Two of the expert speakers at the Sandy Hook Advisory Commission’s first meeting Thursday urged the group to take its time in recommending a response to last month’s elementary school shooting despite pressure to react quickly.
The task force was convened by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy to make recommendations in response to the shooting massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14. It’s one of two groups looking at the issue. Legislative leaders convened their own committee, which met for the first time last week.
While the advisory committee plans to make draft recommendations by mid-March, two people who have served on similar groups formed in the aftermath of other mass shootings recommended patience.
During its Friday meeting, the commission heard from former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter, who helped make recommendations after the 1999 Columbine High School shooting, and University of Virginia Law Professor Richard Bonnie, who served on a committee which looked at mental health reform after the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting. He joined the group via video feed.
Both groups acted over the course of more than a year rather than weeks or months.
Bonnie told the group they were doing important work but ran the risk of over-reacting because of pressure to act quickly and decisively.
“As we all know, haste can lead to overreactions based on erroneous suppositions,” he said.
Ritter, who at the time of the Columbine shooting was serving as the Denver District Attorney, urged the group to take as much time as it needed before making recommendations.
“Obviously there’s an ongoing investigation and the more you know as a commission, the better informed you are and I think the more capable you are of making informed recommendations,” he said.
But waiting on the results of the investigation into the Newtown shooting presents a challenge for the group. The governor has asked the commission to turn over preliminary recommendations by mid-March. But as Danbury State’s Attorney Stephen Sedensky testified before the group Thursday, he told them the investigation will take several months to complete.
“We are hoping for sometime this summer, perhaps in June,” he said.
In the meantime, Sedensky said he was taking steps to keep much of the details surrounding the investigation under wraps to prevent publicity from disrupting efforts of police. He said he had already filed extensions in court to keep documents sealed longer than they would be otherwise.
Sedensky said he was mindful of the group’s work and would do what he could to provide them with information. However, he declined to talk about any information law enforcement has been able to learn regarding the mental state of the killer.
The group will be under pressure to make recommendations sooner than June. This year’s legislative session ends in June and their recommendations likely will require new laws to enforce.
As he was reading his charge to the commission, Malloy said he would do what he could to shield the group from pressure.
“I’m not going to put you under any pressure. In fact, I’ll protect you from that pressure, should that be required. On the other hand, I think you all need to be mindful that the legislature is in session and some of the things you will undoubtedly recommend will require legislation,” he said.
Following the meeting, the commission’s chairman, Hamden Mayor Scott Jackson, said the timeline of the police investigation provides both challenges and opportunities.
“It allows us to not get so bogged down in the specific details of what happened in that school, on that day,” he said.
Jackson said that without specific details to focus upon, the group is free to take an “all-hazards” approach to issues like school security. And not having information regarding the killer’s frame of mind won’t necessarily prevent the commission from making recommendations regarding mental health.
“That was a singular event with a singular individual. I would hope that our recommendations would be a little bit broader than that,” he said.
Mental health was one of the areas upon which the governor asked the group to focus. He called for destigmatizing it to make the perception of a mental illness similar to other illnesses.
“We live in a society that has destigmatized violence at the same time that it has refused to destigmatize mental treatment,” he said.
But mental health also is one of the areas where Bonnie suggested the group may overreach by acting too quickly. The Virginia Commission on Mental Health Law Reform, on which Bonnie served as chair, already had been working on the issue before the Virginia Tech shooting and continued to for two years afterward. But he said the momentum for action in the wake of tragedies always raises concerns.
“It can spawn what I might characterize as disproportionate responses that, for example, erode the privacy or liberty of people with mental illness without adequate justification,” he said.
For his part, Ritter urged the commission to look at where the issues of gun control and mental illness intersect. He said the commission he served on made a decision not to address gun regulations in Colorado but suggested the Sandy Hook group should.
Ritter told the members of the commission that their work may someday save lives. He said one of the results of the Columbine commission was a change in police policy that now has officers engage active shooters rather than to wait for SWAT teams. He said the change has saved people in mass shootings since Columbine.
“In a tragic sense, it’s gratifying to know that . . . as you sit here and begin looking at this you can understand that your work can make an impact. It can make a difference. And there may be a moment in time in the future where you can look to incidents and know that your work as commissioner really impacted in a positive way another outcome,” he said.