Upper Valley Police Say No Plan for Changes In School Safety Protocol

In the wake of the Columbine High School shooting, police departments in the Upper Valley and across the country rewrote their game plan for responding to a school shooting: Instead of securing the perimeter and waiting for more help, officers are now trained to charge into the building and hunt down the “active shooter.”

But there will be no significant revision in tactics this time, local police chiefs said yesterday, no forthcoming announcement of new fail-safe response procedures. Law enforcement officials say they have largely reached the limit of what they can do to protect people from a rampage shooter with an automatic or semi-automatic weapon.

“Nope, you can’t do anything about it unless you are at the right place at the right time,” Canaan Police Chief Sam Frank said. “From what I understand, everybody did everything right and you still lost 26 people there, and it could have been worse. I don’t want to sound like Debbie Downer, but the fact is we’ve done everything we can do in reason.”

Like most Americans, local police in recent days have talked with their coworkers and families about possible solutions. Some want more gun control; others advocate more help for the mentally ill.

But they all essentially agree that the shooting that left 20 children and six adults dead in Newtown, Conn. showed that even their best-case scenario is grim — responding to the scene quickly and with force is not enough to guarantee scores of innocent people from being killed.

“I’m not sure there’s much more that we can do,’ said Vermont State Police Capt. Rob Evans, who oversees the agency’s Tactical Services Unit and has trained hundreds of local officers on “active shooter” scenarios. “It’s hard to prevent somebody that is committed to their cause. I don’t think (people in Newtown, Conn.) could have done any better than what they did. Teachers, cops, firefighters, EMS, parents, were doing exactly what they should have done. It’s tragic to think that no matter how much training you have, people can still have this kind of devastating effect no matter what we can do.”

From afar, police in the Twin States have observed that a lot of things seemed to go right at Sandy Hook Elementary School last Friday: Police arrived roughly 10 minutes after the attack began, and upon hearing their sirens, Adam Lanza apparently killed himself, Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy said this weekend. Moreover, the school’s doors had been locked to outsiders — Lanza had to shoot him way inside — and teachers locked their rooms and hid children, as they had practiced during lockdown rehearsals.

But it was not enough.

One could argue that no school in the Upper Valley would be better prepared than Enfield Village School.

The Enfield Police Department is literally around the corner — Police Chief Richard Crate estimates he could get there in roughly 90 seconds in a car, or maybe two minutes on foot — and he would likely be able to hear automatic weapons fire from inside his office.

Moreover, Enfield police officers have participated in several trainings sessions for responding to school shooters, including one inside the elementary school that involved actors and the school’s principal. They have checked to make sure all their keys to the school are in working order, and Crate, an accomplished distance runner, has even factored into the scenario that he and his officers are all physically fit — even by police standards — and would sweep quickly through the building.

But even with all those advantages, Crate said, the Newtown, Conn. shooting showed that police may only be able to limit the death toll.

“Having an officer trained in that situation, that can save lives. But it takes me two minutes to get up there — think about how many rounds you can shoot in two minutes,” Crate said. “The chances of somebody being killed is great. And that’s the best situation.”

With response measures offering only limited help, police chiefs said they were instead focusing on preventative measures.

Several said they support a ban on semi-automatic weapons, and firearms with high-capacity magazines. Lanza, 20, had a Bushmaster semi-automatic AR-15 rifle, which he apparently fired dozens of times, and two 9 mm handguns, a Glock and a Sig Sauer, which can each fire up to five rounds a second, along hundreds of rounds of unused ammunition. The children victims all had between two and 11 bullet wounds.

“This debate requires an outcome that is balanced, and I don’t think the current situation is balanced, and that is related to the availability of military-style assault rifles,” Claremont Police Chief Alex Scott said. “I’m not so sure our founding fathers had them in mind when they wrote the Second Amendment. If everyone had a musket, the damage they can do is limited before people can take counter measures. But when you’ve got an assault rifle, it’s a different story. As soon as (shooters) hear our sirens, they tend to take their life, or at least it stops the action — you draw the fire. But the damage is done by then. It comes down to available weaponry.”

Hanover Police Chief Nick Giaccone agrees. His officers have held training sessions for school shootings, including one involving firing fake ammunition inside Hanover High School, and have coordinated plans with administrators in each of the town’s three schools. But the chief said it wouldn’t do much to stop someone like Lanza.

“All that carnage is going to happen in those first two or three minutes,” Giaccone said. “It has to do with society changing certain things, and one of them is assault rifles. The Connecticut shooting shows all the danger was done by a semi-automatic rifle, which carry many rounds of ammunition. If you went back to the old days of bolt-action rifles, there wouldn’t be as much carnage, because the shooter has to reload.”

“I’m a hunter and I hunt with a bolt-action rifle and it holds six bullets, and it usually takes one shot to get that deer,” Lebanon Police Chief Jim Alexander said. “I don’t need an automatic weapon to deer hunt. The question is what do you need it for. I don’t know what the need is.”

Others said laws surrounding patient confidentiality should be altered to allow police to more freely exchange information about people identified in the community as at risk.

“I don’t agree with gun control — guns don’t kill people,” Frank, the Canaan police chief, said. “When people drink and drive, we don’t try to regulate the type of vehicle they buy. I don’t think gun control is going to help us. They need to let police do their jobs. It’s crazy — we can’t talk to anyone without waivers and written permission.”

Crate and Alexander both stressed improving communication between mental health professionals, school workers, parents and police.

“I’m not going to be surprised that (Lanza) may have told somebody, made a comment about his plan,” Crate said. “People (usually) do tell somebody. The problem is they aren’t believed. If somebody says, ‘I’m going to kill so and so,’ report that. Take it seriously. If the kid is blowing off steam, there’s no harm in it, no charge. And, if they’re not, we may be able to do something, and that’s what needs to happen.”

But, when the 911 call comes, and prevention has failed, their training and planning will serve not to stop people from doing harm, police said, but to limit the body count.

“It’s incumbent on us to exercise and train, exercise and train, until it’s repetitive,” Evans said, “so when these things happen, we can minimize the damage.”

Mark Davis can be reached at mcdavis@vnews.com or 603-727-3304.