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“Cascading failures”: Justice Department blasts law enforcement’s botched response to Uvalde school shooting

By Lomi Kriel, The Texas Tribune and ProPublica, and Alejandro Serrano, The Texas Tribune

“Cascading failures”: Justice Department blasts law enforcement’s botched response to Uvalde school shooting” 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 — U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland said some victims of the 2022 Uvalde school shooting would have survived if Texas law enforcement officers — who waited more than an hour to confront the gunman — had followed “generally accepted practices.”

Those assertions came Thursday after the U.S. Justice Department released a withering report into the hundreds of Texas law enforcement officers’ fumbled response to the 2022 Robb Elementary School shooting, finding “cascading failures of leadership, decision-making, tactics, policy and training.”

The long-anticipated 575-page report detailed the many catastrophic errors of the May 24, 2022 response, but concluded the most significant was that officers should have immediately recognized that it was an active shooter situation and confronted the gunman, who was with victims in two adjoining classrooms.

Garland called the response “a failure that should not have happened” and said he apologized to the relatives of the 21 killed and the 17 injured in the deadliest school shooting in Texas history.

“Their loved ones deserved better,” Garland said.

The report noted that since the 1999 Columbine High School shooting, American law enforcement officers have been trained to prioritize stopping the shooter while everything else, including officer safety, is secondary.

“These efforts must be undertaken regardless of the equipment and personnel available,” the report found. “This did not occur during the Robb Elementary shooting response.”

[“I’m so scared”: 911 recordings reveal fear and urgency of those trapped in Uvalde elementary school]

Instead, officers wrongly treated the situation as a barricaded suspect, even as children and teachers pleaded for help with 911 operators. The report noted “multiple stimuli indicating that there was an active threat,” including that an Uvalde school police officer early on told other law enforcement that his wife, a teacher in Room 112, was shot. It took 77 minutes for officers to confront the shooter. Nineteen students and two teachers died that day and 17 others were injured in one of the country’s worst school shootings.

The report also found failures in leadership, command and coordination, noting that as more officers, including supervisors from other agencies, descended on the school, no one set up an incident command structure or took charge of the scene.

Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta condemned the medical response, saying that after police breached the classroom and killed the gunman, dead victims were placed on ambulances and children with bullet wounds were put on school buses.

Gupta also criticized misinformation and conflicting accounts that officials disseminated to Uvalde residents and reporters after the shooting.

Supervisors from the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District, the Uvalde Police Department, the Uvalde County Sheriff’s Office, and the Texas Department of Public Safety “demonstrated no urgency” in taking control of the incident, which exacerbated the communication problems and overall confusion.

Some failures may have been partly a result of policy and training deficiencies, the report found, noting that the school district police department suggested wrongly in prior training that active shooter situations can transition into hostage or barricaded incidents. DPS lacked an active shooter policy, as did the county sheriff’s office and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the parent agency of the 149 Border Patrol agents who responded.

The report also found that key officers, including Uvalde Police Department Acting Chief Mariano Pargas who arrived within minutes of the shooting, had no active shooter or incident command training.

[Twenty months after deadly Uvalde school shooting, multiple investigations have yet to be released]

The vast majority of 380 officers from more than a dozen local, state and federal agencies who responded to the school had never trained together, “contributing to difficulties in coordination and communication.” The report said the “lack of pre-planning hampered even well-prepared agencies from functioning at their best.”

Among its recommendations, the report said that officers should “never” treat an active shooter with access to victims as a barricaded suspect. Law enforcement training academies must ensure active shooter training instructs how officers should distinguish between active threats and barricaded or hostage situations. And officers should be prepared to approach the threat using just the tools they have with them, which is often a standard firearm, the report noted.

The federal review by the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services was announced just five days after the shooting. It was led by Orange County Sheriff John Mina, the incident commander during the 2016 Pulse Nightclub massacre in Orlando. In that incident, officers waited three hours to take down the shooter who had barricaded himself with victims in a bathroom.

A Justice Department and National Policing Institute review of that Florida law enforcement response was far less critical than the Uvalde report. It found that Florida officers mostly followed best practices, although it stated the law enforcement agencies in Orlando should update their training and policies.

In the Uvalde review, the federal team reviewed more than 14,100 pieces of data and documentation, including policies, training logs, body camera footage, audio recordings, interview transcripts and photographs. The team visited Uvalde nine times, spending 54 days there, and conducted more than 260 interviews with people from more than 30 organizations and agencies, including law enforcement officers, school staff, medical personnel, survivors and victims’ families.

The Uvalde report’s release comes two months after ProPublica, the Texas Tribune and PBS’ Frontline published an investigation into the response after gaining access to a trove of investigative materials, including more than 150 interviews with officers and dozens of body cameras. The material showed that the children at Robb Elementary followed active shooter protocols, while many of the officers did not. It detailed how officers treated the situation as a barricaded suspect rather than an active threat even as evidence mounted quickly that children and teachers were injured and with the shooter.

[“Someone tell me what to do”]

The investigation also analyzed the active shooter training of the local and state police officers who responded prior to the gunman being stopped, finding some had not taken any active shooter training based on their state records. Of those who had, they most commonly only received the training once during their careers and hadn’t taken it in four years or longer.

The Tribune also revealed that some officers were afraid to confront the gunman because he had a deadly AR-15 rifle. With the Washington Post, ProPublica and the Tribune found that the medical response also was flawed and that two children and a teacher were still alive when they were rescued more than an hour later, but then died.

This is a developing story and will continue to be updated.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2024/01/18/uvalde-school-shooting-federal-investigation-police-response/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

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