They were the worst 15 minutes in state history, but what lessons have police learned about how to respond to an active shooter since the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary on Dec. 14, 2012? Troubleshooter George Colli investigates.
In the wake of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, keeping children safe in school has become top priority. Who should have access to which guns? How should we address mental health issues?
These issues have been discussed at length since the morning that Adam Lanza shot his way into the school, killing 20 children and six educators.
Lost in the debate is police protocol. What have police learned and shared with their colleagues so police departments around our state can be better prepared?
Few details have emerged about the Newtown police response on Dec. 14, particularly the first 15 minutes after the initial 911call around 9:36 a.m.
Much of the timeline remains unclear – even to the first responders who rushed to the scene.
The Initial Call
9:35:52 a.m. “6-7 Sandy Hook School. Caller's indicating she thinks there's someone's shooting in the building.”
9:36:38 a.m. “The front glass has been broken in front of the school. They’re unsure why.”
9:37:16 a.m. “Individual that I have on the phone is continuing to hear what he believes to be gunshots.”
The front door is shattered and shots are fired inside.
That’s all the first responding Newtown police officers know as they pull into the Sandy Hook Elementary School parking lot on Dec. 14, 2012.
The first swarm of officers arrive at the scene within two minutes of the initial call.
After reviewing policies twice a year and last training in 2011, Newtown Police Chief Michael Kehoe and the other first responders know the protocol: get to the aggressor and stop the shooting as quickly as possible.
“Rapid response and then, you know, in a coordinated effort, as much as you can, go in and find a threat ... actually bypassing victims until you find a threat, until you know the threat is no longer hurting people,” Kehoe said.
With very little information available and hundreds of children and teachers in harm's way, there’s much for police to consider.
How many shooters? Are there explosives at the entrances? What kind of weapons are being used?
“We recognize that our active-shooter training protocols give you a base to follow. We know that you can’t follow to a tee because you can't say that every incident is going to look the same,” said Kehoe, who was at the scene within minutes of the first call. “Many things come in play with an active shooter response.”
Police Arrive at the Scene: 2 Minutes After the Initial Call
9:38:15 a.m. “The shooting appears to have stopped. It is silent at this time. The school is in lockdown.”
9.39.03 a.m. "Reports that the teacher saw two shadows running past the building, past the gym.”
9:39:20 a.m. “Yeah, we got 'em. They’re coming at me.”
Multiple Shooters? 4-5 Minutes After the Initial Call
Police will still not confirm who those shadows belong to, but a man who asked to remain anonymous said he was handcuffed and briefly questioned that morning.
The father of a first-grader said he was supposed to build gingerbread houses with his daughter's class at 9:45 a.m. He arrived 10 minutes early and said he was 50 feet from the entrance when he heard gunshots.
While calling 911, he ran to the back of the school to look for his daughter, then approached police near the playground area and identified himself.
At this point, nearly five minutes had passed since the initial call was placed. Gunshots again ring out inside.
9:40:27 a.m. “The shooter is apparently still shooting in the office area. 12 Dickenson Drive.”
9.42.17 a.m. “Last known shots were in the front of the school.”
Engaging the Gunman – 8 Minutes After the Initial Call
With the shooting now stopped, two teams of Newtown police enter the school. Chief Kehoe's team tries to get inside a back door and another team goes in through the boiler room.
The school is still in lockdown, so getting inside is a challenge. The group around back is forced to break a window.
A source familiar with the investigation said that around this time, two state troopers from nearby Troop A in Southbury arrive and immediately enter through the shattered front entrance. Closing in on the gunman, they soon come across his path of terror.
9:45:48 a.m. “We’ve got bodies here.”
9:46:20 a.m. “We’ve got an injured person in room number 9 with numerous gunshot wounds.”
9.46.50 a.m. “We have a sergeant from Newtown on scene. Unknown if the shooter is located.”
9:49:05 a.m. “Negative on description. OK, shots were fired about three minutes ago.”
Gunman Found Dead – 15 Minutes After the Initial Call
Fifteen minutes after the first report of shots fired, the shooter is found dead in one of the classrooms.
9:51:48 a.m. “We have a suspect down.”
9:53:22 a.m. “Newtown's reporting one suspect down. The building has not been cleared.”
And the horrifying reality of the worst 15 minutes in state history begins to set in as first responders turn their attention to the victims and evacuating the rest of the school.
10:00:53 a.m. “Send the ambulances right away. Send them up to me.”
10:01:46 a.m. “You might wanna see if the surrounding towns can send EMS personnel. We’re running out real quick, real fast.”
University of New Haven lecturer and former FBI agent Kenneth Gray founded the state's joint counter-terrorism task force and served as the bureau’s crisis management response coordinator out of New Haven, dealing with large-scale SWAT situations and high-profile arrests.
He said time is of the essence in active-shooter responses because the average incident lasts 12 minutes, and one in three incidents ends in less than half that time.
“Since the situation is so fluid and developing so rapidly that you don’t have time to wait for a SWAT team,” said Gray, who retired from the bureau in 2009, “you have to use the resources you have available and have to put together a game plan to respond to this fluid situation.”
For decades, the protocol across all agencies was to call in a SWAT team and attempt to negotiate with the gunman. That started in 1966 when a gunman opened fire from a tower on the University of Texas campus.
Then came the shooting at Columbine High School and everything changed.
That’s when two students killed 12 classmates and one teacher while police SWAT teams were standing outside the door for hours.
State police spokesperson Lt. J. Paul Vance said the state police developed an active-shooter response protocol in 2006 based on the lessons learned from Columbine and dozens of other active shootings.
“We’ve learned from many tragedies that have occurred that initial response needs to be immediate,” said Vance.
So what lessons have been passed on from the initial response in Newtown on Dec. 14?
More than eight months later, few of those lessons have been publicly revealed as police wait for the completion of the States Attorney’s investigation.
In January, the States Attorney’s office indicated that they hoped to have their report completed by June. Then in May, the goal changed to September. Now, it's sometime this fall.
Newtown and state police have traveled the country to share what they’ve learned from that day – like managing victims' families and how to best police a town in the days and weeks following such a tragedy.
However, Chief Kehoe said even he does not know the specific details of what happened during his department's initial response.
“We’re still gonna wait for that and develop that timeline scenarios of what everybody did at some point in time,” said Kehoe, who has made several trips to law enforcement conferences around the country. “I’m sure that we’ll make some changes along the way once we get those details. We’ll look at ourselves, look at our response, see if we can improve upon it."
Newtown police are not the only first responders waiting for those details and an after-action review. Also waiting are officers from around the state.
Eric Brown, general counsel for AFCSME Council 15, the union that represents 4,000 police officers statewide, including those in Newtown, said in a statement:
“We’re disappointed that the process has been so slow. We’re hoping the state puts more resources into the investigation now and will be completed in a timely manner.”
No matter what they find, Chief Kehoe said his department performed admirably that morning.
“I’m very, very comfortable with our response. I’m very proud of the officers that were there first. They had a multitude of things to think about there and we then did what we needed to do to enter that school,” Kehoe said.
The States Attorney’s office would not comment on the pace or the details of the investigation. Neither would state police.
Lead investigators for the state police have canceled recent out-of-state speaking engagements.
The governor’s office is requesting that police be “more deliberative” as to which conferences they attend while the investigation is ongoing.