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“The families deserve more”: Uvalde city report clears local officers of wrongdoing

By Alejandro Serrano and William Melhado, The Texas Tribune

“The families deserve more”: Uvalde city report clears local officers of wrongdoing” 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 — A city-commissioned independent review of Uvalde police’s response to the Robb Elementary School shooting cleared local officers of wrongdoing, infuriating parents of the 19 children killed in the massacre and at least two city council members who rebuked the report after it was released Thursday.

City officials hired private investigator Jesse Prado, a retired Austin police detective, to conduct the review into the response from the city’s police department to the May 24, 2022 mass shooting that also resulted in the deaths of two teachers and injured 17 others.

The findings of the report were presented in a question-and-response format with Prado at a city council meeting and the actual 182-page report was released later Thursday after city officials shared it with families. Prado said the review identified training, communication and leadership lapses, but he also commended some of the city’s officers and characterized their actions as in “good faith” — contradicting findings of previous audits by state and federal officials.

Those reviews have illustrated a catastrophic law enforcement failure in which children remained trapped with the gunman for more than an hour as nearly 400 law enforcement officers arrived at the school and encountered a chaotic scene without leadership.

Several people walked out of the impromptu council chambers roughly 40 minutes in when Prado said one of the issues that police encountered was crowd control. Some families tried to breach police tape to run into the school and try rescuing their children, some of whom ultimately died while others had called their parents and 911 pleading for help.

Following the presentation and right before the public hearing, Prado left.

Kimberly Mata-Rubio, whose daughter Lexi was among the children killed, slammed a podium in the civic center and in between tears demanded that Prado return to the meeting. A crowd then began chanting, “Bring him back!” One person shouted, “Coward.”

Prado returned five minutes later and sat with an expressionless face, underneath a big white cowboy hat he did not once remove, for the following hour as relatives of those killed castigated him and dismissed his audit as “bullshit,” “a joke” and disrespectful.

“They chose their lives over the lives of children and teachers, and there’s no policy change [that] will eliminate their fear,” Mata-Rubio said in calling for the firing of three officers who remain on the city’s police force.

Brett Cross, whose son Uziyah was killed by the shooter, approached the podium with AJ Martinez, one of the children who survived the shooting.

“I want you to look at this child,” Cross said. “Good faith for 77 minutes? The true heroes are those that passed, those teachers, the survivors are heroes.”

After the public speakers, City Council members echoed the disbelief in the report’s findings and how it was unveiled. One said he wished that Prado had actually presented the report himself and just given copies to families instead of the questioning method that resembled a court hearing.

“For you to come in here and say ‘No, everything was hunky-dory, they did their job,’ I can’t accept that,” Councilmember Hector Luevano said to applause. Luevano, and several other council members, had not reviewed the report prior to the meeting. “I’m insulted by this report. The families deserve more, the community deserves more.”

Apologizing to the crowd, Councilmember Ernest “Chip” King III said Thursday’s presentation was not how the city wanted the information to be released.

City Council met again five days after the report was released but did not publicly address the report’s findings. Mayor Cody Smith asked the families of victims who came to Tuesday’s meeting for more time to review the report and “determine what, if any, actions can be taken.” He said Prado agreed to come to Uvalde and speak with families about the report but Smith did not provide a date of when that meeting might occur.

Exasperated parents questioned whether the city was stalling with the hope that officers would resign instead of terminating them. Uvalde police chief Daniel Rodriguez, who was on vacation at the time of the shooting, resigned on Tuesday.

“How much more time do you want us to wait?” Veronica Mata, who lost her daughter Tess nearly two years ago, told councilmembers on Tuesday during public comment. “These officers let our children down, do the right thing and fire them. Our children deserve better than this, the community deserves better than them.”

The private investigator’s report arrived almost two months after the U.S. Justice Department released its analysis of law enforcement’s bungled response, in which the federal government found “cascading failures of leadership, decision-making, tactics, policy and training” by responding officers.

That report’s findings about the failure to follow protocol and the lack of sufficient training to prepare officers for a mass shooting mirrored the flaws revealed in a Texas Tribune, ProPublica and FRONTLINE investigation that showed states require students and teachers to receive far more training to prepare them for a mass shooting than they require for the police.

At least 37 states require schools to conduct active-shooter-related drills, nearly all on an annual basis. But Texas is the only state that mandates that all of its police officers complete repeated training, at least 16 hours every two years. That requirement was implemented after the Uvalde shooting.

A speaker at the council meeting Thursday noted that the children had followed their active shooter training while officers did not.

Prado said the lack of cooperation from Uvalde County District Attorney Christina Mitchell hindered the investigation. In December 2022, the city sued Mitchell over her refusal to produce documents. The district attorney agreed to hand over some, but not all, of the information Prado requested.

Mitchell did not respond Thursday to a request for comment.

Prado also said the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District stopped cooperating with him after a few months into his investigation. The city reportedly paid him nearly $100,000 for his work.

After the meeting, Prado declined to comment, telling reporters who followed him to his pick-up truck that he was done with the report but not with his job and still may have to answer questions. He did not acknowledge Felicha Martinez, whose son Xavier was killed in the shooting and who had also followed Prado to the parking lot.

“I wanted to ask him, is that how he really feels that the officers did — did they do right?,” Martinez said after Prado drove away.

“How does he sleep at night knowing that this is what he had to say? And he hurt all of us today — just opened wounds, after wounds, after wounds. I wanted to ask him if that’s really how he felt.”

Prado said he previously conducted 36 similar investigations. Of those, he said roughly 75% of the time there is a violation of policy. His Uvalde review, however, fell in the remaining 25% of investigations in which officers did not violate department policy.

The report recommended 23 city police officers, three dispatchers, the fire marshal and the police chief be “exonerated.” In all but one instance, Prado wrote that his probe uncovered “no evidence of serious acts of misconduct in direct violation of Uvalde Police Department’s policies was found in” those officers’ behavior in responding to the shooting.

That included the highest-ranking officer, Lt. Javier Martinez, and the acting police chief the day of the shooting, Lt. Mariano Pargas.

In exonerating Martinez and Pargas, Prado blamed the lack of leadership on the school district’s Police Department. Prado cited an agreement between the city and school district that confirms Uvalde school district Police Chief Pete Arredondo was the incident commander. Arredondo never established a command post during the incident.

The report noted that Pargas “could have performed a stronger role in the overall incident command structure.” Pargas resigned within a couple of days of his interview with Prado and two days before the City Council was scheduled to discuss his termination in November 2022. Pargas still holds public office as a county commissioner.

On Thursday, Prado said he would have recommended exonerating Pargas because the acting police chief responded to the crisis correctly based on the division of responsibility between the city and school district.

Prado’s investigation found one 9-month pregnant detective, the closest to ballistic shields, violated the department’s insubordination policy surrounding limited duties when she did not ask a supervisor for permission before she “engaged herself in the incident” and delivered shields to officers.

The detective also identified the shooter by going to his house and interviewing his grandfather, according to Thursday’s report. The audit suggested exonerating her of the policy violation because she “only acted under extreme circumstances and because of her actions she provided valuable assets to the officers and valuable information in identifying the shooter.”

At least one investigation into the shooting remains ongoing. In January, a special grand jury convened to begin investigating law enforcement’s delayed response to determine whether criminal charges can be filed against officers. To date no one has been charged in connection to the massacre.

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