Dec 19, 2013
08:30 AM
The Connecticut Story

Campus Lockdown Situations in Connecticut Bring Significant Costs

Campus Lockdown Situations in Connecticut Bring Significant Costs

Peter Hvizdak/New Haven Register

Reports of a person with a firearm also brought out a heavy law-enforcement response to the University of New Haven’s campus in West Haven.

“See something, say something” has evolved from what was once just a motto in a world reeling from terrorist attacks and mass shootings to an accepted course of action any time something suspicious occurs.

In the span of a month, three universities in the state experienced lockdown scenarios. On Nov. 4, the entire campus of Central Connecticut State University in New Britain went into lockdown after a student wearing a ninja costume—complete with props resembling an assault weapon—returned to campus following a Halloween party. Three weeks later on Nov. 25, Yale University and parts of New Haven were shut down for what may have been a hoax when an anonymous call to police reported an individual allegedly heading to campus with a gun. Just days later on Dec. 3, the campus at the University of New Haven was in crisis mode after police were alerted to the presence of a man with a loaded rifle in his car.

Though each of these situations was different in threat level and the reality of whether an actual threat existed, they were all similar in that they caused panic, gridlock, lockdowns and drew a response from agencies like the FBI, Homeland Security and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. In many instances the state police, local S.W.A.T. teams and university police also responded.

They’re also similar in that no one was injured—and that each cost a lot of money to handle.

A spokesperson for the University of New Haven says the overtime pay for university police response to the incident alone will cost $8,000. The New Britain police department, which responded to the CCSU incident, is asking a judge to have the costumed student pay $13,000 to the police department to help recoup costs associated with the event. The city of New Haven put the price tag for the Yale incident that locked down the city for just about the entire day at $32,000.

But aside from the calculated cost of police overtime and equipment deployment—what other prices do we pay when cities are locked down?

All experts and examiners of the law agree it’s a delicate balance between safety and liberty. Some regard the willingness to report an incident, which then prompts a strong law enforcement response, as necessary.

Mike Lawlor, the state’s undersecretary for criminal justice, sees the regularity at which lockdowns have been occurring of late as proof that people are tuned in and willing to say something to keep themselves safe. “If you have a series of incidents where people are stopped before they can do what they are going to do, then over time you’ll see this kind of behavior end—you’ll see these mass shootings end,” he says. “But for the time being, this is the new normal.”  

Lawlor says the state is learning from Sandy Hook and violent incidents in other states, such as the shooting at Virginia Tech, to see what best practices and laws may prevent more destructive situations from happening. He points to the state’s new gun-control laws as well as Project Longevity as proactive measures.

The frequency with which mass shootings and other such incidents have been occurring has created a chain effect of sorts—people are more vigilant, and they’re also more willing to say something more often. That’s a good thing, Lawlor believes, citing this heightened vigilance as one reason crime is down. The public is learning what to be aware of based on recent events and knows what to be suspicious of.

“I think the fact that people are tuned in is good—the only downside to this is you don’t want to unnecessarily stigmatize people with mental illness,” he says. “It’s our obligation to stay on top of these things and balance civil liberties against public safety and achieve the main goal, which is preventing these types of crimes in the future and stopping this trend.”

Not everyone agrees the balance is quite right.

Noted criminal defense and civil rights attorney Norm Pattis believes that police response to recent events has been a “grotesque overreaction.”

“It’s a question of balance—and I think we have reached a consensus in this society that it’s okay for the state to have an overwhelming amount of force and show it in response to even the most remote threats,” he says, referring to 9/11, Columbine and Newtown as events that have caused the public to acquiesce to government overreach and surveillance. If it continues, Pattis worries about a loss of personal liberties, and foresees dire consequences. “I think the state’s spinning out of control and until a few innocent people get killed or traumatized, nothing is going to change,” he says.

In 2012, a New Haven attorney was arrested for breach of peace following an incident during a midnight showing of The Dark Night Rises—the same film during which a gunman in Colorado had opened fire—where the attorney had carried his licensed gun in the waistband of his pants, which was reported by a fellow theater patron. The charges were later dismissed, but not after the entire venue was shut down and swarmed with law enforcement.

Scott Wilson, president of the Connecticut Citizen’s Defense League, says that police should respond with force in the event of an actual active shooter situation, but doesn’t believe “all that turn-out is necessary” for lockdowns and going door-to-door just for a report of someone with a gun. The counterargument is that active shooters can be stopped before they stop shooting—which is why the lockdowns and shelters in place begin.

While Wilson doesn’t disagree, he does say there are situations where people have panicked and it’s not necessary—such as the movie theater. “If I’m in a supermarket and I see somebody grabbing for a box of Rice Krispies and their gun becomes exposed—why would somebody become concerned?” he asks. “There’s no supporting action in that time to indicate that person is a threat.”

Wilson says he does live in a society though where people may be alarmed by something like that—but doesn’t see what the real threat is in their mind. “I think people are really sensitive right now,” he says. “We’ve been through a horrible tragedy here in Connecticut and I hope at some point people let things kind of get back to normal. I also think it lends credibility to the point we make that there are law-abiding citizens out there carrying firearms lawfully with a permit, and there’s less likelihood of somebody going to attack.”

John DeCarlo, professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and former Branford police chief, acknowledges that law enforcement response may be excessive, but he sees it as part of an evolving process. “The fact of the matter is that we are in a learning mode right now,” he says. “As a profession, police are actually dealing with something that has not necessarily been dealt with before, and they are kind of feeling their way through to find out best practices and policies.”

Police are not only dealing with a higher frequency of active shooter situations, he says, but also situations where the public is more on edge and has an “increased level of fear” because of recent events. “I think that it unfortunately is the going to be the response for the foreseeable future until we learn to analyze the situations better or have technology that helps us decipher what’s going on more quickly,” he says.

While people may disagree with how it’s done, DeCarlo says those wishing to protect liberties and those on the safety side of the spectrum have the same goal. “Really we’re all trying to attain the safety of the community, and there are, of course, better ways and less efficient ways to do it,” he says. “But it’s our job to do it in a way that is respectful to the public and saves the community as much grief as possible in the end.”


Campus Lockdown Situations in Connecticut Bring Significant Costs

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