SALISBURY — Nothing prepares a person for the horror Newtown police Chief Michael Kehoe and his officers witnessed after crashing through the locked doors of Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14, 2012.
Responding to the first 9:35 a.m. distress call that an “active shooter” was in the building, Newtown police made it the 2.1 miles between the station and the school in about two minutes. The simple arrival of the police cruisers stopped the killing rampage of shooter, Adam Lanza, who killed himself when he saw them. About three minutes was all it took for him to fire 154 .233 rounds from a Bushmaster XM15 assault rifle, riddling the little bodies of 20 first graders and six educators, Kehoe said.
The scene was something only witnessed in theaters of war, Kehoe said, the worst thing he ever saw and something neither he nor his 45-person police force ever imagined would happen in the affluent Connecticut community of 25,000 residents he’s led as chief since 2001.
“It was a massacre,” said Kehoe, a 30-year veteran law enforcement officer. “I certainly never expected something like this, and I’ve seen more than most in my career.”
After responding to one of the worst mass killings in history, Kehoe is on a mission, he said. He intends to use what he went through, and is still going through, to help other law enforcement agencies by giving them the behind-the-scenes true story that will open their eyes to what really happens when tragedy hits their community.
Thanks to his relationship with Salisbury police Chief Thomas Fowler, the former deputy chief in nearby Branford, Conn, Kehoe did just that yesterday morning at a function room at Salisbury Beach. He spoke for hours as more than 60 state and regional law enforcement professionals from New Hampshire to Cape Cod sat riveted to his every word.
“Take this information go back and make some changes to your (crisis management) plans if you have to and then drill often, and pray to God this never happens again,” he told participants.
But Kehoe, a vocal advocate for a national ban on assault weapons, said that recent worldwide research on mass killings indicate that in this country, at least, they aren’t as rare as many imagine.
“There were 278 mass murders in the United States; and next was Canada with eight,” Kehoe said. “That means you will have to deal with it at some point in time. It’s not stopping.”
He focused on issues that hit home with the officers before him, including staffing, finances, mutual aid, traffic, the media, care for survivors, victims, families or the trauma his own officers and community have endured.
“This will better prepare us,” Newburyport police Marshal Thomas Howard said. “Everything he says we can relate to because the two communities of Newburyport and Newtown are so comparable.”
But Kehoe also discussed things that even seasoned officers found enlightening.
“What he said about dealing with the victims was amazing,” said Seabrook Deputy Chief Mike Gallagher. “It must be overwhelming. It’s when the real work starts, after the incident is over.”
Kehoe said one of the most painful and difficult things to handle was determining the names of each little body, and telling their parents they were gone.
“Six and 7 year-olds don’t carry identification on them,” Kehoe explained. “People came to me after the incident and said, ‘I’m a parent; I want to know if my kid is dead.’ I had to say, ‘We don’t have the information for you right now. “
Officers volunteered to act as liaisons with each set of parents who hadn’t been matched with a living child, he said. Each got a picture, a description, clothing colors, anything they could use, then worked to match or exclude the missing child with one of those lying dead in the makeshift morgue that Sandy Hook Elementary School had become.
And yesterday, two other Connecticut police chiefs, Chief Duane Lovello of Darien and Chief Ed Nadriczny on New Caanan, spoke of how mutual aid played a part in the response to the tragedy, not only on Dec. 14 but for weeks afterward.
According to Kehoe, coordination with other Connecticut chiefs, state police and federal agencies was vital.
“It takes teamwork, a lot of people,” Kehoe said. “It takes leverage and understanding.”
So far, the event has consumed 19,200 man-hours, costing Newtown $1.27 million as of this month. The Connecticut State Police — who are in charge of the still ongoing investigation — expended another $722,000 dollars in labor.
The importance of dealing with the mental health factor can’t be underestimated, Kehoe said. From day one, there were employee assistance personnel on site in Newtown, with officers encouraged to take the time they need, and to reach out and get the help they want.
But this goes beyond employee assistance program, Kehoe said, this is trauma, similar to that endured by returning veterans from active war zones.
“I got to work the next day after (the shooting) and looked at the faces of my people,” Kehoe said. “I sent three of them home. I knew my agency was hurting. I didn’t want any more victims; I already had 27 victims.”
Kehoe said he and his entire community have a significant mental health issue to deal with, as well any other community or agency that has endured what they did. It won’t be fixed quickly, he said.
“No two people deal with something like this the same way,” he told his police colleagues. “You have to be flexible.”
It’s all what so many came to learn, and why Essex County Sheriff Frank Cousins, District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett and Fowler combined resources to bring Kehoe here.
“It’s important because what happened in Newtown can happen here,” Blodgett said. “And we all need to be prepared for something like this. And perhaps, what can be predicted can be prevented.”
Newtown lost 27 individuals in the mayhem, which is horrible and tragic, Kehoe said, but they saved more than 400 children and educators. That’s why he spends his time and his emotions, reliving the nightmare of that day in presentations like yesterday’s. With the weaponry Lanza had remaining — 139 unspent .223 rounds and two handguns — he could have killed a lot more if police hadn’t responded so quickly.
“Our hope is to add to the knowledge base on critical incident responses,” Kehoe said. “The shooter took a few minutes, but the aftermath goes on and aftermath management is how we build for the future.”