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News: Top Stories

Report: State police response to Sandy Hook shootings “commendable,” but mistakes made

Danbury News-Times logo Danbury News-Times 1/14/2018 By Rob Ryser and Jim Shay
Chief James Viadero, in his office at the Newtown Police Department, was sworn in last week, replacing former chief Michael Kehoe who retired. Friday, January 15, 2016, in Newtown, Conn. © H John Voorhees III / Hearst Connecticut Media Chief James Viadero, in his office at the Newtown Police Department, was sworn in last week, replacing former chief Michael Kehoe who retired. Friday, January 15, 2016, in Newtown, Conn.

NEWTOWN - State police made a mistake in setting up a command post in the middle of an active crime scene when they responded to the shootings at Sandy Hook School in 2012, a new report finds.

“Relevant evidence was stepped on, including bullet casings and glass shards, which had yet to be processed and properly documented,” reads the report, released by Connecticut State Police on Friday. “Unnecessary personnel (law enforcement and civilian) [were] inside the school lobby area after the scene was rendered clear.”

The report said state police learned dozens of similar lessons in reviewing their response to the worst crime in Connecticut history.

“At no time should any type of command post be set up inside an active crime scene,” reads one recommendation from the report. “[C]ommanders should be prepared to set up command post locations ... outside of the crime scene and not widely accessible to the public.”

The document, known as an after-action report, comes just weeks after the fifth anniversary of the massacre, when a troubled 20-year-old Newtown man named Adam Lanza murdered his mother, took her AR-15-style rifle from an unlocked closet and shot his way into the locked school, where he killed 20 first-graders and six educators before killing himself.

The report, which characterized the overall response to the shooting as “commendable,” was shared Friday morning with families who lost loved ones in the massacre and with state police officials, before being released to the public.

Newtown Police Chief James Viadero was among those who were briefed about the report. Viadero in turn held a short meeting at Newtown police headquarters to share the report’s highlights with the department.

“With these mass shootings, law enforcement is always learning something,” Viadero said on Friday. “This is a good opportunity to discuss what we have learned and what we can learn from.”

The 75-page report, which took five years to complete, examines state police performance in six categories, from the tactics of responding to a mass shooting to the diplomacy of relating to grieving loved ones.

“There was an overall sense of frustration, and at times anger, because of the amount of time it took for the families to receive the final word about the victims,” reads the report, referring to the hours some parents waited to hear news about their children.

“Some felt it was unnecessary and “tortuous” to have to wait for so long,” the report continues. “Some (parents) reported that it seemed as though the world knew what was going on and they were the last to find out.”

The report noted a number of police actions that inadvertently created congestion and confusion, from parking their cruisers on the already jammed school driveway to repeatedly “clearing” the same parts of the building.

State Police spokesman J. Paul Vance speaks at a press conference about the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School Saturday, Dec.15, 2012 in Newtown. Below, State Police escort a parent and Sandy Hook Elementary School student from the Sandy Hook Firehouse after shootings at the school Dec. 14, 2012.

State Police spokesman J. Paul Vance speaks at a press conference about the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School Saturday, Dec.15, 2012 in Newtown. Below, State Police escort a parent and Sandy Hook Elementary School student from the Sandy Hook Firehouse after shootings at the school Dec. 14, 2012.
© Michael Duffy / Michael Duffy

The report also cited several incidents where officers pointed their guns at other officers.

“Law enforcement personnel should ensure they maintain weapon muzzle discipline when conducting room clearing and search operations,” the report says.

In response, the report lists a series of recommendations in 12 categories, ranging from upgraded body armor to keeping at bay first responders who “self-dispatch” to the crime scene.

A major theme of the recommendations is limiting trauma for both law enforcement and civilians, through better training.

“Accurate and timely death notification to victims’ families should be one of the highest priorities,” the report says. “Delays in notification were a great source of frustration for (police) at the firehouse command post location and added confusion, frustration, and stress for the family members.”

The report also praised state police performance in communicating with other agencies, and helping grieving families endure the trauma of losing a loved one.

For example, state police assigned a trooper to each family to act as a liaison to the investigation.

Connecticut State Police Sgt. Dan Semosky wears a pink ribbon for Charlotte Bacon at the Newtown Kindness First Annual Charlotte Bacon Act of Kindness Awards at Healing Newtown Arts Space in Newtown in 2013.

Connecticut State Police Sgt. Dan Semosky wears a pink ribbon for Charlotte Bacon at the Newtown Kindness First Annual Charlotte Bacon Act of Kindness Awards at Healing Newtown Arts Space in Newtown in 2013.
© Tyler Sizemore / Tyler Sizemore

“Assigning a liaison to each family was very positive,” Viadero said. “That is something that is becoming standard practice in policing.”

The report follows the FBI’s release of 1,500 pages of documents in October, which included interviews agents conducted during the investigation.

Those FBI documents, which were heavily redacted, revealed that Lanza had become so estranged from the world by the time he was 20 that mass murder had become a fixation. It wasn’t until Lanza withdrew completely into his bedroom for three months that his only friend — his mother — truly began to worry about him, and began sleeping with a gun, the FBI documents showed.

Three other reports about the shooting were completed in 2013 and 2014. Danbury State’s Attorney Stephen Sedensky released a 45-page report in 2013, finding that Lanza acted alone. That same year, state police released a 7,000-page report detailing events before, during and after the shooting.

In 2014, the state Office of the Child Advocate released a 140-page report documenting opportunities that the Newtown school district and Lanza’s family missed to treat his mental illness, which included Asperger’s syndrome, anorexia and obsessive-compulsive disorder. The report found that Lanza alone was responsible for the shooting.

Sedensky’s 2013 report said it took nearly six minutes for officers to enter the school after they arrived.

Experts have voiced differing opinions about whether those six minutes could have made a difference in saving lives. Some said that if police had arrived at the shot-out front entrance of Sandy Hook School with their sirens blaring, Lanza might have ended his rampage and committed suicide sooner.

Sedensky on Friday said he had not read the state police report, but was aware of some of its recommendations - including praise for the family liaison program.

The police liaison tells families ahead of time when information about the investigation is going to be released publicly, for example.

“I think that is helpful, even if there is only limited information that you can provide,” Sedensky said. “It lets families know ahead of time so they are not surprised to read it in the newspaper.”

The report also said it is important to minimize stressors at the crime scene - such as noise and lights - to help reduce confusion among first responders.

The report stresses that the Sandy Hook massacre presented “numerous challenges to the state police.

””The unique dynamics of this tragedy tasked the agency’s resources and tested the capacity and capabilities of individuals and units alike,” it said. “The painstaking process of revealing personal and professional vulnerabilities as well as highlighting strengths is overshadowed by the necessity to be transparent and share valuable information with fellow law enforcement partners and the residents of Connecticut."

Staff Writer Dirk Perrefort contributed to this report.

rryser@newstimes.com 203-731-3342

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