The shooting happened in a blink. The pistol’s muzzle flashed. The bullet slammed into the cop’s vest.
“It pretty much felt like being punched in the chest by a Mack truck,” Columbia Police Patrolman Alex Broder said Tuesday as he described his recent early morning encounter with Blakely Jernigan, a 22-year-old who would die a few hours later in a shootout with Columbia police.
Broder, a 24-year-old who was hired by the police department in October and had just graduated from the S.C. Criminal Justice Academy, had been patrolling the streets for just five days on April 27 with his field training officer, Patrolman Nicholas Scott, 25.
The two officers were working the night shift in the city’s South Region, which stretches from Five Points to the city line near Forest Acres. Already, they had responded to a hit-and-run, found a suspected arsonist and made several traffic stops.
But the police had been called to Shandon after a newspaper carrier for The State had reported that he was being stalked by someone driving a black Ford Explorer. Just before 4 a.m., the two spotted an SUV and began following it. Since the newspaper carrier had given dispatchers the license plate number, Broder and Scott quickly realized they had found the suspicious vehicle.
Broder, who was driving, turned on the blue lights.
At first, Jernigan slowly rolled through a stop sign. Then he floored it, Scott said.
The officers chased him around the block from Wheat Street to Queen Street, then Wilmot Avenue. At the intersection of Wilmot and King Street behind Hand Middle School, Jernigan slammed his brakes, Scott said.
“As soon as he stopped, he opened his door just a little bit,” Scott said. “That was suspicious.”
The officers stepped out of the patrol car, being careful to stand so that they were shielded by their open car doors.
“Let me see your hands. Let me see your hands. Let me see your hands,” Broder said.
“The third or fourth time, he stepped out and fired a shot. The door flew open. There was a muzzle flash, and I already had been shot. He hit me center mass in the chest and got back in the car,” Broder said.
Scott fired at Jernigan’s SUV as his partner, on the other side of the police car, was knocked to the ground.
Broder rolled behind the patrol car. He realized he had not been injured, so he stood and started firing his gun. Jernigan spun his car tires and fled.
During his weapons training, Broder said instructors had shown him a bullet-proof vest that had been hit with a bullet. Other officers had described what it would feel like if he was hit.
“I knew how it felt up against my body,” Broder said. “It didn’t feel flat against my chest. It felt like it had a bubble. I knew I still had the fight in me.”
Scott said those few seconds between stopping Jernigan’s SUV and the exchange of gunfire are “all kind of jumbled up in my head.”
“I remember Broder getting shot and being scared for my life and for his life,” he said. “Is he OK? Where did it hit? I just wanted to make sure he was safe.”
Once Jernigan fled, Scott called dispatchers to give them their location, tell that shots had been fired and that a suspect was on the loose. He then pulled open Broder’s blue uniform shirt to check the bullet hole. The vest had stopped the bullet.
Soon, officers from four police agencies were on the scene. An ambulance carried Broder to the emergency room for an X-ray. Scott was taken back to police headquarters.
Later, they would learn about the standoff outside Jernigan’s apartment and how he had stormed out a door with an AK-47 and homemade explosives in his pockets. Police said they found a large amount of drugs and other explosives in Jernigan’s apartment. A woman was passed out in his apartment’s bathtub.
The investigation into the shooting revealed that Broder was shot with a Soviet-designed 7.62 mm round, ammunition that can pierce armor.
Broder said he does not ponder the “what-ifs” of the shooting – the possibility it could have hit his head, whether Jernigan’s aim was a fluke or if he had trained on his weapon.
“I play the game that I was standing in the proper position and following my training and I’m fortunate enough to be here today,” he said.
Broder and Scott reconnected at the police department about two hours after the shooting. Each man said he was worried about the other.
“There definitely was a man hug going on,” Broder said.
The officers were given two weeks off to recuperate and went through individual and group counseling sessions.
As the officers return to their beat, they said they are impressed with the support they received from their fellow officers and the community. On Tuesday night, they were presented with new bullet-proof vests at the Columbia City Council meeting.
The police department flew Broder’s mother and fiancee to Columbia from his hometown in New Jersey the day after the shooting. Commanders and fellow street cops called both men every day. People from Shandon sent thank-you notes and emails, and students from two elementary schools sent handmade get-well cards, the officers said.
“That meant a lot,” Scott said.