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One year after shooting, injured Aberdeen officer optimistic about returning to duty

Aberdeen Police Officer Jason Easton reflects on the Dec. 4, 2015, shooting in which he was injured in his left eye, and the outpouring of support he and his family have received since then. (David Anderson / BSMG)

Nearly one year after being ambushed around 3 a.m. and surviving a shotgun blast to his face that cost him most of the sight in his left eye, Aberdeen Police Officer Jason Easton, his family, his doctors and police chief remain optimistic that one day he might return to duty.

But that's still a ways off.

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He said he's been through six or seven surgeries, has doctors' appointments sometimes as often as once a month and is focused on keeping his left eye stable.

"To keep it stable is how I'll regain vision in the left eye," Easton said.

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He said he just sees "a little bit of light and shadows" out of that eye.

Police Chief Henry Trabert said he stays optimistic that Easton will resume his duties as a patrol officer, based on conversations they have had, although he stressed that decision rests with Easton and his doctors.

"I will do all I can to accommodate whatever he wants to do," Trabert said Thursday.

Easton, 33, and his wife, Sandi, 31, met with The Aegis Wednesday at the Aberdeen Police Department headquarters to talk about the night he was shot and the year since. He was injured on Dec. 4, 2015, in the 500 block of Ohio Court as he responded to a call regarding suspicious activity – a person had reported receiving threatening text messages.

"I don't think I'll ever forget that incident," Easton said.

The incident happened around 3 a.m. Schools in the area were closed for the day as the manhunt for the shooter continued past daybreak.

The shooter was Tyler Testerman, now 22, of Havre de Grace. He and his accomplice, 27-year-old Scott Lawrence, of Abingdon, were arrested in the late morning and late afternoon of Dec. 4.

Lawrence and Testerman have since pleaded guilty for their parts in the shooting – Lawrence tried to get the victim, who had been arguing with Testerman via text messages, to come out of the trailer where he was hiding while Testerman waited in the nearby woods to ambush him.

Lawrence was sentenced to 25 years in prison and five years' probation, with the prison time suspended. Testerman was sentenced to a combined 78 years in prison, although he will serve a maximum of 35 years after the remaining years were suspended.

Easton was hit in the face, neck and torso, and seven shotgun pellets remain in his body, including one that is in the rear of his eye. He said Wednesday that he risks irreversible damage to the optic nerve, if doctors were to try to remove the pellet.

Easton said "God was definitely there" for him, because "any closer, the type of shot [Testerman] had, I wouldn't be here."

Easton, who has been with the APD since July 2005, said he remembered the words of his training officer after being shot: "cover, concealment and draw [your weapon]."

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"I audibly heard him in my head, talking me through the situation," Easton recalled.

He sought cover after he was hit, which he described as "like someone slapped me in the face," and he directed the threat victim to get to cover.

Det. Sgt. Will Reiber, an APD spokesperson, said police could hear Easton over the radio.

"Jason was still calm and was able to give very concise directions to avoid any possible injury to that victim," Reiber said.

Trabert said Easton's actions show what "a true hero is."

"He put himself out there, while he was injured, performing his duty to protect other people," the chief said.

Sandi Easton said the police dispatcher who was on duty was "very concise and very quick to get the right help as quickly as humanly possible."

Fellow Aberdeen officers and Sheriff's Office deputies in the area responded. Easton got himself to an ambulance once the scene was secured, and he was later flown to the University of Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore.

"If I got that call today, I would have done the exact same thing," Easton said of his actions during the incident.

Reiber, as well as Easton's wife, noted his calm, unflappable personality and how it has helped in his recovery.

"His good spirit, that was motivational to everybody else," Reiber said.

The Eastons, who live in Aberdeen, have been married for 11 years. They have three children and a fourth due in March.

Sandi Easton is a stay-at-home mom. Jason Easton has been spending his time helping with the children and volunteering at their school – his wife serves on the PTA.

"I'm just trying to be as involved with the kids and family life as possible," he said.

Easton and his family are in regular contact with Aberdeen officers and police leaders, his wife said.

Chief Henry Trabert has been "instrumental" in helping the family.

"They've just been very kind, very gentle with me," she said. "I still call the chief all the time."

Easton said there has been an outpouring of support not only from people in Aberdeen, but also from people all over the country, such as cards, fundraising and donations of household items, including a new washing machine.

Sandi Easton said the support has helped ease feelings of loneliness and isolation.

"Everybody has shown some level of concern and care, and that says a lot about our community," Jason Easton said.

Easton's eye is being treated by Dr. Adrienne Scott, medical director at the Johns Hopkins Wilmer Eye Institute in Bel Air. He noted Scott told him recently that she "still feels optimistic" that he can recover.

"We stay optimistic when she says that," Sandi Easton said.

Jason Easton said he and Scott have been discussing using a simulated lens to help restore his sight, since he does not have a lens on his left eye.

"They can elevate that to the level of whatever you need," he said of the lens.

He and his wife have not yet decided if he will medically retire or get a new job.

"We don't dwell on that, because in our thoughts, he's coming back" to the police force, Sandi said.

Retirement income

While Easton has not made a decision about medical retirement, police department and union leaders have expressed concerns about the amount of retirement income an officer can earn, if they cannot return to work after being injured in the line of duty.

The concern came up during an off-site retreat Nov. 12 at the Holiday Inn Express in Aberdeen with the mayor, City Council members and city department heads and staff.

Deputy Chief Kirk Bane noted the standard for U.S. police agencies is 66.5 percent of an officer's salary, while the maximum an Aberdeen officer could receive is 33 1/3 percent. Bane, along with Trabert, is concerned for officers who put their safety on the line each day as well as potential harm to recruitment.

"Every other law enforcement agency that we are aware of with an officer with injuries of this magnitude would retire the employee at the higher rate," Robert Gibbons, vice president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 128, said in an emailed statement. "However, in recent years, the city of Aberdeen has elected to cut employees benefits to balance the budget on the backs of its hardworking and dedicated employees."

Lodge 128 is the union for Harford County's municipal police officers.

"Officer Easton and his family have endured an officer's worst nightmare and it is the genuine hope of the Fraternal Order of Police that the city recognize his sacrifice and sufficiently provide for his family should this injury end his career," Gibbons continued. "To do otherwise only adds to the officer's injuries."

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Trabert said Easton, who is one of 42 sworn officers, is still on the APD payroll and is getting city benefits. He is receiving disability pay, and the city makes up any amount not covered by the disability – the chief noted Easton can be paid up to what he was making before being injured.

The chief said he has discussed benefits for Easton with the Aberdeen mayor and city manager, and said the city "will do everything possible to make sure that Officer Easton receives every benefit he's eligible to receive."

"We really do have an obligation to take care of our officers who are hurt in the line of duty," Trabert said.

Easton stressed that, while he loves being a police officer, the profession is not his identity. He said his identity "has always been my family and my faith."

"I love my job, but I go to work for my family," he said. "If I can get sight and come back, that would be great."

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