Lt. J. Paul Vance, commanding public information officer for the Connecticut State Police, has been a trooper for 38 years, but nothing could have prepared him or his department for Dec. 14, 2012, when 20-year-old Adam Lanza fatally shot 20 children and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
Vance was the spokesman who coordinated the information going in and out of the crime scene. He became a fixture in the media as the nation tried to absorb the tragedy.
“There was no textbook for this,” he told the 319 participants Thursday at the Safety in Our Schools conference in the Columbus Convention & Trade Center. “That school was locked, ladies and gentlemen.”
Vance was the final speaker in the three-day event sponsored by the Georgia Emergency Management Agency, the Georgia Department of Education and the Middle District of Georgia U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Now, Vance indeed could write a textbook about the lessons learned from that massacre and its aftermath. Instead, he periodically travels around the country — he thinks this was his 15th stop — teaching two main messages about crisis management:
Designate only one person to communicate with the public.
Give each victim’s family a law enforcement liaison not involved in the investigation, so that officer can be an advocate and counselor.
He concluded his presentation with this request: “I implore you to make your school safer. Remember my babies.”
The Ledger-Enquirer interviewed Vance after the conference. The transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.
You have to show an official face to the public, but this case seems like it became personal to you. Is that right?
“Every case is personal, but this one was entirely different because it involved children and it involved senseless killing. It became personal for everyone involved.”
How would you sum up the trooper liaison program?
“It was absolutely brilliant because it was an umbilical cord between families and the investigation. There was a trooper assigned to each victim’s family. It afforded them the opportunity to have answers to any questions that they might have relative to this tragedy. These parents put their babies on the bus in the morning and never saw them again. So they had questions (about the investigation). What’s taking so long? What’s next? When can I see my child? We had a trooper go to the grocery store with the mother of a victim, not because she didn’t want sympathy, but she just wanted to be able to go into the store and do what she needed to do and go home. Another trooper went to the funeral home with a family the first time they got to see their daughter and was there when they made the arrangements and then went to church with them. It was just an opportunity to open a constant line of communication to ensure those families were first in receiving any kind of information they might require.
So that can be replicated elsewhere?
“We implemented, in our agency, a liaison program permanently after this. One person for them to go to and get guidance, and you can’t rely on the investigator to do that. A fellow just came up to me (after the presentation) and said the United States Air Force has a similar program. I said, ‘Really?’ So we’re going to look at that program and see if we can enhance and tweak ours a little bit. I think a conference like this, with a whole cross section of emergency management people, we all can have a tool box.”
What didn’t your department do well in the aftermath of the shootings and how could have you done it better?
“I don’t know that we’ve crossed that lane yet. I’m sure we’ll come up with some ideas, maybe something as simplistic as a better sign-in process at self-dispatch, but we’re not done with the case yet. We’re doing what we call an after-action, which is a complete overview from an investigative and response standpoint. That’s not done yet. Our real focus still is the investigation and to get that out to the families first and then the press and the public.”
As you’ve traveled around to speak about this, what concerns you most? Where are communities still most deficient in school safety?
“You know what? I don’t have concerns. I truly don’t, because these tragedies cause all of us to stand up and look, to stand up and think and listen and make changes, whether they are enhancing the security of the building or reviewing the policy on a regular basis with all the local officials and getting the school people involved, the superintendents and principals -- and revisiting it, not just doing it once and sticking it on the shelf, but practicing it. I mean, I have a grandson who’s 6 years old. He goes to parochial school. After Newtown occurred, he told me, ‘Papa, we have a new way of evacuation.’ Well, he couldn’t say ‘evacuation,’ but now he knows his school has a Red, Yellow, Green evacuation plan: One is like a fire drill; another is if you’re walking in the hallway you go into the closest classroom; and the third is an evacuation from the property to another location. And he’s in first grade! So we’re learning.”
How is Newtown doing?
“They are resilient. The people in that community are amazing. They are bouncing back. Are they going to forever be broken-hearted? Absolutely. They’ll never get over this, but the kids are still in that school together – not that building; they went to another building – but they’re still together and they have police officers there working with them. They’ll pull through. They’ll make it.”
What’s being done with the original school building?
“They’re going to tear it down. It’s totally empty. They’re going to build a new school with some sort of memorial.”
Why is it important for you to speak about this?
“We need to share. In this business, we share – the good, the bad and the ugly – and we learn from each other.”