UVALDE, Texas — Within minutes after a gunman began shooting, officers descended on Robb Elementary School. Local police of the city of Uvalde. County sheriff’s deputies. Federal Border Patrol agents.
But none of the growing number of agencies had control over the dozens of officers at the scene Tuesday of what would become the deadliest school shooting since the Sandy Elementary School massacre. Hook ten years ago.
That fell to the head of a small police department set up just four years ago to help keep Uvalde’s eight schools safe. Its leader, Pedro Arredondo, had ordered the assembled officers not to storm the two adjoining classrooms where the gunman had already fired more than 100 rounds at the walls, the door and the terrified fourth-graders locked inside. inside with him, state police said.
As Uvalde embarked on a holiday weekend of roadside prayers, free public barbecues and an all-night vigil on Saturday, attention focused on the critical decision made by Chief Arredondo, a veteran multi-department officer who won election to city council two weeks before the shooting. .
The extent to which some law enforcement officers at the scene disagreed with the decision to hold back became more evident on Saturday as more became known of their frustrations in the prolonged chaos Tuesday’s shooting.
Specially trained Border Patrol agents, who arrived more than 40 minutes after the shooting began, had shouted for permission to enter and confront the shooter. “What is your problem?” they asked, according to an official briefed on the response.
Inside classrooms, children whose classmates lay dead around them silently called 911 over and over, sometimes pleading with dispatchers to send the police to rescue them.
Roland Gutierrez, who represents the region in the state Senate, said the family of one of the children killed told him their daughter was hit by a single bullet in the back and bled to death. “It’s possible she could have been saved if they had done their job,” Mr Gutierrez said.
Eventually, the police gathered outside were allowed to enter the classroom. A team of tactical officers from Border Patrol and local law enforcement broke through the gate and killed 18-year-old gunman Salvador Ramos after killing 19 children and two teachers inside.
The decision to wait appeared to those officers at the time, and to many police experts afterwards, as out of step with practices in place in departments across the country for the two decades since the fatal shooting at Columbine High. School in 1999. .
From Opinion: The Texas School Shooting
Times Opinion commentary on the elementary school massacre in Uvalde, Texas.
“Columbine’s change hasn’t necessarily been accepted by agencies across the country, and that’s what you’ve seen in this situation,” said Chuck Wexler, head of the Police Executive Research Forum, a think tank. based in Washington. “There are still departments in this country where there is ambiguity about this policy.”
Others, including some who provided active shooting formations, advised that rushing is not always the best approach. “When the story is finally told, he did exactly what they were trained to do and based on pragmatic experience in the fog of war,” said John-Michael Keyes, whose group organizes trainings. shooting ranges for Texas police and school districts. of Chief Arredondo.
Two Uvalde Police Department officers were shot through the locked classroom door within minutes of the attack and fell back into the hallway with grazed wounds.
Officers were advised, under Chief Arredondo, that the situation had gone from one with an active shooter – which would require attacking the shooter immediately, before even saving any other children – to one with a barricaded subject, which would require a slower approach. , officials said.
That appeared to be an incorrect assessment, according to State Police Director Steven McCraw: Gunshots could be heard sporadically inside the bedrooms, including during continuous calls to 911 by the children.
Part of the investigation into the shooting and police response focused on whether Chief Arredondo was aware of incoming 911 calls, suggesting a possible breakdown in communications during the chaotic and deadly event, according to an informed official. of the investigation, which is ongoing. led by the Texas Rangers.
Investigators were also investigating whether an attempt was made during the standoff to remove command of the incident from Chief Arredondo.
Gil Kerlikowske, a former Seattle police chief who later served as chief of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said he was surprised to learn that the district police chief school, which has just six officers, was the incident commander during the shooting. .
While the school grounds may have been under district jurisdiction, Mr. Kerlikowske said, he would have expected the district to quickly defer control to the city police department, which would have more experience. with major incidents. He said city police could then hand over control to an agency like the Texas Department of Public Safety, once they are established on the scene.
But, Mr. Kerlikowske said, he could also see a situation where the larger agency might need to step in and pressure the first commander to relinquish control.
Brandon Judd, head of the Border Patrol Council, the officers’ union, said under no circumstances would Border Patrol officers seek to assume command themselves.
