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Armed Uvalde officers waited for key to unlocked door, official says

The head of the Texas Department of Public Safety on June 21 blamed the school district police chief for the long delay before police entered Robb Elementary. (Video: The Washington Post)

AUSTIN — The head of the Texas Department of Public Safety on Tuesday assailed the police response to the massacre at Robb Elementary last month as “an abject failure,” describing in damning detail how officers quickly made it into the school — wielding rifles and obtaining protective shields — but left children trapped with an attacker as they dawdled waiting for a key to an unlocked door.

During searing testimony before state lawmakers, Steven C. McCraw, who directs the public safety agency, painted a bleak timeline outlining repeated police and school security lapses during the May 24 slaughter in South Texas.

Police were carrying radios that would not communicate. Classroom doors had locks that could not be secured from inside. And the school district’s police chief, Pedro “Pete” Arredondo, made error after error throughout the catastrophe, McCraw said, breaking with decades of accepted law enforcement practice by not pursuing the gunman sooner.

“The only thing stopping a hallway of dedicated officers from entering Room 111 and 112 was the on-scene commander, who decided to place the lives of officers before the lives of children,” McCraw said. “The officers had weapons; the children had none. The officers had body armor; the children had none. The officers had training; the subject had none.”

Uvalde: 90 minutes of terror, a failed police response and shattered trust

McCraw’s testimony Tuesday, which stretched for more than four hours in the Capitol in Austin, offered the most detailed official account so far about what happened during the bloodshed in Uvalde, a small city west of San Antonio. Nineteen children and two teachers were killed during the massacre, and authorities say law enforcement officials who eventually breached the classroom shot and killed the gunman, 18-year-old Salvador Ramos.

In the days after the shooting, police actions at the school drew increasing scrutiny and then condemnation, as the initial depictions of a swift law enforcement response soon gave way to mounting revelations about how long it took authorities to confront the shooter.

Since the Columbine High School attack in 1999, it has been standard practice nationwide for law enforcement officials responding to active attackers to pursue them until the threat is stopped. But McCraw said that during the Uvalde massacre, Arredondo delayed for more than an hour waiting for a radio, rifles, shields, a SWAT group and, finally, a seemingly unnecessary key — costly decisions he made as the commander on scene.

In all, 77 minutes transpired between the moment the gunman entered the school, McCraw said, and when he was killed.

Arredondo has disputed McCraw’s account, telling the Texas Tribune that he did not consider himself the scene’s commander and that the classroom door was locked. He has not responded to multiple interview requests from The Washington Post, and neither Arredondo nor his lawyer, George E. Hyde, responded to calls and text messages seeking comment Tuesday.

McCraw’s testimony coincided with Arredondo’s own on the other side of the building. While McCraw spoke before cameras in a public setting, Arredondo was testifying behind closed doors with a three-person state House of Representatives investigative committee. The group expects to deliver a report of its own fact-finding in early to mid-July. The Justice Department is also reviewing the law enforcement response to the attack.

The victims of the Uvalde

Arredondo’s absence on Tuesday before the Senate committee did not go unnoticed. Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R) issued a blunt challenge to Arredondo to testify in public, saying the police chief had chosen instead to “hide” by speaking behind closed doors to another committee. In Uvalde, there is mounting anger toward the school police chief — with many parents and community members calling for him to be held accountable.

“If he truly wanted to be respectful, he would step down,” Jasmine Cazares, the older sister of 10-year-old Jackie, killed in the attack, told city leaders Tuesday.

While not defending Arredondo, state Sen. Roland Gutierrez (D), who represents Uvalde and has spent the last month with grieving families, said he should not be scapegoated either. The senator asked McCraw whether his agency bears as much responsibility for the failures. He and other Democrats asked why none of the more than a dozen agents initially on scene took over command when it was clear the schools chief was making the wrong calls.

“We spend $4 billion on these guys and they show up pointing the finger at six local cops," Gutierrez said, referring to Abbott’s controversial border initiative that has deployed large numbers of troopers to areas along and near the border with Mexico. “DPS are always the heroes.”

Others echoed his frustration. Uvalde Mayor Don McLaughlin accused McCraw of “having an agenda” that “leaves out details that make DPS look bad,” noting that the agency presented incorrect information in its first briefings on the attack. State Sen. José Menéndez (D) said Republican colleagues were too quick to accept McCraw’s version of events.

“If the whole ugly, bare-knuckled truth doesn’t come out, no one will have confidence in government and institutions,” he said. “I don’t think we can afford that.”

Few minutes of the hearing were dedicated to the state laws that permitted the shooter to obtain the assault-style weapons used to slaughter children. The committee debated doors, locks, police protocols, mental health, prayer in schools and facility hardening — but gun control was given scant attention.

