The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The lesson from Uvalde? America has too many police departments.

Members of law enforcement gather outside the funeral service for Jacklyn Cazares at Sacred Heart Catholic Church on June 3 in Uvalde, Tex. (Eric Gay/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

The more we know about the police response — or nonresponse — to the massacre at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Tex., the less we are likely to learn from it. Humans have a bias for absorbing facts that fit nicely into our existing presumptions, while remaining largely impervious to new ideas. Next to nothing from Uvalde matches the world we’ve learned from TV and movies.

Few ideas are more deeply ingrained in the American psyche than the power of the gun. The gun is alpha and omega; it puts dramas in motion by empowering a bad guy, then wraps them up in the hands of a good guy. If a gun creates a problem, the solution is another gun — or a bigger gun, or a lot of guns.

So it confounds our view of the world to see images from the brightly painted grade-school corridor showing a small army of men packing guns and bigger guns, plus protective helmets and shields — and all these guns are solving nothing. Though armed to the teeth, the good guys are just standing around. The bad guy is a few feet away, with only a door (unlocked, we now learn) between him and the police. Yet most of an hour passes, and little happens apart from the bleeding, the dying and the fear.

What was missing in that hallway was strong leadership and clear communication. The good guys had more than enough firepower, but they weren’t sure what they were up against. Knowledge was piecemeal and siloed. Information from inside the classroom, conveyed in desperate calls to a 911 operator, was not reaching them. Some of the police were apparently under the mistaken impression that the gunman was holed up alone. Some may have believed they were waiting for a door key, or a crowbar.

Follow David Von Drehle's opinionsFollow

All were waiting for the word “go” from a person they knew to be in charge.

These failures all stem from the same root cause: America has far too many police departments.

By piecing together various accounts, we conclude that officers were quickly on the scene from at least four agencies: the Uvalde school district police, the Uvalde city police, the Uvalde county sheriff and — eventually — the U.S. Border Patrol. Texas Rangers arrived at some point, as did the FBI. That’s six agencies in a city of about 16,000 people.

Anyone who has ever tried to make two bureaucracies cooperate efficiently under the best of circumstances can perhaps appreciate the difficulty of making four, five or six bureaucracies work together under the worst.

This proliferation of jurisdictions is a distinctly American problem. According to one ballpark guess, the United States is home to around 18,000 distinct police agencies. Sweden has one. Canada spans a continent, like the United States. Canada comprises local and provincial governments gathered into a federated whole, like the United States. But Canada has fewer than 200 agencies.

That’s right: The United States has close to 100 police agencies for each one in Canada.

According to the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, nearly 150 school districts in Texas alone have created their own police departments since 2010. It’s not difficult to imagine the thinking behind this trend. A city department or sheriff’s office might not see the value in putting an officer full-time at a grade school, where whole years might pass without seeing anything more dangerous than a wedgie. With a dedicated school police department, the superintendent and school board can deploy their forces as they please.

But then a crisis hits, and officers from multiple jurisdictions rush to a crime in progress. And what do you know? Their radios aren’t on the same frequency. Or some don’t have radios. The chief of one force arrives before the other chiefs and starts giving orders to people who don’t know each other. Maybe the agencies have all trained for a crisis — the Uvalde school force performed active shooter training as recently as March — but rarely have the departments trained together.

People who have been taught to follow orders from a chain of command will be at a loss when the chain breaks down and commanders multiply. People who have learned to work closely with colleagues will be stymied when they find themselves surrounded by strangers. Urgent details won’t be conveyed to everyone who needs them. Paralysis can set in.

American soldiers long ago coined a word to describe operating under extreme pressure, even in the best of circumstances: “snafu.” It means, politely, “situation normal, all fouled up.” In the United States, our passion for creating more and more — and more — police agencies, fiefdoms and sinecures makes even normal performance highly unlikely.

That would be a good lesson to learn from Uvalde.