Six years after a deadly home invasion, officials still refuse to answer questions about the emergency response, and — unlike other communities where notorious killings have occurred — there apparently has been no formal review of the police department's actions.
Two paroled burglars broke into the Cheshire home on July 23, 2007, and killed Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her two daughters, Hayley, 17, and Michaela, 11, after holding them hostage for hours. Hawke-Petit's husband, Dr. William Petit, was severely beaten with a baseball bat but survived.
Hawke-Petit's family has been seeking answers from police ever since. They want to know why officers didn't enter the home before Hawke-Petit was strangled and the intruders set a fire that killed Hayley and Michaela.
"All I've ever wanted is for the truth to come out about this," Hawke-Petit's sister, Cynthia Hawke-Renn, said Thursday. "This was like our own personal 9/11. If 9/11 had happened to our country and there were no reviews that were done ... it's like 9/11 happened and everybody walked away and said 'oh well.'"
Questions about the police response resurfaced this week after HBO aired a documentary on the killings Monday and The Hartford Courant reported about audio recordings of police dispatch and phone calls it recently obtained.
Police Chief Neil Dryfe and Town Manager Michael Milone declined to comment about the police response. Dryfe joined the Cheshire department as chief in January 2011 after a long career with Hartford police. Milone was town manager at the time of the killings. A message seeking comment was left for former Police Chief Michael Cruess, who retired in 2010 after three decades with the department.
"To say anything about this is not going to serve any constructive purpose," Milone told The Associated Press.
The recordings obtained by the newspaper showed that a town hostage negotiator was told not to report to the Petits' home and that a police official initially had doubts about whether the family was in danger.
The Courant also reported, citing Milone, that police have never reviewed their response to the home invasion. On Thursday, Milone declined to tell the AP whether there was a review.
Police officials in other towns and emergency response experts said it's common for law enforcement agencies to review their responses to major crimes to see what they did well, what they didn't do well and how they can improve. But they said protocols and standards vary from department to department.
Reviews of police responses were ordered, for example, after the Virginia Tech shootings that killed 33 people in 2007, and the Aurora, Colo., movie theater shootings that left 12 people dead and 70 wounded last year.
"I think every person who's a true leader looks at everything they do and thinks, 'How could I do it better?'" said Jack Daly, chief of the Southington, Conn., police department and president of the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association.
Robert Cartner, director of training with the Doylestown, Pa.-based National Tactical Officers Association, said he believes most police emergency response teams at least talk about how they responded to a situation and what they can improve, but often there aren't any formal reports generated from those discussions.
Cartner, a retired police officer who lives in Oklahoma, said when a high-profile tragedy happens and there are questions about police actions, local officials often will order an outside review.
"They'll have an independent review basically showing the public that they're transparent," Cartner said. "I don't know why they (Cheshire officials) would not respond, and obviously they have a reason." He said the reason could include advice from town lawyers or a policy not to release that kind of information.
One of the main questions about the Cheshire police response has been why authorities didn't intervene before the two killers fled the burning house.
Police were first called at about 9:20 a.m. on the day of the killings when one of the killers, Steven Hayes, forced Hawke-Petit to go to the bank to withdraw money. A bank manager called police to say Hawke-Petit had just told a teller that her family was being held hostage at their home and gave her address.
Police went to the home within minutes and set up a perimeter. Hayes and the other killer, Joshua Komisarjevsky, fled the home around 10 a.m. in one of the Petits' cars, crashed into police cruisers and were arrested. Both were convicted of capital felony, murder and sexual assault and sent to death row.
Authorities have said Hayes and Komisarjevsky broke into the home in the early morning hours after following Hawke-Petit and Michaela home from a grocery store. Officials have said Komisarjevsky sexually assaulted Michaela at some point, and Hayes strangled and raped Hawke-Petit after they returned to the home from the bank.