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Police say civilians trampled evidence after Sandy Hook elementary school shooting

A woman places a memento at the sign for Sandy Hook Elementary School on Saturday, December 15, 2012, in Newtown, Conn., a day after a shooting rampage where 26 people died. Police say civilians trampled evidence and contaminated the crime scene in the hours following the shooting. (Cloe Poisson/Hartford Courant/TNS)

So many people, including civilians, had access to the inside of the Sandy Hook Elementary School in the hours following the 2012 shooting where 26 students and adults were killed that some were stepping on bullet casings and contaminating the crime scene, a Connecticut state police after action report released Friday concluded.

The 74-page document reviewed everything from troopers not properly wearing their bulletproof vests to how the victims’ families were notified their child had died. It was released Friday more than five years after the massacre in which Adam Lanza killed 20 first-graders and six adults before killing himself.

One of the most critical parts was the handling of the crime scene — the two classrooms where the 20 children and four teachers were killed and the hallway where Principal Dawn Hochsprung and School Psychologist Mary Sherlach were killed.

“Other individuals from uninvolved CSP command staff to members of outside agencies to dignitaries were allowed into the school at one time or another over the next several days, disrupting the processing of the scene by detectives, potentially risking scene integrity and unnecessarily exposing personnel to the disturbing scene,” the report said.

The other issue with the crime scene area was establishing the command post in Hochsprung’s office. That meant many people, including civilians were walking through the glass door area that Lanza shot through to enter the school.

“Relevant evidence was stepped on, including bullet casings and glass shards, which had yet to be processed,” the report stated.

The “after-action report” usually critiques a police agency’s response to a mass casualty situation and is used by other law enforcement agencies as a learning tool.

State police officials presented the report to the victims’ families in a private meeting Friday morning at Troop A in Southbury and to department administrators at their headquarters in Middletown before releasing it to the public Friday afternoon.

The report highlighted several other issues as well as things that police did well, including establishing a family liaison program where individual troopers were assigned to each victims’ family to assist them.

Some of the other issues included:

High-ranking state police administrators established the principal’s office as a command center without the room being cleared by SWAT teams. Two employees were hiding in the closet for several hours before anyone knew they were there, forcing a complete sweep of the school once again.

There was a delay in death notifications creating an “overall sense of frustration, and at times anger, because of the amount of time it took for the families to receive final word about the victims.” All of the families were kept in one room for hours until Gov. Dannel Malloy notified them all at once. While the report doesn’t mention the governor, it does say “appropriate and respectful death notifications should be made as soon as possible and made by someone with training and expertise in this area.”

State police portable radios did not work well inside the school. In one case a trooper had to stand outside the building to transmit information being relayed to him from inside the building.

There was uncertainty among troopers on the most direct route to the school. Numerous calls were made by responding troopers to dispatchers seeking directions, further burdening the dispatch center and causing delays.

Troopers and others responding parked the vehicles in ways that blocked access to the school. Many state police vehicles were locked and left running. The report recommends parking so that access is not restricted, and creating a master key so supervisors can gain access to any state police vehicle.

Some troopers in hastily responding to the school didn’t have their bulletproof vests on. One officer tried to put his on while driving there. Others failed to carry their flashlights into the school, making it difficult for them to conduct searches. The report recommends issuing ballistic vests that troopers can wear over their uniforms that are clearly marked POLICE and allow them to carry extra ammunition, medical equipment and a flashlight.

State police originally assigned then-Master Sgt. Erik Murray to do the after-action report but it became a mystery as to why it hadn’t been released.

Multiple sources said Murray created a form for all of the authorities who responded to the shootings to fill out, detailing their actions that day. Those authorities included the state police officers who first entered the classrooms where the 20 first-graders were murdered, the SWAT team members and the command personnel.

Sources said that Murray’s original report was about 160 pages long and raised many of the issues the final report did but was more critical of command staff.

In 2015, when the Hartford Courant first requested the report, Murray was transferred to headquarters and ordered to complete it. State police sources said Murray finished a preliminary report that was shared with members of the Western District Crime Squad and other state police brass, who asked for revisions.

It is unclear what has happened to the report since those revisions were made. State police Col. Alaric Fox said part of the problem was a staff shortage.

“Feedback was solicited from dozens of individuals, including responding troopers, support personnel, outside agencies, and family members of victims. What resulted from this solicitation was a large volume of feedback that required comprehensive analysis, “ Fox said. “The process has been time-consuming and delayed due to several factors, including limited resources and the attrition of several of the personnel working on this project.”

Meanwhile, state police detectives involved in the investigation have traveled across the country speaking at law enforcement conferences about the investigation. The practice was briefly stopped when The Courant wrote about it a few years ago, but has since been revived.

The State Police Administrative and Operations Manual contains a section on when after-action reports are supposed to be done, what they should include and who should get copies.

The report is supposed to be done “after a public safety emergency has occurred and troopers have been committed to resolve it.” A commanding officer should be assigned to do the report and is supposed to have a copy to the state police commissioner “no later than a week” after the incident.

The state police didn’t interview any Newtown police officers who were the first responders on the scene. Newtown did not do an after-action report, instead relying on the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association to review its response.

Newtown officers arrived at the school while the gunman was still shooting but did not enter the building for more than five minutes, according to a prosecutor’s report.

The police chiefs association’s nine-page report concluded that Newtown officers responded quickly to the school and that the “Newtown Police Department navigated the inevitable chaos created in the first few minutes of such a call, managed to piece together what was occurring, but were unable to intervene before the shooter took his own life.”

Since the Columbine High School shooting in Colorado on April 20, 1999, which changed the way law enforcement responds to mass shootings, after-action reports have been issued on mass shootings at a Navy shipyard in Washington, a movie theater in Aurora, Col., and in a one-room school house in Pennsylvania Amish country.


© 2018 The Hartford Courant (Hartford, Conn.)

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.