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Police response to Uvalde was ‘an abject failure,’ Texas DPS chief says

UPDATED: Tue., June 21, 2022

A boy walks along a memorial outside Robb Elementary School created to honor the victims killed in May’s school shooting on June 3 in Uvalde, Texas. (Spokesman-Review wire archives)
A boy walks along a memorial outside Robb Elementary School created to honor the victims killed in May’s school shooting on June 3 in Uvalde, Texas. (Spokesman-Review wire archives)
By Arelis R. Hernández, Timothy Bella </p><p>and Mark Berman Washington Post

AUSTIN – The head of the Texas Department of Public Safety on Tuesday offered a brutal condemnation of the police response to the massacre at a Uvalde, Texas, elementary school last month, saying it was “an abject failure” that left defenseless children and teachers at the mercy of a gunman for more than an hour.

With his remarks, Steven C. McCraw, who directs the public safety agency, squarely cast blame on the school district’s police chief, Pedro “Pete” Arredondo, saying he made error after error during the May 24 slaughter at Robb Elementary School. A gunman stormed the school and killed 19 children and two teachers before dying in a shootout with law enforcement officials who finally pursued him into a classroom and opened fire.

McCraw’s remarks were a scathing opening to a special Texas state Senate committee meeting on gun violence and public safety, which was expected to include some of the most detailed official accounts of the Uvalde massacre. Since the shooting, some details have trickled out in news reports, but officials have largely stopped providing public updates on the investigations, after a series of accounts they provided after the shooting that authorities later amended or withdrew.

As he did just days after the attack, McCraw laid the blame for the law enforcement response squarely on Arredondo. McCraw said Arredondo was in charge of the scene. Arredondo has disputed this, telling the Texas Tribune he did not consider himself the scene’s commander. He has not responded to multiple interview requests from the Washington Post.

But in McCraw’s telling, Arredondo was the person who decided to keep officers outside for agonizing minute after minute.

“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 told the committee. “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.”

Three days after the massacre, McCraw had also pointed a finger at Arredondo, saying he made the “wrong decision” not to pursue the gunman after deeming him to be a barricaded gunman rather than an active shooter.

The decision described by McCraw runs counter to decades of police training, which has emphasized pursuing and stopping attackers ever since the Columbine High School massacre in 1999. McCraw invoked that training during his remarks Tuesday before the committee, saying the post-Columbine response to attacks was “unambiguous”: Pursue the attacker, stop the attacker.

But during the Uvalde massacre, McCraw said, Arredondo dawdled for more than an hour, waiting for a radio, rifles, shields, a SWAT group and, finally, an unnecessary key.

The hearing Tuesday elicited interest largely from members of the media scattered throughout the spacious Senate gallery. A few members of the public and law enforcement officers took seats next to tourists taking respite in the air-conditioned chamber from the 100-degree weather outside.

On the other side of the building, a three-person investigative committee also examining the police response was interviewing Arredondo. That committee, chaired by Republican Texas Rep. Dustin Burrows, spent three days interviewing witnesses and officials behind closed doors at city hall. They expect to deliver a report of their fact-finding in early to mid-July.

The hearing on Tuesday came after reports emerged indicating that police officers arrived at a hallway at Robb Elementary with rifles and at least one ballistic shield about 19 minutes after a gunman started firing, raising new questions and criticism about how authorities responded to the worst shooting at a U.S. school in almost a decade.

The Austin American-Statesman and the Texas Tribune reported Monday that authorities had reconstructed a timeline from the May 24 mass shooting, using both body-cam footage from the officers and surveillance video from the school.

A reconstructed timeline shows 11 officers who responded to the mass shooting were inside Robb Elementary three minutes after Ramos entered, according to the American-Statesman. Minutes after the gunman entered the school, Arredondo reportedly called a landline at the Uvalde Police Department for help.

“It’s an emergency right now,” he said, the American-Statesman reported. “We have him in the room. He’s got an AR-15.”

Arredondo added that he did not have a radio at the time. The chief told a dispatcher that responding officers “need to be outside of this building prepared.”

“Because we don’t have enough firepower right now,” he said, according to the American-Statesman. “It’s all pistols and he has an AR-15.”

But video obtained by the Texas outlets shows that at least two officers were seen carrying rifles. By 11:52 a.m. on May 24, officers were seen with rifles and at least one ballistic shield, the outlets reported. During this time, Arredondo was coordinating with a SWAT dispatcher to set up a team at a funeral home across the street.

“I need to get one rifle. Hold on,” he said, according to the Tribune. “I’m trying to set him. I’m trying to set him up.”

When one of the officers with the Texas Department of Public Safety arrived 20 minutes after Ramos entered the school, the agent asked whether children were still inside, according to the Tribune.

“If there is, then they just need to go in,” the agent told their colleagues, reported the Tribune.

After another officer said it was “unknown at this time,” the DPS fired back, “Y’all don’t know if there’s kids in there?”

“If there’s kids in there we need to go in there,” the agent said.

The only answer the DPS official received was from another officer on scene, according to the Tribune: “Whoever is in charge will determine that.”

“Well, there’s kids over here,” the agent replied. “So I’m getting kids out.”

As the state investigates the Uvalde shooting, the Justice Department is also reviewing the law enforcement response to the attack.

At the Tuesday hearing, lawmakers called for action during an emotional series of opening statements. Among those who urged action was state Democratic Sen. Roland Gutierrez, whose district represents Uvalde.

Gutierrez fought back tears as he talked about seeing little girls in coffins and hearing “the most gruesome stories from little kids and fourth-graders that I dare not say at this time.” The state senator recounted how he “felt like such a coward” by not being able to do anything to help comfort the families waiting to hear about the status of their children.

“Their silence turned into the most awful screams you could imagine,” he said. “These women and their husbands walked to their cars screaming and crying, sounds that are not normal tears, not normal crying.”

Gutierrez joined his Democratic colleagues in calling for “common-sense gun laws” that he told the committee the people of Uvalde are begging for nearly a month after the massacre.

“An 18-year-old shouldn’t be able to go into a store like 7-Eleven like he’s buying a Slurpee,” Gutierrez said. “Because that’s what happened.”

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