Police experts said it made sense that the school’s police chief was in charge, given it’s its campus and he knows the safety protocols.
But authorities made clear on Friday that many other things went wrong as these small police departments were aided by state, local and federal law enforcement agencies in the city of 16,000. Officers waited for almost an hour at Robb Elementary School before a group burst into the classroom and confronted 18-year-old Salvador Rolando Ramos. At that point, police said, Customs and Border Protection officers shot dead the gunman, who killed 19 children and two teachers and injured 17 others.
Caught next to a gunman, students called 911 and pleaded, “Please send the police”
State officials have provided conflicting and partial accounts of the slow response, including police pushing parents away from the school and subduing them when they asked officers to go inside.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) and others initially said officials responded quickly and saved lives. Officials now say the school system’s police chief erred in deciding the gunman had gone from being an active gunman to a “barricaded subject” and made no effort to force down the door and get inside.
An off-duty Border Patrol tactical agent was the first to arrive outside the classroom and “basically said, let’s get this done,” according to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection official, who spoke on condition of anonymity for preliminary details to report to the investigation. “They didn’t tell me they were frustrated,” the officer said of other border guards who came together. “But they told me it was hard to tell who was in charge.”
Police made a “wrong decision” not to pursue the Uvalde shooter, an official says
Consolidated Independent School District Uvalde Police Department chief Pedro “Pete” Arredondo, who was the incident commander, did not respond to requests for comment Friday. A spokeswoman for the Uvalde Police Department referred inquiries to the Texas Department of Public Safety, and inquiries to the local district attorney’s office went unanswered.
“We needed the help ASAP for our children and it wasn’t there,” Amanda Flores, who said she knew all 21 victims, said at a Main Street memorial on Friday. “I saw these parents running to get their kids and the police attacking the parents and that should never have happened.”
Since the Columbine school massacre in 1999, many police departments have trained officers to pursue an assailant as quickly as possible to minimize the number of teachers and children shot. Before that, the leadership often emphasized waiting for specially trained tactical officers with special equipment.
In March, school district police held active rifleman training at Uvalde High School, according to a post on the agency’s Facebook page. “Our overall goal is to train every law enforcement officer in the Uvalde region so that we can prepare as well as possible for any possible situation,” the post reads.
The state-mandated curriculum advises, “In the event of an active school attack, school-based law enforcement officers should do their best to close the gap until other first responders can arrive.” An arriving officer’s “first priority” is to step in and confront the attacker, even if that officer has to act alone, the guidance says.
Live updates: Latest developments after the Texas school shooting
The Texas legislature approved a measure in 2019 requiring such training for all school police officers. The curriculum teaches officers about Columbine and the change in police response tactics since then, as well as the 2018 mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida. It is noted that a school armed resource officer is more likely to be outside of Parkland High School remained than to confront the shooter and bring criticism upon himself and his department.
“First responders in the active shooter community typically must put themselves in danger and display unusual courage to save the innocent,” states the state curriculum.
Chris Grollnek, a retired police officer and active shooter prevention expert, said he was taken aback that school officials waited to confront the shooter while kids and teachers were in the room with him.
“The first officer to react – I don’t care if it’s the deputy canine comic guy – he goes in and stops the gunman. It’s just part of the job,” said Grollnek. “You have a ballistic vest. Do you know what the kids have? Colored pencils. You are obliged to do something. If someone tells you to stay outside, you are disobeying that order.”
In 2020, the City of Uvalde Police SWAT team toured the school campus to interact with students and become familiar in the event of an emergency, according to a Facebook post by the department. The department’s 2018 annual report said the SWAT unit held monthly tactical training sessions open to all officers.
Rogelio Martin Muñoz, a defender for Uvalde and a former city councilman, said on Friday that Uvalde “is not one of those municipalities where you have distrust between the police and the population. It’s not about police violence, police brutality. The criticism is more that they just don’t do a very good job.”
“I’m not saying I take that position,” Muñoz added. “These are people trying to do a good job who are probably underpaid.”
Sara Spector, who worked as a prosecutor in Uvalde about a decade ago, said officers in the area tend to be both underpaid and underskilled. “You’re being asked to do something you would expect a New York City Police Department to do or a Dallas Police Department to do,” said Spector, who is now an attorney in Midland, Tex. But “it’s a different world, especially when you get into less affluent rural communities.”
Abbott said Friday that he is seeking a full investigation into law enforcement’s response.
“There will be ongoing investigations detailing who knew what, when, who was responsible for which strategy. Why was this particular strategy used? Why weren’t other strategies used? Bottom line would be why didn’t they choose the strategy that would have been best to get in there and eliminate the killer and save the kids?” said Abbott.
Tim Craig and Teo Armus in Uvalde, Texas and Timothy Bella and Nick Miroff in Washington contributed to this report.