Cadet to chief: Aurora's Ziman on 'war zone' 30 years ago and what she's leaving now

  • Aurora Police Chief Kristen Ziman speaks before four Aurora police officers received Medals of Valor, the highest recognition bestowed by the department, during a ceremony in January 2019. Ziman is leaving the department Friday.

      Aurora Police Chief Kristen Ziman speaks before four Aurora police officers received Medals of Valor, the highest recognition bestowed by the department, during a ceremony in January 2019. Ziman is leaving the department Friday. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer, January 2019

  • Kristen Ziman

    Kristen Ziman

  • Aurora Police Chief Kristen Ziman pauses as she speaks about the loss of life in the mass shooting at Henry Pratt Co.

    Aurora Police Chief Kristen Ziman pauses as she speaks about the loss of life in the mass shooting at Henry Pratt Co. Daily Herald file photo/February 2019

 
 
Posted8/6/2021 5:15 AM

A 17-year-old Kristen Ziman became a cadet for the Aurora Police Department on July 29, 1991.

Today, she's signing off as Aurora's top cop.

 

During her time on the force, Aurora became the state's second-largest city. She was there when Aurora had a reputation as a violent place with a murder rate three times the national average. But she also was there when the city did not have a single homicide in 2012.

And she was in the national spotlight in 2019 when a gunman killed five of his co-workers at the Henry Pratt Co. and wounded five Aurora police officers.

The beginning

Ziman's father was a police officer devoted to helping others, even when he was off-duty.

She once saw her dad pry keys away from a drunken driver who crashed into a tollbooth.

"What that instilled in me was that police officers run toward things," Ziman said. And she didn't want to sit behind a desk.

When she became a sworn officer in 1994, there were no female supervisors on the Aurora force.

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"I never thought, 'Oh, gosh, you know, I want to be a sergeant or a lieutenant.' I just thought, 'Man, I just want to be a police officer.'"

She started in what she called Aurora's "darkest days."

Ziman recalls being on patrol with her field training officer, Tom Hinterlong, when they came upon a shooting.

"We could see the muzzle fire in the dark in the backyard," she said.

Ziman and Hinterlong ran through backyards and jumped fences to apprehend the suspects.

"That was, I think, the first baptism by fire, where I realized, 'OK, this is not the movies, this is real.'"

Ziman said it's like she worked for two different Auroras -- the "war zone" of the 1990s and the calmer 2000s.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

In 2020, when she knew her Aurora career was drawing to a close, Ziman was a finalist for Chicago police superintendent. She also was considered for a post in Nashville.

"The more I thought about it, the more I realized that Aurora had everything I wanted in a police department," Ziman said. "It had professionalism. It has the action. It's a big city.

"But what I love about it is that big city with a little-town feel," she said, "and it felt just so familiar to me."

Being chief

The February 2019 Pratt shooting was the defining moment of her career. "But gosh, if I could erase that day, you know, I certainly would," she said.

Ziman says her greatest strength is also her greatest flaw: She moves fast.

So when she became chief, "I didn't give people a lot of time to adapt to changes. It was, 'OK, guys, I have a list of things, I'm putting my team together, and we are moving forward -- and we are doing it yesterday.'"

A self-described "technology nerd," Ziman pushed to have a drone team and equip every officer with a laptop and work cellphone, instead of using personal phones to take photos of evidence.

She's leaving on the day the department unveils permanent space for its Critical Incident Intelligence Center, which will gather information in real time about what is happening around town from social media and other sources, such as city street cameras.

Ziman says she is proud of the department's increased focus on the mental health of its officers -- a change from earlier times when some supervisors, she said, believed officers who were troubled by horrific things seen on the job should "suck it up."

"It's a dirty little secret in our profession that we have one of the highest suicide rates," Ziman said.

The department developed a peer support team and put an app on officers' phones that they can use to easily connect with a mental health professional or a trained peer officer.

Ziman is moving to south Florida, near her in-laws. She also is writing a book about her experiences and leadership.

"What I'm feeling right now is just bubbling over with just absolute gratitude to this city," Ziman said, praising its residents. "I knew that this city cared about this police department, but it wasn't until Pratt happened that I actually fully understood."

"It just makes my heart explode when I think about the support from this community."

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