The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion More damning details emerge about the police response in Uvalde

Residents of Uvalde, Tex., protest on June 11, calling for accountability in the police response to the Robb Elementary School shooting. (Reuters)
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“As horrible as what happened [was], it could have been worse. The reason it was not worse is because law enforcement officials did what they do.” That was the praise heaped by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) on “valiant local officials” the day after the mass shooting in Uvalde in which 21 people — including 19 children — were slaughtered. Mr. Abbott soon had to eat his words as questions arose about the police response. The governor pronounced himself “livid” over having been “misled.” More troubling details have emerged over the past month and what’s become clear is how much worse the situation actually was because law enforcement officials didn’t do what they should have done.

The latest revelation that doors to the classrooms at Robb Elementary School where a gunman had holed up were likely unlocked contradicts earlier assertions by police that they couldn’t immediately confront the killer because they had to wait for a master key. Steven C. McCraw, director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, earlier this month told a special Senate Committee probing the May 24 events that officers wasted precious time looking for a key that was never needed. Indeed, it appears that police did not even try the doors to determine if the doors were locked.

Other damning details have trickled out and police have been forced to repeatedly change their stories about who confronted the gunman, as well as when and how he got into the school (not as police falsely claimed because a teacher propped open a door) and why they waited 77 minutes before breaking into the classroom and killing him. Officers on the scene, according to Mr. McCraw, had — minutes after the shooting began — enough firepower and equipment to breach the classrooms. Some of the officers there on the scene expressed concerns about not taking action. The ever-revised timeline showed children frantically calling 911 for help. “Abject failure” was Mr. McCraw’s scathing — and accurate — assessment of police performance.

The bungled response, the shifting explanations, the refusal of local and state agencies to release information they are supposed to make available under Texas’s open records law and the finger-pointing between local and state officials only add to the immeasurable agony of families who lost loved ones. Officials believe most of the victims were shot in the first few minutes of the bursts of gunfire in the classroom but the nagging question of whether lives could have been saved remains unanswered. Several investigations — including one by the Justice Department — are underway and hopefully the facts will emerge to determine if there are people who need to be held accountable or if steps should be taken to better prepare for future emergencies.

It is important, though, not to overlook the real issue behind the murder of 21 innocents. It is not because a police commander made poor decisions or because good guys with guns didn’t act sooner. Twenty-one people are dead because a teenager was able to buy an AR-15-style gun and used it — a weapon designed for the purpose of killing large numbers of humans as quickly as possible — to terrorize and slaughter.