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In this Dec. 14, 2012, file photo, officials stand outside of Sandy Hook Elementary School after a shooting in Newtown, Conn. Connecticut State Police have released a report assessing the agency’s response to the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The after-action report was published Friday, Jan. 12, 2018. (Photo: AP/Julio Cortez, File)

The unthinkable tragedy of a lone gunman breaking into a Connecticut school and gunning down 26 innocent people, most of them small children, was one of the most challenging crime scenes in recent American history.

Law enforcement lapses included crowding at the scene from unauthorized people and trampled evidence, according to a new report by the Connecticut State Police, appearing more than five years after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

The reason for the chaos, they added, was that state police command staff who were not involved, assisting agencies, and even “dignitaries,” were allowed into the school over the days following the six-minute attack.

Restricting access to only the major crimes detectives charged with processing the scene, and otherwise maintaining better order amid such chaos, should be improved for future emergency response, the CSP concludes.

“Unnecessary personnel (law enforcement and civilian) (were) inside the school lobby area after the scene was rendered clear,” they write in the report. “Relevant evidence was stepped on, including bullet casings and glass shards, which had yet to be processed and properly documented.”

The new “After Action Report” aims to be a “holistic, comprehensive, and constructively critical review.” It assesses the first response, to the ultimate closing of the scene, in the months after the Dec. 14, 2012 attack that left a total of 28 dead—the 26 innocent victims, as well as the shooter Adam Lanza (who killed himself) and his mother, who was killed in her home before the assault on Sandy Hook.

Other details they highlighted:

  • The troopers who responded to the scene should be quicker with donning their protective vests—and most who went into the building did not bring flashlights, potentially putting them “at a tactical disadvantage,” according to the report.
  • Better identification of cops at the scene—through raid jackets or police armbands—would better help prevent further civilian panic, or a potential “blue on blue” friendly fire situation, it adds.
  • Parking became a problem, since so many agencies showed up and the cars blocked one another in, the report finds.
  • One proactive move was made by an off-duty trooper who had just dropped his child off at a nearby school. The trooper took the initiative by returning to that school and placing it in lockdown, since early reports indicated a second gunman.
  • Lacking a “safe word” for the school system, many of the teachers who had barricaded their classes in their rooms did not open their locked doors for uniformed law enforcement. The first responders also had difficulties getting access keys to many parts of the school.
  • Only one trooper, with the help of two volunteer firemen, held the perimeter at the entrance of the school—leading to some confusion and challenges when the public and media arrived.
  • The command post in the school’s main office was not fully searched until after the command post had been established.
  • No uniform search-and-clear system was in place at the time of the incident response—and the use of markers on doors was “questionable.”
  • The crime scene should be more carefully guarded, and well within two perimeter “layers,” they concluded, adding that “if it is necessary for individuals not directly involved in the investigation to view the crime scene, consider the utilization of photographs or video recording.”
  • Overall, the magnitude of the horror (the likes of which had never been seen before in Connecticut) caused some uncertainty in the response: “During the early stages of command and control, there were unclear lines of initial roles and responsibilities. At times, commanders unfamiliar with the capabilities of specific units had a tendency to micro-manage, and there was a propensity to want to speed up certain tasks in order to identify victims faster.”

But looking at the response as a whole, it was handled as well as it could have been—and the outcome could have been even worse but for some heroic actions, the report adds.

“In summary, the response to the December 14, 2012 attack at Sandy Hook Elementary School was handled effectively,” they conclude. “Had it not been for the heroic actions of the teachers, school staff and the response force, the number of victims could have been higher.”

Chief Michael Kehoe of the Newtown, Conn. police told Forensic Magazine in 2015 the assault at Sandy Hook Elementary School was his biggest challenge in a 37-year career.

“You can look at it in the long-term instead of the short-term,” Kehoe said. “Sometimes murder investigations are very long, even if it’s one homicide, depending on how significant the event is. But in this case, you can sense it’s going to tax your agency for a good period of time.”

Newtown held onto the Sandy Hook scene for days—six days for the intensive forensic work alone. The school was only released in phases, to avoid tampering. Every angle was considered, the Newtown chief said in the interview, shortly after the three-year anniversary of the local massacre.

“You treat it as if someone else is going to pop up out of nowhere and maybe be a contributor … Maybe there was a conspiracy,” said Kehoe, who retired shortly after the interview with Forensic Magazine. “You process everything.”

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