Some of the police officers who responded to the school shooting in Newtown are so traumatized they haven't been working, but they have to use sick time and could soon be at risk of going without a paycheck, a union official said Wednesday.
The union, Council 15 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, is seeking more generous assistance in talks with the town's insurer. It is also reaching out to lawmakers and the governor's office with proposals to modify state law and expand workers' compensation benefits for officers who witness horrific crime scenes.
"The insurer for the town has taken a position that these officers are entitled to only what the statute allows. Unfortunately for these officers, the statute doesn't allow any benefits," said Eric Brown, an attorney for the union, which represents nearly 4,000 officers around Connecticut.
A gunman shot his way into Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14 and slaughtered 20 first-graders and six educators. The gunman, who had also killed his mother that morning, committed suicide as police arrived.
Brown said that the number of officers "critically affected" by the tragedy is below 15 and that a small number of them are not currently working.
A spokesman for Newtown police, Lt. George Sinko, said the officers are generally holding up well.
"A couple of them are taking it harder than some of the other ones," he said. "The things that the officers had to experience underscores the need to support them in every way possible."
Officials with the town's insurer, the Connecticut Interlocal Risk Management Agency, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Authorities say the victims were shot with a high-powered, military-style rifle loaded with ammunition designed to inflict maximum damage. All the victims had been shot at least twice, the medical examiner said, and as many as 11 times. Two victims were pronounced dead at a hospital, while all others died in the school.
In the past, advocates have pushed to change the statutes on workers' compensation, which currently include provisions for officers who suffer mental impairment as the result of using or being subjected to deadly force — but not for those who witness crime scenes with mass casualties.
Concerns about the potential cost to cities and towns have been an obstacle, but the issue is likely to resurface in the next legislation session, said state Rep. Stephen Dargan, a West Haven Democrat who is co-chairman of the legislature's public safety committee.
"We don't want it to be used in an abusive way, but the circumstances are so horrific in Newtown. We need to protect those first responders and give them all the help we can give them," he said.
Firefighters who responded to the scene at Sandy Hook also have described struggling with feelings of frustration and anguish, but said they were grateful they were spared from witnessing the scene that greeted police inside the school.
Brown said outside agencies have been meeting demands for counseling services, but it will be important to ensure support is in place over the long term. The officers who are not working also could use up available sick time by early January, he said.
"The emotional loads they're carrying far exceed anything they could imagine," Brown said.
Police have yet to offer a possible motive for gunman Adam Lanza's rampage.
Expansive memorials throughout the small New England town have become gathering points for residents and visitors alike. A steady stream of well-wishers have taken pictures, dropped off toys and fought back tears at a huge sidewalk memorial in the center of Newtown's Sandy Hook section that is filled with stuffed animals, poems, flowers, posters and cards.
Newtown officials plan to convert into a memorial the countless mementos paying tribute to the schoolhouse victims. Thousands of flowers, letters, signs, photos, candles, teddy bears and other items at sites around town will be turned into soil and blocks to be used in a memorial, The News Times in nearby Danbury reported.