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Police slow to engage with gunman because ‘they could’ve been shot,’ official says

Officers in Uvalde, Tex., on Thursday stand outside Robb Elementary School near a makeshift memorial for the shooting victims. (Chandan Khanna/AFP/Getty Images)
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Police were reluctant to immediately engage with the gunman who spent an hour inside the elementary school in Uvalde, Tex., where he killed 19 children and two adults because “they could’ve been shot,” a lieutenant with the Texas Department of Public Safety said in a CNN interview.

Law enforcement officers have faced mounting criticism from some parents who say police could have intervened sooner against 18-year-old Salvador Ramos in an effort from officers that was initially deemed by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) as a “quick response.” Police who arrived at the school retreated as shots rang out, state authorities said Thursday, and it took an hour before a tactical unit led by federal Border Patrol agents went into a classroom and killed the gunman.

Texas Department of Public Safety spokesman Chris Olivarez defended the response in an interview Thursday with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, who asked the lieutenant to walk him through “what exactly law enforcement was doing for 60 minutes or so while the shooter remained in that classroom killing those kids and teachers?”

Olivarez said that, while the goal for law enforcement during active-shooter situations such as the one this week in Uvalde is to stop the killing and preserve life, officers did not initially know where Ramos was located when they were shot at.

“At that point, if they proceeded any further not knowing where the suspect was at, they could’ve been shot, they could’ve been killed, and that gunman would have had an opportunity to kill other people inside that school,” Olivarez said.

Olivarez’s remarks were criticized by those on both the political left and right, and by parents, some of whom were tackled or handcuffed as they tried to enter the school on Tuesday to try to save their children.

A DPS spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment early Friday. The DPS is expected to have a news briefing on Friday.

Mario Jimenez spent hours outside Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Tex., before learning his fourth-grade son was safe following the May 24 shooting at the school. (Video: Alice Li, Jared Moosey, Whitney Leaming/The Washington Post)

Standard law enforcement guidance since the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado says officers should pursue shooters inside buildings without waiting for specialized backup. Since Columbine, many police departments have trained officers to go after an attacker as soon as possible, to minimize the number of teachers and children shot.

As timeline emerges, police criticized for response to school massacre

Before Columbine, older guidance often emphasized waiting for specially trained officers, such as a SWAT team. The speed and willingness of officers to pursue shooters into buildings has been called into question following other attacks in recent years, including the massacre at a high school in Parkland, Fla., in 2018.

While the Uvalde Police Department’s policy on responding to an active shooter is not publicly available, Olivarez said in an interview with The Washington Post on Thursday that “the protocol is to address the threat.”

“You go at the threat, you go at where the gunfire is at because you’re trying to stop the threat,” he said.

Victor Escalon, regional director for the Department of Public Safety South Texas, spoke about an investigation into the shooting in Uvalde, Tex., on May 24. (Video: AP)

The lieutenant’s comments to CNN add to an incomplete — and evolving — explanation of what happened at Robb Elementary. Officials have offered varied timelines and explanations of the massacre and law enforcement’s response, and have also made sometimes inconsistent or contradictory announcements about key details involving the shooter.

How the official accounts about the Uvalde shooting have changed

Cellphone videos from outside Robb Elementary on Tuesday and witness accounts detail how parents were yelling at police, pleading with them to enter the school to protect their children. Javier Cazares, whose 9-year-old daughter, Jacklyn, was shot and killed, said parents “wanted to storm the building” when officers told them to move away from it.

Some of the videos posted to social media, which have been viewed millions of times, showed tearful parents pleading with officers in tactical gear — some carrying rifles or Tasers — to go inside the school and tackle the gunman, or allow them to do so themselves.

“You’re scared of getting shot?” one mother said, according to one video. “I’ll go in without a vest — I will!”

What we know about the victims of the school shooting in Texas

On Thursday, Olivarez told Blitzer that three officers initially entered one of the entrances where Ramos went into the building, and that another four officers eventually got in.

“As they were taking gunfire, they were calling in for reinforcements, backup tactical team, snipers, any additional personnel to assist not only with the situation but also the situation in evacuating students and teachers,” he said.

One of the officers was shot, Olivarez said, but that did not stop law enforcement from killing Ramos and responding to “other injured children inside that classroom [who] they were able to save as well and get them to cover.”

But Blitzer pressed Olivarez on the long-standing guidance surrounding law enforcement’s response to active-shooter situations.

“Don’t current best practices, don’t they call for officers to disable a shooter as quickly as possible, regardless of how many officers are actually on-site?” Blitzer asked.

Olivarez said that was “correct,” explaining some of the uncertainty faced by law enforcement in Uvalde.

“The active-shooter situation, you want to stop the killing, you want to preserve life, but also one thing that — of course, the American people need to understand — that officers are making entry into this building. They do not know where the gunman is,” Olivarez said. “They are hearing gunshots. They are receiving gunshots.”

That’s when Olivarez told Blitzer that officers were slow to engage because “they could’ve been shot, they could’ve been killed.”

“They were able to contain that gunman inside that classroom so that he was not able to go to any other portions of the school to commit any other killings,” he said.

The remarks prompted widespread criticism on social media. Joe Walsh, the former GOP congressman from Illinois who has since become a vocal critic of former president Donald Trump and his allies in the Republican Party, tweeted he had “no … words” after hearing Olivarez’s comments.

“He actually said it,” Walsh wrote. “He actually said the cops were reluctant to engage the shooter because, ‘They could’ve been shot. They could’ve been killed.’”

Janice Dean, a senior meteorologist for Fox News, was among those echoing the disgust over law enforcement’s response.

“It’s like a fireman not going into a building because they might get burned,” Dean wrote.

Jon Swaine, Joyce Sohyun Lee and Mark Berman contributed to this report.