In one exchange, state Sen. Royce West (D) asked McCraw whether 18 was too young for a person to access such firepower. The state police chief remarked that age is no indicator of maturity, citing the young men and women who have fought the nation’s wars. But those 18-year-old’s were trained, West quickly quipped.

Democrats, city mayors and a few Republicans are asking Abbott to call a special session and debate proposals — such as raising the age limit for purchasing these kinds of rifles — mirroring Florida legislation passed in the wake of the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school. The governor, who is running for reelection, did not respond to questions about bringing the legislature back.

The Senate hearing Tuesday included testimony from other officials, including the state commissioner of education. Speakers discussed topics including the shooter, who they described as chronically absent and a poor student, as well as future changes to physical access to schools.

But McCraw was the most high-profile official to appear, with his testimony eliciting moments of anger, shock and sadness at what happened at Robb Elementary. Officials had largely stopped providing public updates after accounts and details they offered following the shooting had to be amended or walked back.

Authorities had initially said that a school resource officer exchanged fire with the shooter, before later saying that the officer was not on campus and, upon arriving at the school, drove by the attacker. McCraw had also said the gunman made it inside the school through a door propped open by a teacher, before his agency later said the educator had actually closed the door but it failed to lock.

When he broke down the timeline on Tuesday, McCraw seemingly preempted questions about the accuracy of this latest account, saying that the details were drawn from video footage, including school surveillance cameras, as well as police body-worn cameras.

Those details included a grim minute-by-minute breakdown describing what investigators say happened in Uvalde.

Just three minutes after the gunman made it inside the school and entered classrooms, McCraw said, several police officers were also inside, some carrying rifles. Arredondo was among the officers inside the school in those early moments of the shooting, according to the Department of Public Safety timeline.

Within 19 minutes, McCraw said, police had a protective ballistic shield inside the school. Not long after, a student inside called 911 — beginning a series of harrowing calls from children trapped in the classroom — and more ballistic shields arrived. More gunfire periodically rang out from the attacker.

Timeline: Breaking down the police response in Uvalde

The timeline released by McCraw’s agency also includes quotes from Arredondo describing a fear that if the attacker “starts shooting, we’re going to lose more kids” and notes about his attempts to speak to the shooter. The timeline also quotes Arredondo as saying officials had “master keys” that were not working and describing police taking time because they were “trying to preserve the rest of the life.” McCraw testified that there was no video evidence indicating that officers had tried to open the door before breaching it — and that the investigation indicates it was unlocked the entire time.

The public safety department also on Tuesday released a call transcript showing that minutes after Arredondo entered the school alongside other officers, he called the Uvalde police landline and requested “a lot of firepower” to back him up.

The transcript showed that Arredondo told a dispatcher at 11:40 a.m., “I need this building surrounded.” The call transcript showed that Arredondo asked for the school to be “surrounded with as many AR-15s as possible” and, when asked by a dispatcher whether there was a teacher inside the room with the gunman, said “the teacher” was in Classroom 102, across from another person who had possibly been shot.

Texas state Sen. Roland Gutierrez (D) spoke on June 21 about meeting families after the May 24 shooting that left 21 dead at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Tex. (Video: Texas Senate)

Moments later, he said that he and the other officers were standing in the hallway while the shooter was inside Classroom 111 or 112, the transcript shows. Arredondo also asked for a police SWAT team to set up on the south side of the school, near the Hillcrest Memorial Funeral Home.

The call transcript also showed Arredondo saying he needed “more firepower in here because we all have pistols and this guy’s got a rifle.” He also requested a rifle and a radio — noting that he did not have his own radio — and asked the dispatcher to call him once the SWAT team had been set up.

Police said before attacking the school, the gunman shot his grandmother in the face. He then crashed his vehicle near the school, fired toward men at the nearby funeral home and went inside, officials said. McCraw on Tuesday said the gunman’s grandmother was still alive and had lost her jaw as a result of the shooting.

While more details about the police response were still emerging, key questions about the attack still remained unanswered. McCraw said officials still did not know why the gunman attacked the specific rooms he targeted.

In Uvalde, residents and relatives of the dead students and teachers broke into applause Tuesday evening when the City Council unanimously voted to deny Arredondo a requested leave of absence. He was elected to the council last fall and sworn in during a private ceremony six days after the shooting. City officials said at the time it was closed to the public out of respect for grieving families.

Placing a framed picture of her dead sister on the podium, Cazares chastised council members for welcoming Arredondo onto the board after the shooting. He was not present Tuesday and, if he misses three meetings in a row, his seat will be considered vacated.

“Was it out of respect?" she asked. "Or was it private because he knew the people that voted him in now wanted him out?”

Bella and Berman reported from Washington. Teo Armus and Meryl Kornfield contributed to this report.