Following the May 24 tragedy which took place at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, TX, a new report from The Texas Tribune sheds a startling light on the events that took place that day, as well as the who were officers forced to wait while the shooter roamed the school.
According to the special report, many of the officers on the ground at the school arrived on the scene but were told to wait. Early in the 77 minutes that the incident lasted, many of the officers were urging those in command to act.
“Y’all don’t know if there’s kids in there?” said a special agent at the Texas Department of Public Safety, “If there’s kids in there we need to go in there.”
“Whoever is in charge will determine that,” came the reply.
But during most of those 77 minutes, despite the urgent pleas from officers and parents amassed outside, officers stayed put outside rooms 111 and 112, stationed on either end of a wide hallway with sky blue and green walls and bulletin boards displaying children’s artwork. Ramos fired at least four sets of rounds — including the initial spray of fire that likely killed many of his victims instantaneously.
After the special agent’s comment, nearly another hour passed before a tactical team from the Border Patrol breached the classroom doors and killed the gunman.
In the weeks since the tragedy in Uvalde, questions have swirled around the actions of police and whether some lives could have been saved if officers confronted the barricaded gunman sooner. Authorities have shared conflicting information about who was in charge, who confronted the shooter and when. A debate over whether the locked classroom doors could be breached gave way to the discovery that they may never have been locked at all.
Meanwhile, at least three investigations — by the U.S. Department of Justice, the Texas Legislature, and the local district attorney, Christina Mitchell Busbee — are reviewing records and interviewing witnesses to evaluate the law enforcement response.
Public understanding of the response to the tragedy has been marred by refusals by state and local agencies to release public records, efforts by local officials to bar journalists from public meetings, and the closed-door nature of the hearings held by state lawmakers. The secrecy has already prompted Texas Monthly to ask, “Will We Ever Know the Truth About Uvalde?”
In the Tribune’s investigation of the records, they reviewed a timeline of events compiled by law enforcement, as well as surveillance footage and transcripts of radio traffic and phone calls from the day of the shooting.
The details were confirmed by a senior official at the Department of Public Safety. The investigation is still in the early stages, and the understanding of what happened could still change as video records are synced and enhanced. Presently, records and footage show that a well-equipped group of local officers entered the school almost immediately on the day of the incident and then pulled back once the shooter began firing from inside the classroom. Officers waited for more than an hour to re-engage the gunman.
The Uvalde schools police chief Pete Arredondo told The Texas Tribune that officers tried the doors, found them locked, and had to wait for a master key to unlock them.
He also claimed that they were underprepared and outgunned, armed only with pistols. However, this report says these claims are not true, as officers armed with rifles and tools to bypass doors were apparently on the scene shortly after these events began.
“They had the tools,” said Terry Nichols, a former Seguin police chief and active-shooter expert. “Tactically, there’s lots of different ways you could tackle this. … But it takes someone in charge, in front, making and executing decisions, and that simply did not happen.”
Here are some key findings from these records and materials:
- No security footage from inside the school showed police officers attempting to open the doors to classrooms 111 and 112, which were connected by an adjoining door. Arredondo told the Tribune that he tried to open one door and another group of officers tried to open another, but that the door was reinforced and impenetrable. Those attempts were not caught in the footage reviewed by the Tribune. Some law enforcement officials are skeptical that the doors were ever locked.
- Within the first minutes of the law enforcement response, an officer said the Halligan (a firefighting tool that is also sometimes spelled hooligan) was on site. It wasn’t brought into the school until an hour after the first officers entered the building. Authorities didn’t use it and instead waited for keys.
- Officers had access to four ballistic shields inside the school during the standoff with the gunman, according to a law enforcement transcript. The first arrived 58 minutes before officers stormed the classrooms. The last arrived 30 minutes before.
- Multiple Department of Public Safety officers — up to eight, at one point — entered the building at various times while the shooter was holed up. Many quickly left to pursue other duties, including evacuating children, after seeing the number of officers already there. At least one of the officers expressed confusion and frustration about why the officers weren’t breaching the classroom, but was told that no order to do so had been given.
- At least some officers on the scene seemed to believe that Arredondo was in charge inside the school, and at times Arredondo seemed to be issuing orders such as directing officers to evacuate students from other classrooms. That contradicts Arredondo’s assertion that he did not believe he was running the law enforcement response. Arredondo’s lawyer, George E. Hyde, said the chief will not elaborate on his interview with the Tribune, given the ongoing investigation.
Despite the officers and resources available, no clear leadership played a significant role in the delayed response from the officers on the scene. The officers who entered the school at that time included DPS troopers who walked into the hallway before noon and then left after seeing how many officers were already there.
The special agent from DPS who urged officers to go into the classroom stayed for six minutes before leaving to clear other rooms, rescuing a student found hiding in a bathroom. More troopers arrived just minutes or seconds before the tactical team from the Border Patrol stormed the classroom, but did not participate in the breach.
Law enforcement experts say Arredondo was the rightful incident commander, though they were baffled why he abandoned his radios, declined to take charge and lacked access to classrooms. He has been particularly scrutinized for not taking control of the situation, as he didn’t consider himself the incident commander that day and never issued orders to anyone during the shooting. Yet at 11:50 a.m., according to body-camera transcripts, an officer says, “The chief is in charge.”
“At this point it’s clear that a multitude of errors in judgment combined to turn a bad situation into a catastrophe,” said Katherine Schweit, a former FBI agent who co-authored the agency’s foremost research on mass shootings. “The law enforcement rarely thinks their response is textbook, [but] I can’t think of another incident in the United States where it appears so many missed opportunities occurred to get it right.”
While many of the officers on the scene clearly wanted to act as the event was unfolding, it’s also clear that a lack of leadership, as well as unclear directions from leadership severely hindered their actions that day.