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In battered Uvalde, where a police chief is in hiding, grief gives way to calls for accountability

By Zach Despart, The Texas Tribune

In battered Uvalde, where a police chief is in hiding, grief gives way to calls for accountability” 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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UVALDE — Everyone in town is waiting to hear from Pete Arredondo.

As chief of the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District Police Department, it was his call to wait more than an hour for backup instead of ordering officers on scene to immediately charge the shooter who killed 19 students and two teachers at Robb Elementary School. The chief of the state police later said this was the “wrong decision, period.”

Now, Arredondo is a man in hiding, as calls for answers and accountability grow louder each day.

In the week since state police singled him out for blame, Arredondo has hardly been seen.

Police officers stand guard outside his home. He has declined to explain his actions, telling a television crew that staked out his office he would not do so until after the victims’ funerals. City officials, too, have assisted in the vanishing act. They canceled a previously scheduled public ceremony Tuesday and instead swore in Arredondo in secret for his latest role on the City Council.

[Uvalde school district’s police chief didn’t know about 911 calls coming from inside the school, lawmaker says]

Even state police complained this week that Arredondo has remained elusive to them, accusing him of not cooperating with a Texas Department of Public Safety investigation into the shooting, a claim Arredondo refuted. The New York Times reported Friday that the chief arrived on scene without a radio, hampering his ability to organize the response.

Residents here remain in mourning. Each day repeats a cycle of at least two funerals followed by processions to the cemetery on the west edge of town. Their grief, however, is giving way to frustration about how local officials have responded to the tragedy and conversations about how to hold them accountable.

For many, this starts with firing Arredondo and overhauling his department, which they believe failed the students it was supposed to keep safe.

“They were cowards,” said Salvador Hurtado, a retired farm worker, who said Arredondo should lose his job. “There was one man with a gun, and they waited and waited. … I read the signs on the police cars that say ‘protect and serve.’ Where was the protection?”

But residents here also expressed broader desire for transparency from city and school district officials, whom they feel have retreated from serving their constituents at a time they are needed most.

City Hall has locked its doors during business hours and declined to immediately provide any public records to reporters. The chief of the city police force, Daniel Rodriguez, has declined to answer questions about his officers’ response to the shooting. A Uvalde CISD official told a reporter, falsely, that the first school board meeting since the incident would be closed to the public.

At the special meeting, scheduled for Friday at 6 p.m., board members will decide whether to grant the superintendent more power during emergencies. A second agenda item allows the board to reassign, suspend or fire district employees, including Arredondo — whose name does not explicitly appear on the agenda.

Board members did not respond to requests for comment about their intentions. Whether Arredondo will attend the meeting, as he has in the past, is unknown.

Authorities prepare to evacuate students and teachers after a gunman entered Robb Elementary School in Uvalde on May 24, 2022.
Law enforcement officers prepared to evacuate students and teachers May 24 after a gunman entered Robb Elementary School in Uvalde. Credit: Courtesy of Pete Luna/Uvalde Leader News

Lydia Morales, who grew up in Uvalde, said local government has long been insular. She feels officials protect each other and give preferential treatment to friends and allies. She criticized Mayor Don McLaughlin for initially saying Arredondo would not be sworn in as planned. Arredondo was subsequently sworn in Monday at City Hall in a secret ceremony.

“He lied to the community of Uvalde,” Morales said. “But shame on Arredondo for even doing that. I can’t see how he would have the audacity.”

A familiar face

Arredondo, 50, became chief of the Uvalde CISD department in 2020. The tiny force of a half dozen officers, formed two years earlier, is responsible for security at the district’s eight schools. Officers also direct traffic and staff sporting events, and Arredondo said last year that the hiring of two officers would allow for a greater focus on narcotics.

The department also participated in active shooter trainings, including one in December, according to state records.

Arredondo is a Uvalde native who began his career in the city’s police department, where he spent 16 years, according to Texas Commission on Law Enforcement records. He spent the next 12 years in Laredo, first with the Webb County Sheriff’s Office and then United ISD police, before returning to his hometown. Arredondo told the Uvalde Leader-News he “didn’t even have to think twice” about applying once he saw the job opening.

“We are confident with our selection and impressed with his experience, knowledge and community involvement,” Superintendent Hal Harrell said after the school board unanimously approved the hire in February 2020. “Chief Arredondo is well-versed in the expanded expectations in student and school safety and will stay current as changes occur.”

Arredondo launched his political career this spring by announcing a bid for City Council in his district, which abuts Robb Elementary. He pledged to knock on every constituent’s door to introduce himself and hand out his phone number. At an April candidate forum, Arredondo said communication is the key to solving complicated issues.

“I guess to me, nothing’s complicated, everything has a solution,” he said at the time. “And that solution starts with communication.”

Arredondo was elected May 7 with 69% of the vote.

Jorge Botello, 68, said Arredondo is well known and well liked around town, a familiar presence providing security at football games and other events. He said Arredondo is an avid fisherman and often posts pictures of his catches on Facebook.

Botello said he’s unsure how much blame Arredondo deserves but he understands why some residents are angry at the chief and agreed public officials should be held accountable. But he also said he understood why Arredondo has avoided appearing in public since state officials criticized his conduct during the shooting.

A campaign sign for Pete Arredondo sits outside a home blocks away from Robb Elementary School in Uvalde on June 1, 2022. Arredondo, Police Chief of Ulvade CISD, was a part of the six-person force that led the response to the mass shooting at Robb Elementary.
A campaign sign for Pete Arredondo sat outside a home Wednesday blocks away from Robb Elementary School. Arredondo, police chief of Uvalde CISD, was a part of the six-person force that led the response to the mass shooting last week at the school. Credit: Kaylee Greenlee Beal for The Texas Tribune

“If I were in his shoes, I wouldn’t go into the City Council right now,” Botello said. “I would just stay low, just to ease the public tension because a lot of people are angry. Nothing you say will make someone say ‘oh, it’s OK.’ If my grandkids or my kids had gotten killed … I would be really upset.”

