Former Newtown police chief reflects on Sandy Hook shooting, 10 years later
(WFSB) - Wednesday marked 10 years since the Sandy Hook school shooting.
Channel 3 sat down with former Newtown police chief Michael Kehoe.
Kehoe was one of the first officers inside the school after the shooting.
He has not granted many interviews over the years, but said he wanted to shine a spotlight on navigating trauma, especially after he witnessed what happened on Dec. 14, 2012.
“It’s not going to be the same as it was before the event,” Kehoe said. “So, you kind of have to rebalance your life, your career, your priorities.”
He reflected on what happened beforehand that day.
“Looking back to that time of year, municipal budgets have to be addressed and I’m sure I was working on that and other administrative tasks,” he said.
His day would quickly change. He was one of the first officers on scene when 20 children and six educators were shot and killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
In the days that followed, nearly 1,000 first responders from across the state descend on the town.
Not one Newtown officer had to work Christmas that year.
“It was amazing to see that happen almost seamlessly, knowing that there was thousands and thousands of jobs to do every day and they were only there because of that event,” Kehoe said.
As one of the first people on the scene that day and leading the department, Channel 3 asked Kehoe what he did to make sure his officers were taken care of.
“Access to mental health, that was very key,” he said. “It’s not always easy for first responders, especially police officers, to admit they need mental health treatment.”
Kehoe said he sought mental health treatment in his own way.
“I spoke to the people I thought would be helpful,” he said. “I have a very supportive family.”
He also spoke with police chiefs from Aurora, CO and Virginia Tech, who responded to similar tragedies.
“I would call up and talk to other chiefs that have been through a mass shooting and ask the questions that were on my mind at the time,” Kehoe said.
When the Pulse Nightclub became a target in 2016, Orlando police called him in to help them.
“We had a chance to chat for 4 to 5 hours and talk about their experience, what our experiences are and share,” Kehoe said.
He said he found it valuable for his own healing to talk with someone else who went through it.
“There’s no doubt about it because part of the things they were feeling I was feeling,” he said.
He said even though there was still a stigma surrounding the issue of mental health, especially in law enforcement, they’ve come a long way working to break that cycle.
A life-changing Moment
If someone is in need, former Kehoe responds.
“I wish that there was never any trauma in our lives, not only as a community but as a country, but we do see it too often,” he said.
Immediately following the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, they stationed troopers at homes of the victims.
“In Sandy Hook, we thought it was very useful to have an officer assigned to each family as a liaison officer so that information could flow to them,” Kehoe said.
He said one of his biggest hurdles was reassuring neighbors that Newtown was a safe place to live.
“When you have an event like that, it destroys the aspect of ‘you’re safe in your community,’” Kehoe said. “So, we had to work very hard at that. Our town is just as safe as it was before the event.”
Before the shooting, in 2011, he thought about retiring. He would stay on the force another 5 years.
“I knew that I had come into a new role, and I had new challenges and I wanted to do the best I could,” he said. “It’s not going to be the same as it was before the event. So, you kind of have to rebalance your life, your career, your priorities and recognize at times you may need to check-in with a mental health expert.”
He retired in 2016. However, he is still responding, just in a different way.
A fierce advocate for mental health services for officers, he is working to break the stigma.
“If you can talk about it, you can heal,” he said. “Not only talking about it but helping others. When you help others, you’re really helping yourself too.”
He’s helped other officers who faced similar tragedies, talking with Orlando police after the Pulse Nightclub shooting.
He said he found it valuable for his own healing to talk with someone else who had gone through it.
“There’s no doubt about it because part of the things they were feeling I was feeling,” Kehoe said.
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