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Tiny school police force in Uvalde took charge, then failed to go in

After praising police, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott now says he is seeking a full investigation of response to massacre

The scene outside Robb Elementary School on Tuesday, May 24. (Pete Luna/Uvalde Leader-News)
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The police response to the Texas school massacre was led by the chief of a six-officer police department that oversees about eight schools. The first officers on the scene were from the Uvalde city police force, which has a part-time SWAT team and about 40 officers on the payroll.

Policing experts said it makes sense that the school police chief was in charge, given that it was his campus and he knows the safety protocols.

But authorities made clear Friday that many other things went wrong as those small police departments were joined by state, local and federal law enforcement agencies in the town of 16,000. Officers waited nearly an hour inside Robb Elementary School before a group stormed into the classroom and confronted 18-year-old Salvador Rolando Ramos. At that point, police say, officers with Customs and Border Protection shot and killed the gunman, who had slain 19 children and two teachers and wounded 17 others.

Before massacre, Uvalde gunman threatened teen girls online

State officials have offered contradictory and partial accounts of the slow response, which included police forcing parents away from the school and subduing them as they pleaded with the officers to go in.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) and others initially said officers had responded quickly and saved lives. Officials now say the school-system police chief erred by deciding the gunman had shifted from an active shooter to a “barricaded subject,” and making no effort to break 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 to share preliminary details of the investigation. “They have not told me they were frustrated,” the official said of other border patrol agents who converged. “But they told me it was hard to discern who was in charge.”

Police made 'wrong decision' not to pursue Uvalde gunman, official says

Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steven McCraw spoke May 27 about the police response to a mass shooting at an elementary school on May 24. (Video: Reuters)

Pedro “Pete” Arredondo, chief of the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District Police Department, who was the incident commander, did not respond to requests for comment on Friday. A spokeswoman for the Uvalde Police Department referred inquiries to the Texas Department of Public Safety, and requests to the local district attorney’s office went unanswered.

“We needed the help ASAP for our kids, and it wasn’t there,” Amanda Flores, who said she knew all 21 victims, said at a memorial on Main Street on Friday. “I saw those parents running, wanting to go get their children and the police tackling the parents, and that should have never happened.”

Trapped alongside gunman, student called 911 to plead, 'Please call police'

Jimmy Perdue, the president of the Texas Police Chief Association, said Friday that departments across Texas are sending officers to assist the Uvalde department in coming days, since some of its employees are on routine administrative leave or seeing counselors because of the shooting.

“Their staff is understandably exhausted and needed some help,” Perdue said.

Since the Columbine school massacre in 1999, many police departments have trained officers to go after an attacker as soon as possible, to minimize the number of teachers and children shot. Before then, guidance often emphasized waiting for specially trained tactical officers with specialized equipment.

In March, the school district police hosted active shooter training at Uvalde High School, according to a post on the agency’s Facebook page. “Our overall goal is to train every Uvalde area law enforcement officer so that we can prepare as best as possible for any situation that may arise,” the post said.

The state-mandated course curriculum advises that, “In the event of an active school attack, school-based law enforcement officers should do the best they can to fill the gap until other first responders can arrive.” An arriving officer’s “first priority is to move in and confront the attacker,” even if that officer has to act alone, the guidance says.

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The Texas legislature in 2019 approved a measure that required such training for all school police officers. The curriculum teaches officers about Columbine and the shift in police response tactics since then, as well as the mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla., in 2018. It notes that an armed school resource officer remained outside the Parkland high school rather than confronting the gunman, bringing criticism upon himself and his department.

“First responders to the active shooter scene will usually be required to place themselves in harm’s way and display uncommon acts of courage to save the innocent,” the state’s curriculum says.

Chris Grollnek, a retired police officer and active shooter prevention expert, said he was baffled that the school officers waited to confront the gunman while children and teachers were inside the room with him.

“The first responding officer — I don’t care if it’s the Deputy Dawg cartoon guy — he goes in and stops the shooter. That’s just part of the job,” Grollnek said. “You’ve got a ballistic vest. You know what the kids have? Crayons. You are duty-bound to do something. If someone is telling you to stay outside, you disobey that order.”

Timeline: How police responded to the Texas shooter

In 2020, the city of Uvalde’s police SWAT team toured school campuses to interact with students and familiarize themselves in case of an emergency, according to a department Facebook post. The department’s 2018 annual report said the SWAT unit had monthly tactical training sessions, open to all officers to attend.

Rogelio Martin Muñoz, an Uvalde defense attorney and former city council member, said Friday that Uvalde “isn’t one of these communities where you have the distrust between the police and the populace. There isn’t an issue of police violence, police brutality. The criticism is more about that they just don’t do a very good job.”

“I’m not saying I take that position,” Muñoz added. “They’re people that are trying to do a good job that 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 undertrained. “They’re asked to do something that you would expect to see out of a New York Police Department or a Dallas Police Department.” said Spector, who is now an attorney in Midland, Tex.

Abbott said Friday that he is seeking a full examination of the law enforcement response.

“There will be ongoing investigations that detail exactly who knew what when, who was in charge of what strategy. Why was that particular strategy employed? Why were other strategies not employed? Bottom line would be why did they not choose the strategy that would have been best to get in there and to eliminate the killer and to rescue the children? Abbott said.

In the meantime, more than 100 police officers from across Texas have responded to calls to come to Uvalde, said Perdue, the president of the Texas Police Chief Association.

In one instance Friday, police cars from Conroe, 5 hours away, and Schertz, less than 2 hours away, joined a convoy. One agency sent two dispatchers to fill in at the 911 center that took calls from the school, including from children in the classroom with the shooter.

Perdue, who has been police chief for North Richland Hills for 16 years, said he sent two officers and has two dozen more who have volunteered to rotate shifts. The call and response has been unprecedented, he said.

“I don’t recall another situation like this.”

Teo Armus in Uvalde, Tex., and Timothy Bella, Meryl Kornfield and Nick Miroff in Washington contributed to this report.