By Michael Kehoe
For The Hartford Courant
Five years ago, on Dec. 14, 2012, I entered the Sandy Hook Elementary School and witnessed a scene of chaos and death that I had never imagined. The all-too-quaint, closely knit and pastoral community of Newtown, Connecticut, was forever dramatically changed.
Unfortunately, I am frequently reminded of that day. Each new active-shooter incident brings back the memory of those 26 shocking deaths in Sandy Hook School. Of the 20 children killed, four were 7-year-olds and the rest were 6 — all innocent and full of hopes and dreams. Six of the dead were brave and courageous educators trying to do whatever they could to quell the mayhem that began sometime after 9:30 a.m.
My thoughts are always with the victims’ families, who suffered the most on that day and the very painful days thereafter. The impact on the families who lost loved ones in a hail of bullets has always been my priority and will continue to be in my thoughts until the day I leave this earth.
Before the shootings, I always felt that schools, hospitals and houses of worship were the institutions most safe from the violence that permeates our communities. As we all know too well now, they are not secure places of peace and tranquility anymore. This has become the phenomenal work of the family members left behind. Their unyielding energy and poise comfort me and the many communities they reach with important messages of reducing gun violence, eliminating bullying, enhancing mental health services and common sense gun legislation.
The admirable determination of the victims’ families to turn unfathomable tragedy into good must be honored.
The families’ focus and messages inspire me and many others. These societal issues are complex, multifaceted and without simple solutions. The families’ emphasis and outspokenness on these important questions are aimed at making the future for the next generation of elementary school children bright and positive.
We need to redirect energy and efforts to those areas that need specific and affirmative action, especially after experiencing a horrific event. Since Dec. 14, 2012, I have often thought I could be a voice for improvement, advancement and enhancement. I wondered what the future held for me and where I could make improvements to benefit others.
Mental wellness and health became my main focus and motivation, of course stimulated by those 26 families. This led to my collaboration with the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services and many talented professionals who have dealt with tragic events like Sandy Hook. We developed a guidebook, “Preparing for the Unimaginable,” specifically for first responders should another tragedy befall their community. Unfortunately, vivid scenes of carnage, mayhem and grief have continued to plague our country since the Sandy Hook shootings. Orlando, Florida, Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs, Texas, are a few of the communities that have dealt with the heartache and pain of a mass casualty event like Newtown’s.
Most police officers will not have to handle a traumatic event like the one I experienced. They will respond, however, to routine emergencies that by their nature are unforeseeable, potentially dangerous situations. Regardless of the circumstances, police, fire and emergency medical services must take immediate decisive action to mitigate loss of life, loss of property, injuries and immeasurable psychological damage.
Police responders answer many calls, which, cumulatively, over time will be the equivalent of or exceed just one tragic event. Their health and wellness are no less important. First-responder mental wellness is just starting to gain significant traction within the law enforcement community. As my profession started to closely evaluate the safety of those who keep others safe, a startling fact emerged: More police officers today have their lives ended at their own hand than from an assault on the job.
I knew this instinctively, as did many other police leaders. Here, the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association recognized the void and committed to placing as much emphasis on mental health as it does on bulletproof vests and other protective measures, equipment and policies to keep officers safe. It was the first police chiefs association in America to do so and teaches police first responders important lessons and skills to help maintain a positive mental attitude at work and in their private lives.
Five years on from Sandy Hook, let us honor those who have died tragically, their families and the many first responders. They deserve your concerted effort to make every aspect of living safe and to keep them in your thoughts and prayers.
Michael Kehoe, since retired, was the Newtown police chief on Dec. 14, 2012, when the shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School occurred.