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Authorities took an hour to stop Uvalde gunman, raising questions about law enforcement response

By Joshua Fechter and Reese Oxner, The Texas Tribune

Authorities took an hour to stop Uvalde gunman, raising questions about law enforcement response” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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A gunman who killed 19 children and two teachers at a South Texas elementary school walked unopposed onto school grounds, state law enforcement officials said Thursday — and once he was inside, it took police an hour to stop him.

In the days after the massacre at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, officials with the Texas Department of Public Safety said the shooter encountered a police officer employed by the school district before charging through a back door — and gave conflicting accounts about whether the officer fired at the gunman.

Agency officials now say there was no police officer on campus when the shooter first arrived — but did not explain why they first believed there was.

The gunman crashed a truck in a ditch near the school at 11:28 a.m., fired at two passersby on the street, then entered the school 12 minutes later through a back door before police arrived, DPS officials said Thursday.

“He was not confronted by anybody,” Victor Escalon, a DPS official, said during a press conference Thursday. The agency is leading the investigation into the shooting along with Uvalde police.

The law enforcement response to the active shooter call has drawn mounting scrutiny in the days since the massacre. State law enforcement officials have given vague and conflicting answers on what exactly happened after the gunman arrived at the school, and parents have criticized police for not acting quickly enough to stop the shooter.

At a Wednesday press conference in Uvalde, DPS Director Steve McCraw said that a school police officer “engaged” with the gunman before he entered the school but did not exchange gunfire with the gunman. Other DPS officials were quoted in media reports saying there was an exchange of gunfire at that moment.

Later on Wednesday, a DPS spokesperson told the Tribune that the gunman “encountered a [Uvalde school district] officer, but at this time we do not know if they exchanged gunfire. They’re still in the process of interviewing him, and everyone else.”

After a chaotic and confusing press conference Thursday in 90-degree heat, the state’s top law enforcement agency still has not answered key questions, including why it took so long for officers to stop the 18-year-old gunman and why an entrance to the school appeared to be unlocked, allowing him to enter the building in the middle of the school day.

Escalon declined to answer several questions from reporters and to clarify discrepancies in previous statements by agency officials, saying authorities “will circle back.”

He offered new details about the timeline of the law enforcement response Thursday, saying local police officers were the first to arrive at the school — about four minutes after the gunman entered — but had to fall back after taking gunfire. Officers tried to negotiate with the shooter, he said, but the man “did not respond.”

Escalon said most of the gunfire from the shooter occurred when he first entered the school but added that he continued to fire shots — some at police — as officers attempted to make contact.

It took officers an hour to kill the gunman once he was inside as law enforcement officers called “everyone that’s in the area” to help, then waited for “specialty equipment” and body armor and organized a tactical team to reenter the school, Escalon said.

Asked whether officers should have gone in sooner, Escalon said, “That’s a tough question. … I don’t have enough information to answer that question yet.”

Uvalde police received the first call about the gunman around 11:20 a.m., when his grandmother called 911 after he shot her in the face at their home about two minutes from the school. The gunman then fled in her pickup truck, crashing it in a nearby ditch — prompting a 911 call from a neighbor, a DPS spokesperson told The Washington Post.

At 1:06 p.m. Tuesday, the Uvalde Police Department posted on its Facebook page that the shooter was in police custody. Authorities later reported that the shooter was shot to death by a Border Patrol agent who responded to the scene.

“The bottom line is that law enforcement was there, they did engage immediately, they did contain him in the classroom,” McCraw said at the Wednesday press conference. At the same press conference, Gov. Greg Abbott praised the officers at the scene and said “it could have been worse” without their intervention.

Videos have circulated on social media showing frustrated parents confronting police officers outside the school while the gunman was inside — and debating whether to charge into the school themselves.

Onlookers shouted, “Go in there! Go in there!” at officers outside of the school after the attack began, but officers did not, according to a resident who spoke with The Associated Press. At one point, federal marshals handcuffed a parent who encouraged officers to enter the premises, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Amid the confusion, U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro called on the FBI on Thursday to “use their maximum authority to investigate and provide a full report on the timeline, the law enforcement response and how 21 Texans were killed.”

Kenneth Trump, a Cleveland-based school safety consultant, said Thursday’s press conference left key questions unanswered — starting with why a school door may have been left unlocked.

Trump said the long gap between the time police arrived on the scene and the time the gunman was taken down is concerning, but there are still lots of unknowns, including how equipped local law enforcement was to handle a gunman at a school.

“The frustration for parents is real when they hear not only that [police] got in but they couldn’t breach — or did not breach — that classroom,” he said. “The question is not only did they have the adequate manpower, but did they have the equipment to handle that and did they have prior training, joint partnership, exercises?”

Trump said that after the mass shooting at Colorado’s Columbine High School in 1999 — when two students fatally shot 12 classmates and a teacher and injured 21 others before killing themselves — law enforcement has moved away from the tactics employed at the time of waiting and setting a perimeter during an active shooter situation.

Instead, police are now trained to immediately enter and try to subdue the shooter, even if they’re alone on the scene, he said.

“Columbine changed the entire landscape of enforcement tactical response to active shooters because it became clear that these incidents unfold in minutes,” he said. “You have mass loss of life, the longer you go on.”

Former Austin and Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo tweeted Thursday, “We don’t have all of the particulars right now, but when gunfire is ringing out with, police are trained, expected, and required to engage, engage, engage. This is a moral and ethical obligation.”

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