Friends and neighbors in Arredondo’s neighborhood, who did not want their names published given the scrutiny he now faces, described him as a kind man who cares about his community. One friend who is a retired U.S. Border Patrol agent cautioned against rushing to judgment before all the facts about the shooting are known. He also questioned why the state DPS would lay blame squarely on Arredondo when state troopers also responded to the shooting.

“How come DPS didn’t intervene?” he asked. “They had more law enforcement there.”

A relative who declined to be interviewed said Arredondo is not the bad guy some have made him out to be and suggested the chief needs to speak up for himself.

Many residents said they are unsure who to blame in part because the authorities have repeatedly changed their narrative of what happened. In the three days following the shooting, state officials said one of Arredondo’s officers engaged the shooter before he entered the school, then said that was false; they said a school employee had failed to lock the door through which the shooter entered, then said that, too, was not true.

Gov. Greg Abbott said he had been misled by police shortly after DPS Director Steve McCraw said Arredondo’s decision to wait for specialized officers before attempting to engage the gunman was “the wrong decision, period.”

[Gov. Greg Abbott says he was misled about poor police response to Uvalde shooting]

State Sen. Roland Gutierrez, a Democrat who represents Uvalde, told reporters Thursday he was dismayed that local and state officials have not been forthcoming with an accurate, detailed account of their actions during the shooting. Among the outstanding questions is why Arredondo, with his tiny police force, remained incident commander even though larger police agencies with more active shooter experience also responded.

“We need transparency and that hasn’t happened here,” he said. “We’ve gotten some bad answers. We’ve gotten information that the next day turns out to be different.”

And Gutierrez disclosed that he had learned from state authorities that the 911 calls made by students during the shooting would have been routed to the Uvalde city police and not the school district police department, a planning failure that could have deprived Arredondo of critical information on which to base his decisions.

An Uvalde County sheriff’s deputy who was among the first responders to the shooting, however, said dispatchers did relay over the radio that students were making 911 calls from inside the adjoining classrooms where the gunman was. With his back flat against the brick exterior of the school, the group of four officers with him, including Border Patrol agents and a Zapata County sheriff’s deputy, questioned why no one had given a command to rush the shooter.

“We’re against that wall, hearing gunshots,” said the deputy, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak with reporters. “I was saying, what are we waiting for?”

A town worn out

Ten days have passed since the massacre. The passage of time is marked by the height of flowers stacked at the memorial in the town square, now sitting 3 feet high in some places. The afternoon heat has wilted the leaves on wreaths commemorating the dead.

Imelda Garcia, 49, restocks melons at her mother Argelia Arellano’s produce stand in Uvalde on June 3, 2022.
Imelda Garcia, 49, restocked melons Friday at her mother’s produce stand in Uvalde on June 3. The family has noticed a lack of Uvalde police presence in town after the school shooting. Credit: Kaylee Greenlee Beal for The Texas Tribune

Residents express an overwhelming sense of fatigue. From keeping track of visitations at the two funeral homes in town. From fielding reporters’ questions on their front porches. From attempting to make sense of how the shooter was not an outsider who came here to do evil, but a teenager who attended school here and worked at the Wendy’s.

They have already seen the memorials, back before the rose petals curled and the prayer candles burned to the wick. Most of the visitors now to the town square and another memorial along the sun-baked sidewalk by the school are out-of-towners who wish to pay their respects

In the quiet neighborhoods and side streets, there is a desire to return to normal life — but for that life to be better.

From her family’s produce stand on Main Street, Angelia Arellano has watched police cars from Dallas, Houston and the Rio Grande Valley drive by in the past week. Officers from across the state have come to assist their local counterparts. She said the city police department appears to have retreated from public view at precisely the moment they should be out in the community as it grieves.

Their absence reinforces Arellano’s belief, forged in a lifetime of living in Uvalde, that the police cannot be relied upon. She said they refused to respond when she once called about a man who was harassing her son.

“The police aren’t very effective,” she said in Spanish. “If there’s no blood and no one has been killed, they don’t come.”

Mary Rodriguez, 86, sat outside in the shade Thursday afternoon chatting up her neighbor, Tonita Torres. Like almost everyone in this community of 15,000, Rodriguez has a personal connection to the victims.

Her children attended Robb Elementary. She remembers giving popsicles to little Joe Garcia, who grew up to be a grocery manager and suffered a fatal heart attack two days after his wife, a teacher, was killed in the shooting. Nine of the children who died went to her church.

Mary Rodriguez, 86, sits in the living room of her home in Uvalde on June 3, 2022. She used to host church events and communion celebrations there for several of the children who were killed or affected by the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School last week.
Mary Rodriguez, 86, used to host church events and communion celebrations at her Uvalde home for several of the children who were killed or affected by the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School last week. Credit: Kaylee Greenlee Beal for The Texas Tribune

Through tears, Rodriguez said her heart breaks at the thought that students could have been saved if the police had acted sooner. She said her faith dictates her to let God judge Arredondo. She said she feels local police are not held in high regard by Uvalde residents and that they have been slow to respond whenever she has called. Their failure to act decisively during the shooting, she said, is inexcusable.

“We don’t want those policemen to be here,” Rodriguez said. “I pray that they get new jobs somewhere else.”

Alexa Ura and Jason Beeferman contributed reporting.

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