently, this time when benefactors stepped up to keep him from foreclosure. The 40-year-old was facing more than $7,400 in late mortgage payments and interest penalties. Phillips likened the donations to “angels ... lifting me up.”

It was nearly as unexpected as that unlikely Feb. 1, 2008, confrontation: a shootout between two metro area police officers.

That case was officially closed last summer when Dailey, a former Duluth police officer, was found guilty of several assault and firearms offenses and sentenced to 60 years in prison. Dailey, testimony showed, had been drinking vodka when he crashed his car, then forced a motorist to stop. He assaulted her with pepper spray and threatened her with a gun.

Phillips got a sentence of a different type. On disability, he’s drawing 75 percent of his $44,500 annual salary. He’s sued the city of Duluth, as well as Duluth police Chief Randy Belcher, Maj. Don Woodruff and Dailey; the suit has yet to go to trial.

Most days, he stays at home. It’s a comfortable place, two stories tall with a two-car garage in a subdivision that, not long ago, was hardwood forest. He shares it with his wife, Stephanie, and their children, ages 8 and 3. An amiable mutt and two cats round out the family. His office, an alcove just off the living room, is cluttered. On nearby walls are commendations for bravery stemming from that firefight three years ago. They remind him of what he had, what he was.

“Every day is a challenge,” said Phillips. “The horrible knowledge that another cop shot me is ... still horrifying.”

Armed confrontation

Phillips was headed home from a second job directing traffic at a nearby school when a man in a pickup truck flagged down his patrol car. “There’s a guy, right up there, waving a gun!” the pickup driver said. Phillips flipped on his car’s blue lights and drove off.

Just around the curve, a tan Pontiac Aztec was stopped in the road. Crashed nearby was another car. On its bumper was a black rectangular sticker split neatly in the middle by a horizontal blue stripe, indicating the car belonged to a police officer. A fellow cop must already be on the job, Phillips thought.

He walked toward the Aztec, which had a shattered window. A man — Dailey — stepped out on the car’s other side. Phillips saw the bulletproof vest, the Glock handgun in the man’s hand, and assumed he was an officer in plainclothes.

A fusillade followed. The shooting finished, Phillips sat in his car, waiting for help. He saw a piece of bone, blasted from his arm, resting on his thigh. He struggled to stay conscious.

Then, sirens. Moments later, he was in an ambulance speeding toward Gwinnett Medical Center, where surgeons worked to restore mobility to his left hand and put back some of the muscle he’d lost when Dailey’s .357-caliber bullet traveled through eight inches of bone and tissue.

Today, the fingers of his left hand are nearly inflexible. “No typing,” said Phillips, who uses his right hand to work his computer. “No holding a gun.”

A move, a career

Phillips has a yellowed newspaper photo from the Allendale, N.J., Town Messenger. It depicts him and another eighth-grader, their faces unmarked by time and its companion, experience. Standing between them is an old guy whose face bore the marks of both, the town police chief. He’d visited the school and had some advice for the boys.

Go to college, said the old lawman, and learn something that might serve you well. Phillips took the chief’s advice to heart, getting a bachelor’s degree in English in 1994 at Moravian College in Bethlehem, Pa.

He wrote freelance stories for area papers, but in his heart, Phillips knew: He was a cop. When he moved to Atlanta in late 1995, he applied for jobs at several metro police departments. Fulton County hired him and sent him to work its south side.

It was an education in every facet of police work. He investigated crimes, broke up domestic feuds and got the occasional taste of danger. Once, a car nearly ran over him.

He requested a transfer to north Fulton County to be closer to his Sugar Hill home.

And this: “I just wanted to ride motorcycles, to be honest with you.”  In north Fulton, he was a traffic officer, a job that required frequent two-wheeling.

Phillips, it seemed, was set.

Struggle to recover

Nearly 15,000 police officers were injured on the job in 2009, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial.

A nonprofit organization based in Washington, the fund is dedicated to honoring police officers and memorializing those killed in the line of duty.

The association does not have records indicating how many officers may have been the target of hostile fire from fellow officers, said Steve Groeninger, the fund’s director of communications. Surely, he said, the number cannot be large.

Phillips’ case, he said, “should be pretty unique.”

The case touched a generous public impulse when news got out about his pending eviction, said Marlon Trone, executive director of the Southern States Police Benevolent Foundation Inc. The foundation assists in fundraising and other efforts to help officers in need.

Supporters, he noted, already have set up a fund for Phillips. Donations can be made to the Officer Paul Phillips Fund at any Wells Fargo bank.

“Officer Phillips and his family seem to have their prayers answered,” said Trone. “Our hope is that they’re on the road to recovery.”

“Recovery” is a relative term. Phillips still does physical therapy, though he doubts the exercises will squeeze any more use out of his battered hand and arm. The real recovery, he knows, must take place in his head, his heart.

“This year, I made new year’s resolution,” said Phillips. “To accept the fact that I’ll never be a police officer again.”

So Phillips looks for jobs. He would like to remain in law enforcement, maybe work at the academy where he became an officer and share some hard-won knowledge with men and women new to the badge.

One lesson he knows well: Life can change in an instant. And in the least-expected way.