UVALDE, Texas — Police officials who responded to the deadly Uvalde, Texas, elementary school shooting waited far too long to confront the gunman, acted with “no urgency” in establishing a command post and communicated inaccurate information to grieving families, according to a Justice Department report released Thursday that identifies “cascading failures” in law enforcement’s handling of the massacre.
The report, the most comprehensive federal accounting of the maligned police response to the May 24, 2022, shooting at Robb Elementary School, catalogs a sweeping array of training, communication, leadership and technology problems that federal officials say contributed to the crisis lasting far longer than necessary.
All the while, the report says, terrified students inside the classrooms called 911 and agonized parents begged officers to go in.
“Had law enforcement agencies followed generally accepted practices in active shooter situations and gone right after the shooter and stopped him, lives would have been saved and people would have survived,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said Thursday at a news conference in Uvalde after Justice Department officials briefed family members on the findings of the investigation.
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Even for a mass shooting that has already been the subject of intense scrutiny and in-depth examinations — an earlier report by Texas lawmakers, for instance, faulted law enforcement at every level with failing “to prioritize saving innocent lives over their own safety” — the nearly 600-page Justice Department report adds to the public understanding of how officers failed to stop an attack that killed 19 children and two staff members.
The flawed initial response was compounded in the following days by an ineptitude that added to family members’ anguish, according to the report.
One family member spent hours pulling glass out of an injured son’s body because some of the surviving children were not screened for medical care. A county district attorney told families that they would need to wait for autopsy results before death notifications were made, prompting some to yell: “What, our kids are dead? No, no!”
Hospital staff “untrained in delivering painful news” told some family members that their loved ones died, while in other cases, families received incorrect information suggesting that a child survived when they had not. At one point, an official told waiting families that another bus of survivors was coming, but that was untrue.
“Mirroring the failures of the law enforcement response, state and local agencies failed to coordinate, leading to inaccurate and incomplete information being provided to anxious family and community members and the public,” said Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta.
The law enforcement response was massive, comprising at least 380 personnel from 24 local, county, state and federal agencies.
The problems began almost immediately with a flawed assumption by officers that the shooter was barricaded, or otherwise contained, even as he continued to fire shots.
That “mindset permeated throughout much of the incident response” as police, rather than rushing inside the classrooms to end the carnage, waited more than an hour to confront the gunman in what the report called a costly “lack of urgency.”
The gunman, Salvador Ramos, was killed about 77 minutes after police arrived on the scene, when a tactical team finally went into a classroom to take him down.
“An active shooter with access to victims should never be considered and treated as a barricaded subject,” the report says, with the word “never” emphasized in italics.
In other errors, the report says, police acted with “no urgency” in establishing a command center, creating confusion among police about who was in charge.
Then-school district police chief, Pete Arredondo, discarded his radios on arrival, deeming them unnecessary. Though he tried to communicate by phone with officers in the school hallway, “unfortunately, on multiple occasions, he directed officers intending to gain entry into the classrooms to stop, because he appeared to determine that other victims should first be removed from nearby classrooms to prevent further injury.”
Uvalde, a community of more than 15,000 about 85 miles southwest of San Antonio, continues to struggle with the trauma left by the killings and remains divided on the issue of accountability. Uvalde County District Attorney Christina Mitchell says she’s still considering whether to bring criminal charges.
President Joe Biden said in a statement Thursday that the report identified “multiple points of failure that hold lessons for the future” and that “no community should have to go through” what Uvalde did.
In Texas, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott initially praised the officers’ courage, saying the reason the shooting was “not worse is because law enforcement officials did what they do” and that they were brave in “running toward gunfire for the singular purpose of trying to save lives.”
That narrative crumbled under scrutiny, as a report from a panel of state lawmakers and investigations by journalists laid bare how a mass of officers went in and out of the school with weapons drawn but didn’t enter the classroom where the shooting was taking place.
“The actions of the responding officers, combined with the ‘heroic’ storyline that started with (a spokesperson for the Texas Department of Public Safety) and continued the next day during the Governor’s and director’s news conference, dealt a serious blow to public confidence in local and state law enforcement,” the report states.
The city of Uvalde said in a statement that it requested the federal investigation and fully cooperated with it and “already implemented changes in leadership, new personnel, new training, and new equipment.”
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