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Justice Department finds ‘cascading failures’ in Uvalde police response

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  • VIDEO COURTESY AP

    Family members of Uvalde, Texas school shooting victims reacted to the Justice Department's report that identifies "cascading failures" in law enforcement's handling of one of the deadliest massacres at a school in American history.

  • ASSOCIATED PRESS
                                Dora Mendoza, right, is hugged by a friend as she leaves a meeting where Attorney General Merrick Garland shared a report on the findings of an investigation into the 2022 school shooting at Robb Elementary School, Wednesday, in Uvalde, Texas. Mendoza is the grandmother of 10-year-old Amerie Jo Garza who was killed in the shooting.

    ASSOCIATED PRESS

    Dora Mendoza, right, is hugged by a friend as she leaves a meeting where Attorney General Merrick Garland shared a report on the findings of an investigation into the 2022 school shooting at Robb Elementary School, Wednesday, in Uvalde, Texas. Mendoza is the grandmother of 10-year-old Amerie Jo Garza who was killed in the shooting.

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 their findings. The Uvalde victims, he said, “deserved better.”

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 study 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 had not been 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 had died, while in other cases, families received incorrect information suggesting that a child had 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.

But 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 roughly 77 minutes after police arrived on the scene, when a tactical team finally went into the 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. The 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,” the report says.

Uvalde, a community of more than 15,000 about 85 miles (140 kilometers) 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 has said 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 had been brave in “running toward gunfire for the singular purpose of trying to save lives.”

But 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 had requested the federal investigation and fully cooperated with it and had “already implemented changes in leadership, new personnel, new training, and new equipment.”

The report intentionally omits the identity of the gunman or any explanation of a possible motive. But it does include page-long remembrances of each of the victims, including 10-year-old Jose Flores Jr., who loved cars and the Houston Astros, and Amerie Jo Garza, who on the morning of the shooting had celebrated her appointment to the honor roll.

And it highlights anguished and panicked quotes from a 911 call by students trapped in the classroom — “Help!” “Help!” “Help!” “I don’t want to die. My teacher is dead” — experiencing “unimaginable horror” while officers stood just outside in the hallway.

“I hope that the failures end today,” said Kimberly Rubio, whose daughter Lexi Rubio was killed in the shooting. “My child, our children are named in this report because they are dead.” Of the officers who failed, she said: “They should be named.”

Velma Lisa Duran, whose sister Irma Garcia was one of the teachers killed, said before the release of the report that she was daunted by the prospect of reliving the circumstances of her sister’s death and what she really wanted was criminal charges.

“A report doesn’t matter when there are no consequences for actions that are so vile and murderous and evil,” said Duran. “What do you want us to do with another report? … Bring it to court,” she said.

The federal review was launched just days after the shooting. Since then, how police respond to mass shootings around the country has come under closer scrutiny.

The families of some of the Uvalde victims have blasted police as cowards and demanded resignations. At least five officers have lost their jobs, including two Department of Public Safety officers and the on-site commander, Arredondo.

No one has been charged with a crime.


Bleiberg reported from Dallas, Tucker and Whitehurst reported from Washington, D.C.


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