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From shooting victim to victor: Former Philly cop Jesse Hartnett is riding the distance

The retired officer, shot three times, will participate in a bicycle ride later this month that raises money for families of first responders who have been killed or injured.

Former Philadelphia Police Department Officer Jesse Hartnett on his bike at Wissahickon Valley Park. Hartnett, who retired from the department after being shot in an ambush, is training for the Ben to the Shore bike ride from Philadelphia to Atlantic City, which raises money for the families of fallen first responders.
Former Philadelphia Police Department Officer Jesse Hartnett on his bike at Wissahickon Valley Park. Hartnett, who retired from the department after being shot in an ambush, is training for the Ben to the Shore bike ride from Philadelphia to Atlantic City, which raises money for the families of fallen first responders.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

The first surprising thing about Jesse Hartnett is that he’s alive.

Hartnett, 37, took three bullets to his left arm in an ambush on a January night in 2016 while behind the wheel of his police patrol car at a West Philly intersection. One shattered his bone and left the arm useless. When Hartnett got out of the car to chase the gunman, he said blood splattered on the street like old mop water tossed from a bucket.

In person, at his home in Roxborough, Hartnett reveals more subtle surprises. He’s lost 30 pounds. His daughter, Emma, hugs his legs. Being able to change her diaper and tie her shoes with an arm covered in scars and filled with metal were small victories. In the basement, one surprise leans against a wall, his $3,000 Italian racing bicycle, and the biggest surprise, perhaps, is that Hartnett, after 11 surgeries, is going to ride that bike 65 miles in one clip on July 28.

“I’d like to ride right now but I think we may be going to the Shore,” Hartnett says in his kitchen. “Right now my longest rides are about 25 miles but I’d like to get up to at least halfway.”

Hartnett is going to saddle up for the 32nd annual Ben to the Shore bike tour, a charity ride for the Families Behind the Badge Children’s Foundation, which raises money for families of first responders in the Philadelphia region who have been killed or injured.

The tour begins at the base of the Ben Franklin Bridge at 6th and Race Streets in Philadelphia and ends at the Showboat in Atlantic City. It will be the longest Hartnett has ridden so far, and his brothers in blue are already impressed. Many, including Deputy Police Commissioner Joe Sullivan, will be riding right beside him.

“He’s such an inspiration to so many people,” Sullivan, 57, said. “His wounds were so grave. We all wondered what would have happened, but he’s persevered.”

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Hartnett is also raising money for the foundation he started, The Hartnett Hero Fund, which helps augment police cruisers with ballistic panels and armor.

The shooting rendered Hartnett’s left arm, fingers and grip considerably weaker. Burning sensations shoot down his arm. His skin itches. Cobalt chromium, made in Belgium, has replaced some of the bone in his elbow. Riding 65 miles crouched over handlebars won’t feel good, but doctors gave Hartnett the go-ahead. He didn’t want to only tag along in a car, waving to people.

“That’s just his style,” Sullivan said. “We would have been thrilled to have him at the finish line, just there to speak, but that wouldn’t have been consistent with his nature.”

Hartnett grew up in East Lansdowne. His dad was a mechanic, but he was always drawn to law enforcement. After graduating from Monsignor Bonner, he joined the Coast Guard and spent several years stationed in Connecticut. Afterward, he was a part-time police officer in East Lansdowne. He joined the Philadelphia Police Department in 2011

“My whole goal with the Coast Guard was to prepare for law enforcement,” he said.

Hartnett was working an 8 p.m.-to-4 a.m. shift, sitting alone inside his patrol car at 60th and Spruce Streets in the city’s 18th District. It was January, but Hartnett had cracked the windows a little. Suddenly, he saw Edward Archer running toward him, gun raised. Archer fired 13 shots.

“I remember the sound, the metal thumping the vehicle,” said Hartnett.

Then Archer was inside the car and fired three shots at Hartnett, point blank. Hartnett still managed to get out of the vehicle, his left arm now useless and draining blood, and fire at Archer. Hartnett struck Archer once in the buttocks as he ran out of the car toward him. When backup arrived, officers scooped Hartnett up and tossed him in the back of a patrol car.

“I don’t really remember his gun going off in the car, but I knew my arm was just destroyed,” he said. He talks about the shooting in a calm, measured way. He said he’s never experienced PTSD symptoms.

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Archer repeatedly pledged his allegiance to the Islamic State to detectives after he was apprehended. That news drew international headlines, particularly when Mayor Jim Kenney said the shooting had nothing to do with Islam. Hartnett was mostly medicated through that time. He said some members of his wife’s family are Muslim and don’t share the beliefs Archer apparently did.

“The guy follows Islam but he was radicalized,” Hartnett said.

Hartnett spent 14 days in the intensive care unit, his upper arm shattered. He still has bone fragments inside him.

As the surgeries progressed and Hartnett regained a modicum of function in his arm, he hoped to get back in uniform. He had even planned to undergo a 12th surgery, but doctors advised against it and told him he’d have to live with a certain level of trauma to the arm.

“My whole thought from the very beginning was [to] go back to work,” he said. “I never had anything else on my mind. That was my focus.”

Now retired, Hartnett has found a new path, a way to help brothers in uniform who are struggling emotionally. He recently spoke to the West Deptford Police Department. He made a PowerPoint presentation but often he foregoes it and just speaks from the heart. Sometimes, other officers who have been shot will send Hartnett messages on their own, often while they’re still in the hospital. Hartnett understands that simple words matter most in these initial interactions. He tells them to hang on, and reminds them how tight the law enforcement brotherhood is and that it will never go away.

“Let’s talk,” they tell him.

Kyle Schmeer, owner of Cycles BiKyle in Bryn Mawr, helped tune Hartnett’s Pinarello racing bike to specifically compensate for his weaker left arm and hand. Levers were shortened. Heights adjusted. Luckily, the right hand has more work to do on a road bike.

“The biggest thing was figuring out how he would be able to support himself,” Schmeer, 65, said.

Schmeer, a former competitive bike racer, said the most important advice he gave Hartnett was to pace himself. It’s a long race, he warned him, not a sprint.

“I think he’s taking it many steps further. I don’t think anyone expected him, three years later, to be riding with a goal of 65 miles,” Schmeer said.

Down in the Wissahickon Valley, where Hartnett practices, he stood astride the bike, and even he was surprised.

“I mean I rode bikes as a kid, but nothing like this,” he said. “This is all new to me.”