“Every formation given, you have an incident commander, and that incident commander has the authority to make all the decisions,” Mr Judd said on Saturday. That’s what they’re trained to do, he said. And when officers arrive long after the situation begins, he said, it’s even more important that they follow the chain of command.
Border Patrol agents who arrived at the chaotic scene on Tuesday were surprised at the absence of specially equipped and trained officers from the local police department who were able to raid classrooms, the official said. aware of the federal agency’s response.
The Uvalde Police Department, which has employed about 40 sworn officers in recent years, uses some of its members as a kind of SWAT team, often for drug busts, according to department annual reports. It was unclear why a Border Patrol team that was 40 minutes away was brought in to lead the assault instead.
The response failures likely extended beyond decisions made by a small police department, said Gutierrez, the state senator.
“How can you blame it all on a school district police chief with six cops?” said Mr. Gutierrez. “Everyone has failed here.”
Among the first 911 calls from a gunman on the loose Tuesday were not from the school but from a nearby house. The shooter, who lived with his grandmother a few blocks away, had shot her in the face – a bullet hitting near her right eye – and fled to the school with his guns, two rifles. type AR-15.
Maria and Gilberto Gallegos, two retired neighbors who were outside at the time, heard two gunshots directly across the street. Suddenly, the shooter jumped out the front door with a backpack and a gym bag and jumped into his grandmother’s van.
“He didn’t know how to drive,” said Gilbert Gallegos, the couple’s son, who relayed their story. “He was just revving up, hitting the gas. Eventually it takes off and the tires are throwing rocks everywhere.
At that point, he said, the shooter’s grandmother, Celia Martinez Gonzales, came out of her house, her gait steady but her face dripping with blood.
“She says in Spanish to my parents, ‘Look what happened,'” Gilbert Gallegos said. Ms. Gallegos called 911 – first at 11.33am and then two minutes later. The police arrived soon after, followed by an ambulance.
Even before they arrived, he said, his parents could hear gunfire in the Robb Elementary School area.
Chief Arredondo did not respond to multiple requests for comment on his department’s response to the shooting. Neither Uvalde Police Department Chief Daniel Rodriguez nor several other members of the department and school district leadership.
In many cities across the country, including New York City, city police oversee officers who patrol schools; Texas school districts have dedicated police departments that operate independently.
The Uvalde Consolidated School District Police Department was formed just four years ago. Prior to that, the city’s police department provided school officers, said Mickey Gerdes, who was then chairman of the board. But the district and department couldn’t overcome scheduling conflicts and cost discussions.
Mr. Gerdes said part of the decision to change was in response to the increase in school shootings and a desire to make schools safer. (The school policeman assigned to Robb Elementary was not on campus when Tuesday’s attack began.)
Chief Arredondo began leading the department in early 2020, a month before the pandemic hit.
He had worked as a high-ranking official in the Uvalde Police Department and for the Webb County Sheriff’s Department along the border. Prior to returning to Uvalde, Chief Arredondo led a school district police department in the border town of Laredo, where he had a reputation as “a badass in law enforcement, no nonsense.” since his time at the county sheriff’s office, Sergio Mora said. , political consultant in Laredo.
During Chief Arredondo’s two years, he has expanded the department’s tiny ranks, adding two officers last year.
Also in those two years, the school district held at least two trainings on how to deal with a shooter opening fire in a school.
Mr. Gerdes, the former school board president, said he has known Chief Arredondo for more than two decades. He said he feared criticism of his handling of Tuesday’s shooting reflected a desire for a scapegoat. “He’s a good man,” Mr Gerdes said. “He’s a good man.”
But revelations about how long the officers spent entering the classroom have sparked Uvalde’s anger and demands for an explanation.
Jay Martin, 48, who lives near the school, said he ran to the scene with a friend after hearing gunshots for the first time.
His own daughter, now 12, had once been a pupil of Eva Mireles, one of the teachers killed, he said on Saturday as he stood outside a memorial to the victims on a Central place.
“Why did they take so long? It’s part of being a police officer to put your life on the line for someone else,” he said.
Now, he added, “there are a lot of angry people”.
Frances Robles, Serge F. Kovaleski and Karen Zraick contributed report. Jack Beg contributed to the research.