Officer Rick Bowes
Photo credit: Philadelphia Police Department
It felt as if someone had slugged him in the belly with a sledgehammer.
Shot just below his bulletproof vest, Philadelphia Police Officer Rick Bowes collapsed on Colorado Street in North Philly. He lay dazed and bleeding, trying to get his bearings.
Suddenly, Daniel Giddings loomed into view. Standing over the downed cop, Giddings dropped the spent magazine from his illegal gun and dug into his pocket for more ammunition.
Bowes didn't know that Giddings already had shot and killed Officer Patrick McDonald a block away. He didn't know that Giddings was a violent criminal and convicted carjacker with a history of assaulting cops, prison guards and fellow inmates. He didn't know that Giddings was a parole violator wanted for escaping a halfway house just weeks earlier.
But he knew that he didn't want to die. With a surge of adrenaline, he rolled over, got up on one knee, drew his gun and aimed. Giddings took off running. Bowes opened fire.
That was five years ago next Monday. Today, hospital equipment crowds the living room of Bowes' Somerton house, proof that the married father of three still lives with the consequences of the shooting. He's had eight surgeries since he and Giddings crossed paths, and he remains on injured-on-duty leave from the Police Department.
But his days are not idle: He has become an advocate for gun control, calling for tougher penalties for straw purchasers and parole violators.
"I'm lucky, very lucky. I was standing within six inches of a male with a .45[-caliber handgun] when I had no weapon in my hands, and he started firing, and I'm here to talk about it. I'm lucky," said Bowes, 40, who has advocated on behalf of CeaseFirePA -- a coalition of survivors and advocates against gun violence.
Persuading lawmakers to tighten gun control in a state known for its gun-friendliness, though, is a tough task.
"We have to convince them, hopefully through victim-impact statements, that we need stricter gun laws," Bowes said. "I understand that out there [rural areas where lawmakers have resisted gun control], you don't have the problems that we have in the city. But we need help with this. We need help in the city."
Bowes' perspective as a cop who nearly was killed by an armed career criminal makes him uniquely persuasive, said Shira Goodman, CeaseFirePA's executive director.
"I'm glad he's brave enough to share his story, because [experiences like Bowes'] are what make it real to people, and what will motivate lawmakers to act," Goodman said. "Even if the lawmakers are numb to these stories, we know that the public is not numb to them. And we know lawmakers are not numb to what happens at the polls. That's the next step -- getting the public to vote on this issue."
Last month, Bowes spoke at a Harcum College continuing-education workshop, and in July he wrote an email for CeaseFirePA advocating gun control.
"My name is Rick Bowes and I was on the Philadelphia Police Force for 12 years," he wrote. "In 2008 my fellow officer was killed during a traffic stop by a gunman recently released from prison after serving time for aggravated assault with a gun. I was shot during the same incident and was not able to continue work in the same capacity with the force.
"I know first hand the tragedy that gun violence causes. And I know we need a comprehensive background check for every sale of every gun, every time. Can you sign our petition and stand with me?"
In the email, Bowes wrote that lawmakers in Harrisburg need to hear that "we won't stand for loopholes" in Pennsylvania's background-check system "that put guns in the hands of criminals."
"Thanks for joining me and CeaseFirePA in calling for a comprehensive background-check system here in Pennsylvania," he wrote.
The call that took Bowes to Colorado Street on Sept. 23, 2008, was like countless others he'd heard in his 12 years on the job: An officer requested backup to nab a suspect fleeing a car stop.
McDonald caught up with Giddings at Colorado near Susquehanna Avenue, before backup officers arrived. The two men fought violently until Giddings pulled out a handgun and shot McDonald several times -- blasting even more bullets into him after the 30-year-old officer fell.
Giddings, 27, then stole a bicycle and pedaled away -- but within seconds he encountered Bowes, then assigned along with McDonald to highway patrol. He hurled the bike at Bowes and began to fire. One bullet hit Bowes' police radio, but the other caught him just under his vest, shattering his pelvis and traveling down his leg.
Giddings died after Bowes returned fire and hit him five times.
Bowes later was hailed as a hero, earning a medal of valor, the highest honor the Police Department bestows for bravery. (McDonald was posthumously promoted to sergeant.)
Inspector Mike Cochrane, the commander of the Northeast Police Division who was Bowes' boss in highway patrol, said Bowes "is an excellent officer. He went up against a gunman that just killed an officer in his squad, and his training kicked in."
John McNesby, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5, agreed: "He did his job that day and saved the [McDonald] family from a trial."
Most cops remain on injured-on-duty status no longer than about two years, before either returning to police work or being declared permanently disabled, McNesby said. But Bowes has been back to work a few times, on limited duty -- only to be sidelined with each additional surgery.
His first surgery, months after the shootout with Giddings, was just to remove the bullet that still rested against his femoral artery. Two surgeries followed to repair his pelvis. The subsequent surgeries have focused on his knee, which deteriorated from disuse, Bowes said.
He walks with crutches as he recovers from his most recent -- "and hopefully last" -- knee surgery, done in late July. At 6 feet 5 inches, he's a former baseball and basketball player, in high school and college, and he coached baseball until giving it up recently because of his continuing health problems.
"It robbed me of being able to raise my children the way I wanted to," Bowes said. "I used to run around and play with my kids. My son is playing basketball now, and I would love to be out there playing with him, showing him things. This injury cost me that."
He still aims to return to police work, a prospect that worries his family.
"When I say I'm going back to work, the kids get emotionally distraught," Bowes said. "They think I'm not strong enough to fight bad guys anymore. They want to know who's going to protect me."
Shot at three times
Cops get shot all the time -- more than 260 have died by gunfire in the United States just since McDonald's death, including Philly officers John Pawlowski and Moses Walker Jr., according to the Officer Down Memorial Page.
Bowes feels blessed to have dodged landing on that memorial list, considering that the Giddings gunbattle was the third time he'd been targeted by an armed thug. The first time, he was just a few months out of the Police Academy; a man fleeing a crime inside a Hunting Park bar saw him and opened fire. Then, about eight years ago, someone fired at him during a car stop. Bowes escaped injury both times.
Still, such tragedies have spurred legislative change.
Pennsylvania lawmakers passed the "Brad Fox Law" last October, a month after a felon killed Fox, a Plymouth Township police officer, with a gun sold illegally by a Philadelphia man. The new law requires a five-year mandatory-minimum prison sentence for repeat straw purchasers, or anyone who buys guns for a felon forbidden by law from owning firearms.
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