'Emotional wounds still very raw' for Aurora police one year after warehouse shooting
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'Emotional wounds still very raw' for Aurora police one year after warehouse shooting

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VICTIMS' FUNERALS BEGIN

Crosses are shown naming the victims of a mass shooting on Sunday, Feb. 17, 2019, in the Henry Pratt Co. in Aurora. 

AURORA — Police officer Adam Miller approached the warehouse cautiously knowing a gunman was inside. As shots whizzed by, a bullet grazed another officer's neck, ricocheted off Miller's rifle and struck him in the forehead.

Miller was one of five officers shot and injured by the gunman at the Henry Pratt Co. warehouse in Aurora Feb. 15, 2019. A fragment from the bullet that hit him lodged behind his right eye, causing permanent blindness in that eye.

Months later, city officials offered to find a desk job for Miller, assuming he wouldn't be able to return to police work. In November, after months of intense training, Miller resumed his police duties.

While each of the injured officers recovered enough physically to return to police work in some capacity during the last year, emotional scars across the department run deep. Police Chief Kristen Ziman said she's made it a priority to give officers the tools to address the wounds often hidden behind police stoicism.

Ziman called that tough exterior a "mirrored sunglasses attitude." Over the course of the last year, though, when she looked some in the eye and asked how they were coping, some broke down and fell apart.

As recently as last week, one officer who responded to the warehouse shooting said he was having a difficult time. His supervisor connected him to a mental health professional.

"It tells me the culture has shifted and we are strong, but there is nothing weak about asking for help," Ziman said.

Just before the holidays, the department joined We Never Walk Alone, an app and website that connects officers with a peer or mental health professional. The department had already developed a peer support team, partnered with a stress debriefing team and contracted with mental health professionals who specialize in public safety.

Humor has also been important to the recovery process, Ziman said.

When Miller returned to his first full-duty shift since he lost sight in his right eye, he brought a bag of chocolate eyeballs to share with his fellow officers.

Miller's attitude and recovery is emblematic of the spirit of the Aurora Police Department, Ziman said.

Seconds after Miller was shot, he radioed in: "I'm shot -- still in the fight." The phrase became a rallying cry for the department in the aftermath of the shooting.

Between his multiple surgeries, Miller showed up often at the department's firing range, retraining himself to fire a weapon with his one good eye.

"That is no small feat. I would see him in the hallways and ask what he was doing," Ziman said. "He'd be like I'm just practicing. Practicing on the range. No one told him to do that, but it's what he wanted."

Officer Marco Gomez, who was the first officer shot, is cleared to return to full duty Saturday, exactly one year since the shooting.

Officer John Cebulski, who had a bullet lodged in the back of his leg, is still on light duty.

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Officer Reynaldo Rivera, who Ziman credits as instrumental to the officers learning where the gunman was shooting from, returned to full duty in November.

Officer James Zegar, who was hit in the neck by the same bullet that injured Miller, returned to duty and recently retired.

"I knew he was retirement eligible, but he said he wanted to come back and go out on his own terms," Ziman said. "He got right back on the horse, so it was cool to watch him ride off into the sunset on that horse."

Ziman said her mission now is to urge people to say something if they sense something is off or wrong.

"Everyone knew this shooter had guns," Ziman said. "He talked about it all the time and was obsessed with getting his concealed carry license. They knew he had access but it never occurred (to anyone) that morning when he said he was going to blow the place up."

The police department will honor the five lives lost on Saturday at 1:24 p.m., the same time the first call came in about the shooting one year ago. Dispatchers will pause for a moment of silence and read the victims' names over the police radio.

"Everyone outside looking in is like 'wow, it's been a year, that's so long.' But for us, it is not because we are still grappling with it," Ziman said. "The physical wounds are healing but the emotional wounds are still very raw."

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