The Bittersweet Survival Story of Denver Police Officer John Adsit

Retiring Denver police officer John Adsit.
Retiring Denver police officer John Adsit. Denver Police Department via YouTube
This week, Officer John Adsit is officially retiring from the Denver Police Department because of injuries he sustained after being hit by a car while working crowd control during a December 2014 protest about a grand jury decision in the death of Ferguson, Missouri, resident Michael Brown. The damage Adsit sustained was so horrific that despite countless hours of rehab and more than two dozen surgeries, he was only able to return to the job for about a week or so over the approximately 29 months that followed.

Accepting that he has to give up a career that he loves has been difficult, Adsit admits. "For me, personally, the hardest moment in all of this has been realizing that what I kind of knew was imminent," he says. "I wasn't as prepared as I thought I was to hear the news I wasn't really going to make it back to the force. It was probably the toughest time I've had mentally through this whole process."

Still, Adsit remains grateful for the outpouring of love and concern from the community at large throughout his recovery, and he plans to dedicate much of his post-DPD life to other police and emergency personnel who have also been terribly wounded in the line of duty. "I've been able to meet a lot of great heroes that are going through some unfortunate times," he notes. "I'm praying they all get better."

Adsit was already in his early thirties when he graduated from a private police academy in Colorado Springs circa 2004. He joined the Denver Police Department the following year.

click to enlarge Officer John Adsit in uniform. - ADSITSTRONG.ORG
Officer John Adsit in uniform.
In the beginning, he says, "I was on patrol, regular patrol — mostly the night shift. I did that probably for two and a half years in District 6; my entire career was spent in the downtown area. Shortly after my two-year anniversary, I was fortunate enough to move to a new position. It was actually a position that the mayor — Mayor Hickenlooper, at the time — had been involved in putting together. It was a foot-patrol unit that basically walked the 16th Street Mall and the downtown area and took care of quality-of-life issues. Some of the more minor offenses, so to speak, but the things that were important to the public: shoplifting and things like that. I did that for a couple of years. And then in the same unit, I became what they call a neighborhood police officer, and my duties expanded to reaching out to businesses and the community in general — doing safety talks and giving statistics about crimes in the area and different ways of reducing crime, specifically in the downtown area."

His beat was "a very diverse atmosphere," he acknowledges, "and I enjoyed that about it. We dealt with folks with addiction issues, folks who might be dealing drugs, but also people who were CEOs of multimillion-dollar companies. And I had the opportunity to work pretty closely with our homeless outreach officers and some of the advocates for the homeless from the civilian standpoint. That was a pretty rewarding experience. I was lucky to be involved in helping to create an outreach program with the downtown business improvement district and some other civilian agencies to find ways to really help the homeless population in the downtown area. And I always enjoyed being able to go to community meetings and talk to people about how they could be hyper-vigilant about what's going on in their surroundings and how they can avoid becoming victims of crimes."

In his words, "the entire vision I had was to better the relationship with the Denver Police Department and the community. That wasn't always possible. I don't think a lot of people saw me that way all the time, because I did have to take enforcement actions and do things as a police officer. But I always tried to do so with respect and to treat people with respect as I did my job down there."

On December 3, 2014, Adsit's life changed — though there was no indication of a seismic shift in advance.

click to enlarge Some of the East High School students who took part in the protest. - PHOTO BY BRANDON MARSHALL
Some of the East High School students who took part in the protest.
Photo by Brandon Marshall
"That particular day was a pretty normal day for us," he says. "I had been assigned to a bike-patrol unit for several years prior to my accident, which included the neighborhood policing aspect. But the nice part of my job, I thought, was that I got to get onto a bike 300-plus days a year with my partners. And some of the things we oftentimes got called into were situations where there might be individuals exercising their First Amendment rights, protesting against an issue they might have. This day was one of those sorts of scenarios. We had just come out of having the Ferguson, Missouri, grand jury decision about the Michael Brown death and the officer not being charged. There were a lot of people really frustrated with that outcome, and they decided to let other people know what they thought about that decision. We were called, kind of out of the blue, to assist with traffic control and making sure in this particular case these students were kept safe."

The approximately 500 students in question attended East High School, and their walkout and demonstration was initially so uneventful that by about 10 a.m., "we were being released from that particular assignment — the bicycle officers and some motorcycle officers from our unit, too. There were going to be other officers who continued further toward the high school and beyond."

At that point, Adsit continues, "I turned around in the street — and that was really the last couple of moments I remember before being hit by the car."

The man behind the wheel of the black Mercedes that struck Adsit and three additional officers was Christopher Booker, who subsequently claimed that he'd crashed after having a seizure. But in March 2014, Booker was arrested on suspicion of vehicular assault and more because he'd failed to disclose his condition when registering for his license. Later that year, he was sentenced to six years in community corrections.

click to enlarge Other police officers huddled around Adsit after the crash. - 7NEWS FILE PHOTO
Other police officers huddled around Adsit after the crash.
7News file photo
The other injured officers were treated and released from the hospital that day. But Adsit was instantly knocked out "and honestly, I don't really know when I regained consciousness. I was really badly beaten up at that point due to being run over and dragged by the car. As they were trying to save my life at Denver Health, they had me under some pretty significant anesthesia and other things that really kept me from being much aware of anything that was going on."

Several days later, he thinks, Adsit experienced the first flash of memory that stuck: "I remember seeing some of my family in the hospital. But at the time, I had a tracheotomy and I was unable to speak. I was also on heavy medication, so I wasn't really lucid as to what had happened. But really, the first time that I remember consciously, independently remembering specific moments was probably about three and a half weeks afterwards, close to Christmastime. The doctors were able to insert this little device into the tracheotomy and I was able to speak to my family. I think it was Christmas Eve when I was able to say my first words since the accident."

