NEWTOWN, Conn. (AP) — Michael Kehoe doesn't want his 37-year career with Connecticut's Newtown Police Department defined by one event, but that's difficult when your sleepy suburban town of 28,000 people was the site of one of the country's deadliest school shootings.
The 60-year-old police chief reflected on his decades of service recently with The Associated Press as he prepared for his retirement on Wednesday.
"One small period of time, one criminal act is what it is," Kehoe said about the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14, 2012. "Although the magnitude of Sandy Hook is quite important, I would say there were also many other important events and days in my career."
He rattled off accomplishments that could be on any police officer's list: busting criminals, teaching children to avoid drugs, fostering interest in law enforcement through the police explorers program and working to prevent crime.
Kehoe, however, will be most remembered for leading the response to the Sandy Hook shooting that killed 20 first-graders and six educators and subsequently calling for bans on semi-automatic assault weapons, like the Bushmaster AR-15 rifle used by gunman Adam Lanza.
Kehoe, a married father of two children now in their 30s, was among the first officers to enter the school. The Hartford native, who was hired by Newtown police in 1978 and became chief in 2001, speaks only in vague terms about what he saw in the classrooms where the students and teachers were killed.
"It's hard. It's really hard. It's unimaginable is the best way to term it," he said. Responding to the school that day was "surreal," he said.
He would later talk to people close to him about what happened and said he didn't develop long-lasting stress problems as some officers did.
Lanza, 20, who had a history of mental health problems, killed his mother at their Newtown home before shooting his way into the locked school. The chaos ended when he killed himself.
There was an overwhelming amount of work to be done after the shooting, Kehoe said. He and his 45-officer force worked long hours keeping watch over the shaken town and trying to restore a sense of security with the help of officers from other towns. Authorities needed to secure several sites including the Sandy Hook school, all other local schools, the Lanza house and the victims' funerals.
"You can imagine a community feels very unsafe after an event like that," he said. "We wanted to rebuild the safeness of the community afterward."
Kehoe helped coordinate an outpouring of aid that flooded the community, including flags from overseas military bases that were given to the town and flown at the police station. Officers also spent months doing paperwork for the investigation, which state police and prosecutors took over.
Kehoe said he first began thinking of retiring in 2011. He has no immediate plans for how he'll spend his time but is considering consulting work. He'll be succeeded by James Viadero, a Newtown resident and police chief in nearby Middlebury.
Kehoe believes the town has rebounded well after the shooting.
"It doesn't define us at all," he said. "In many ways we're still the same community we were before, probably closer-knit and more compassionate. We know that time heals. It may not completely heal. But it does heal."