Even as word of Friday’s grisly massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., was making its way over airwaves and the Internet, police and school officials were moving into action across Ulster County in a coordinated response. From posting cops at dozens of schools to monitoring social networks for would be copy-cat killers to an ongoing effort to review and rework school safety plans, officials say they are determined to take no chances in the wake of the shooting which left 27 people, including gunman Adam Lanza, dead.
“This was an absolute tragedy,” said Kingston Police Chief Egidio Tinti. “And going forward our focus, on the school side and the law enforcement side, has to be on prevention, seeing if there’s anything more we could be doing to make sure something like that doesn’t happen here.”
The response, according to several police and school officials who spoke with the Kingston Times, began Friday within hours of the first reports of a shooting at the school. Saugerties Central School District Superintendent Seth Turner said he called Saugerties Town Police Chief Joseph Sinagra as soon as word of the massacre broke. Sinagra dispatched officers to all five of the district’s school buildings where they remained until dismissal.
Police agencies around the county took similar steps, placing uniformed cops in plain view, mostly to provide a sense of reassurance to parents and students but also, according to Town of Ulster Police Chief Anthony Cruise, to guard against potential imitators.
“There’s always a concern with a copycat situation,” said Cruise. “Someone sees all the coverage and decides that they want to be famous, or infamous.”
On Saturday, Turner said, he met with Sinagra to discuss a plan to install a regular police presence at all district schools for the entire week leading up to winter break. By Sunday, following a meeting of school officials with representatives from the state police, the Ulster County Sheriff’s Office and local police agencies, the plan had been expanded countywide. Cops would also use the opportunity to complete a detailed 11-page safety audit looking for potential vulnerabilities in school safety plans or in school buildings themselves.
“We’re in the education business, not the security business,” said Kingston City School District Superintendent Paul Padalino. “We need to reach out to the experts.”
Some 13 years after school shooting exploded into the national consciousness with 1999’s Columbine High School massacre, both schools and police have adapted operations to deal with the potential for what cops call an “active shooter” situation. For police, that means beat cops trained in military-style tactics so that officers can track down, kill or capture a gunman without waiting for the arrival of a SWAT team. For schools it means “single point of entry” access control, security cameras, district-wide safety coordinators and, in most middle and high schools, full-time school resource officers who patrol hallways, investigate in-school crimes and provide safety education to students and staff.
In Saugerties, for example, Turner said the district and local police had just held an “active shooter” drill a few weeks before the Newtown attack. But officials in a number of districts said that they welcomed the safety audits both to identify flaws in their safety plans and to re-emphasize the importance of following security protocols.
“We need to identify places where security might have gotten lax,” said Padalino. “We need to remind staff and students that we don’t prop doors open, we don’t open the door for strangers, we don’t open the door for anybody who doesn’t have the proper ID.”
Flashback to 2005 incident
For Town of Ulster Police Chief Anthony Cruise, the Newtown massacre had a special resonance. As a UPD detective, he served as the lead investigator of Robert Bonelli Jr.’s 2005 shooting rampage at the Hudson Valley Mall. The attack left two people wounded, made national headlines and illustrated to local law enforcement the vulnerability of a town’s mass gathering places to similar attacks.