This breakthrough didn't mean the road to recovery ran smoothly from that day forward. The following month, Adsit reveals, "In my level of psychosis I was dealing with in the hospital, I had in my mind something completely different that I thought had happened versus what actually happened. It was just a nightmarish scenario where I thought we'd been under attack — a pretty gruesome nightmare that I thought I'd lived through, which was nothing like what had actually happened. But I was so convinced of that at the time that I remember not even allowing my wife to tell me. It was one of my partners that I finally allowed into the room, and I said, 'Tell me really what happened here.' And that was after leaving Denver Health. I was in a different hospital at that point. So over a month later, I finally started understanding what happened."

He also began to perceive "how kind the community had been to my family throughout the whole experience," he goes on. "I don't know that words can really describe how powerful that support was. Obviously having a close-knit family was amazing, and having great co-workers around was amazing. But on top of that, to have an outpouring of people that were hoping that I would pull through and do good was somewhat of a surprise to me. As a police officer in downtown Denver, it wasn't something I was used to, to be honest."

Every drop of goodwill was needed, given the medical gauntlet still before him.

click to enlarge The black Mercedes that struck Adsit and three other officers. - 7NEWS FILE PHOTO
The black Mercedes that struck Adsit and three other officers.
7News file photo
"At this point, I think my wife and I have counted 25 surgeries," he says. "I sustained a concussion, and I had the tracheotomy. Both my shoulders were injured pretty significantly. On my left side, my arm was completely crushed. It's full of metal to this day. The femoral artery on my left leg was torn open, and I was bleeding internally. They had to go in to do emergency surgery to save my life, and thankfully the amazing surgeons at DMHC were able to save my leg, as well. But my right leg was also shattered and my ribs were crushed. They ended up having to piece together my ribs and put a metal rib cage, basically, around the left side of my rib cage. Oh, and my eyes were pretty damaged. When the ribs were crushed, the blood kind of rushed into my head and created some pretty significant damage to my retinas in the process."

On February 18, 2015, a date that's stuck with him for obvious reasons, Adsit was released from the hospital and began rehabbing at home. And while numerous doctors said it was doubtful he'd ever be able to work as a police officer again, he didn't let their diagnosis slow his efforts. "From day one of the rehab process," he allows, "my goal was to get back to the job."

It took him more than a year to accomplish this objective. "I think it was in September of last year that I was released to go back to what they call limited duty," he says. "I wasn't in uniform, and I wasn't carrying any defensive tools that I might otherwise be carrying. Basically, I sat at a desk, and I got to go to the academy to see a lot of what they were doing with the new recruits. And I had a lot of training, as well, that I needed to catch up on."

Unfortunately, this return didn't last long. Even though he was only working a few hours a day, "my left leg, where the femoral artery had been injured, started acting up again," Adsit says. "I only really lasted about a week and a half, and then I ended up in emergency surgery again. And that was the last time I was able to get back."

Throughout the rest of 2016 and the first part of this year, Adsit threw himself into rehab again. But he had a lot of obstacles in front of him. He concedes that "every day, I have movement issues. I still have several surgeries I'm going to have to go through. I've got some lasting nerve damage in my hand and have some limited movement that effects the dexterity of my left hand. Also, strength issues in my shoulders and upper body. I'm still dealing with some pretty significant pain and issues in my left leg, too. And my vision has stayed pretty similar to what it was two years ago. I've gone through a class and was signed off to drive — and I've been driving for several months, which I'm grateful for. But my right eye is worse than my left, and there's nothing right now medically that can be done to fix it."

click to enlarge John Adsit with his family. - ADSITSTRONG.ORG
John Adsit with his family.
This accumulation of conditions finally convinced Adsit that his time as a Denver police officer is over. His last official day is Saturday, May 20, with several events in advance marking the transition. On Wednesday, May 17, a lunch in his honor is being thrown by colleagues. "It will be fun to see some of the guys and gals and kind of say goodbye to District 6, which is where I spent the majority of my twelve years," he says. And then, on Thursday, May 18, he'll take part in the Denver Police Memorial Ceremony, which runs from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the DPD headquarters plaza, 1331 Cherokee Street. "I'll be able to honor those who've given the ultimate sacrifice in the line of duty," Adsit says. "And it will be a big day for me, because my chief is going to allow me to get into a uniform one more time. I haven't been able to put on a uniform since December 3rd of ’14. So that's going to be a pretty exciting moment for me, I can imagine."

As for what's next, Adsit will be devoting a lot of his time to, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit he founded "that is specifically focused on reaching out to traumatically injured first responders — not just police, but firefighters and paramedics, too. We want to help them as much as we can — not just financially, but emotionally and mentally, as well. I would say that's one of my main purposes right now in my life."

When Adsit has down moments, as he admits he does, he turns to his faith and his family. "I've got a great support system. My wife is amazing — we just celebrated our twentieth anniversary — and my kids are amazing. So when I'm kind of struggling here and there, I'd say those times have been lessened quite a bit because of them. I can definitely empathize with individuals dealing with anxiety and grief and depression and those kinds of things. But for the most part, I've had so much great support that it's been kind of easy to come out of those moments when they do happen."

He adds, "I've learned through this whole process how kind people can be. I know that a lot of us may have issues here and there and disagree with each other on certain things. But I've found just overwhelming support from people from all sorts of ways of life and backgrounds — people coming out of the woodwork to care for a human being who was suffering. I still am just astounded and overwhelmed by the support of even the school and the students that were there that day exercising their right to free speech. They've just been phenomenal. And if there's any way I can help bring our community closer together and help us understand, I will. We all have families, we all have loved ones, we all have ideals that we might disagree with, but we can still all get along. That's where I feel like I'm headed in my life right now."
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts