July 18, 2017 12:57PM
By Jesse Buchanan,
Editor’s note: Part III of a series on the legacy of the Petit home invasion 10 years ago this month.
CHESHIRE — It wasn’t until after the two killers in the Petit home invasion had been caught, crashing into a police cruiser in an attempted getaway, that officers realized what had gone on in the Sorghum Mill Drive house. After details emerged, police around the state started talking, planning and training to prevent such a scenario from happening again.
John DeCarlo, an associate professor at the University of New Haven and a former Branford police chief, said the home invasion prompted discussion and training in many departments.
He described the tragedy as a low-frequency, high-impact event. Such crimes happen rarely but the stakes are high and mistakes can be deadly. Police don’t often train or plan for such rare events, making mistakes more frequent.
“That’s where people get in trouble,” DeCarlo said. “You don’t get to do or train for a situation like this very often.”
Current and former Cheshire police officers didn’t want to talk publicly about the crime that occurred 10 years ago and the accompanying legal case that continues with appeals by one of the convicted killers.
Deputy Chief Brian Pichnarcik said the department has been consistent in its policy of not commenting on the home invasion.
All senior officers who were in charge of the department 10 years ago have since retired or left. Only a few officers who were on the force at the time remain, Pichnarcik said.
Stephen Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky were convicted of killing Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her daughters, Michaela and Hayley. Hawke-Petit was strangled and the daughters killed in a fire set by the attackers shortly before they fled.
The incident underscores how terrible crimes can happen anywhere.
“Police know it, but it makes everyone realize that something bad, really bad can happen,” Southington Police Chief Jack Daly said. “You don’t think of Cheshire like that, you don’t think of Newtown like that.”
Police tactics began to change after the Columbine High School shootings to include moving in quickly on attackers. But that training wouldn’t have applied to the Petit murders, which weren’t accompanied by gunshots, DeCarlo said.
He was chief in Branford in 2007 and said his department started planning and training for similar hostage situations after the home invasion along with other departments in the state. How to prevent another similar tragedy was a topic of discussion among police chiefs as well.
For rare events, DeCarlo recommended police departments come up with a checklist to help officers take the right steps in chaotic situations. Municipalities can rarely fund training for all types of scenarios, he said, so pre-planning can help avoid errors.
DeCarlo said police generally err on the side of caution when approaching an unknown situation that’s not an active shooter.
“In the aftermath of it, it’s hard to call without knowing (all the facts),” he said.
In 1996, a drug dealer shot and killed four people on Shuttle Meadow Road in Southington, including an 18-year old girl. Ed Pocock III, a former Southington police captain, said cases like that are difficult for police but that they’re also difficult for the community. In the aftermath of that crime, people would tell police that they were praying for the department.
“When something like that hits a small town, a tight-knit community like Southington or Cheshire, it hurts everybody,” Pocock said. “The community, they rally behind you… You had cookie plates showing up at the PD.”
Despite the support, it’s difficult for officers who have investigated or responded to those types of crimes.
“You can’t unsee or unsmell any of that stuff,” Pocock said.
Police who responded to the Petit house in July 2007 likely still think over their decisions and actions, according to Pocock.
“You’re forced to make snap decisions,” he said. “Police work is a lot more complicated than that one big call that everybody wants to cover.”
“Those guys and gals, they relive that stuff every day,” Pocock said.