Uvalde TX School Shooting – One Year Later, Officers Who Botched The Response Face Few Consequences – Washington Post

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Uvalde TX School Shooting – One Year Later, Officers Who Botched The Response Face Few Consequences – Washington Post

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https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2 ... rc=nl_most

A year after Uvalde, officers who botched response face few consequences
A Post investigation finds numerous higher-ranking officers who made critical decisions remain on the job

By Joyce Sohyun Lee, Sarah Cahlan and Arelis R. Hernández
Steven Rich and Imogen Piper contributed to this report.

May 24, 2023 at 4:51 a.m. EDT

In the year since the Robb Elementary School massacre in Uvalde, Tex., much of the blame for law enforcement’s decision to wait more than an hour to confront the gunman has centered on the former chief of the school district’s small police force.

But a Washington Post investigation has found that the costly delay was also driven by the inaction of an array of senior and supervising law enforcement officers who remain on the job and had direct knowledge a shooting was taking place inside classrooms but failed to swiftly stop the gunman.

The Post’s review of dozens of hours of body camera videos, post-shooting interviews with officers, audio from dispatch communications and law enforcement licensing records identified at least seven officers who stalled even as evidence mounted that children were still in danger. Some were the first to arrive, while others were called in for their expertise.

All are still employed by the same agencies they worked for that day. One was commended for his actions that day.

For many families of victims in the small Texas town, promises from top state law enforcement and government officials to hold all those responsible for the 77-minute delay in stopping the shooter today feel empty. Instead, they have learned to live alongside officers who faced no repercussions and remain in positions of authority in the community.

The officers shop at the same grocery stores as the families. They umpire weekly softball games. They live in the same neighborhoods. In some cases, they are blood relatives.

“When we see them, they put their heads down,” said Felicha Martinez, whose son was killed in the attack and whose cousin is a police officer who responded to the shooting. “They know they did wrong and wish they could go back and do it over again.”

Uvalde District Attorney Christina Mitchell Busbee has said she is still investigating the shooting response, leaving open the possibility that officers will face charges. If they did, however, it would be highly unusual, as officers rarely face criminal prosecution for missteps in crises.

The Texas Department of Public Safety opened an investigation into a half a dozen officers for wrongdoing but officially cleared almost all of them. DPS chief Col. Steven C. McCraw has said he would personally resign if his agency “as an institution” failed Uvalde. He insists it did not.

In all, four of the nearly 200 officers who responded from state and local agencies were fired after superiors found they made critical mistakes, according to public announcements. Four resigned, two of whom had loved ones who were killed that day. Nearly 190 federal officers, the majority from U.S. Border Patrol, were also on hand, but those agencies have denied several public records requests by The Post seeking information on their employment status.

Two officers the Department of Public Safety decided to dismiss are still employed in law enforcement, and others found ways to soften the blow from being fired or resigning after the massacre.

One senior Texas Ranger was given termination papers in January but remains on the force, state licensing records show. A DPS spokesman said he is currently suspended with pay, over four months later. The acting Uvalde police chief the day of the shooting resigned but was reelected to a county office he had held along with his law enforcement post. The first state police officer disciplined after the massacre was given the option to resign and now works for a local sheriff’s office.

The officers named in this article did not respond to detailed questions from The Post outlining its findings or declined to comment in multiple requests for interviews, citing the still-open investigation and pending civil lawsuits.

Many of the families, frustrated by the lack of accountability, have instead turned their focus to changing Texas’s lax gun laws, though thus far, the state legislature has been reluctant to do so. The disappointment with authorities and lawmakers has left them trying to make peace with how little has changed since 19 students and two teachers were killed.

“We all make mistakes, but this was a fatal mistake,” Javier Cazares said of the officers who stalled as the gunman kept shooting. He is haunted by the thought that his daughter, Jacklyn, 9, might have survived if they had entered sooner. “I hope it keeps them up at night too, but who knows?”

‘No active shooting’

The first indication something was terribly wrong in Uvalde arrived even before the gunman set foot in Robb Elementary.

After shooting his grandmother in the face, Salvador Ramos stole her truck and crashed it near a funeral home. Bystanders called 911 after he fired and walked toward the school.

What happened next has been repeatedly scrutinized by Texas lawmakers, federal investigators and community leaders trying to understand the dual horrors of that day: how an 18-year-old former student killed 21 people and why officers waited so long to stop him.

The Post’s reconstruction of what happened inside Robb Elementary last May 24 provides new details of key mistakes up and down the chain of command, starting at 11:31 a.m., when the first officer arrived at the school.

Coronado’s dash camera)

Body- and dash-camera footage shows that Uvalde Police Sgt. Daniel Coronado was the first supervising officer at the school. He arrived before Ramos entered the building at 11:33 a.m. The footage shows him parked nearby and taking cover as gunshots erupt. Coronado told investigators he then drove to the other side of Robb Elementary, thinking the gunman would try to flee in that direction.

“I still couldn’t believe that his whole mission was to take out kids. Never. It doesn’t cross your mind,” Coronado said in a post-shooting interview with investigators. “I think at that moment I still was thinking, okay, maybe he’s engaging officers or he’s just shooting to get away.”

Body-camera video captures Coronado running toward Robb Elementary with Uvalde school district police chief Pedro “Pete” Arredondo. City police Sgt. Donald Page is already inside. None are captured in available video and audio records stating they have command or otherwise establishing who would lead the response — one of the fundamental errors of the police response, experts say. Even as more officers continued to arrive, body-camera footage and other records show confusion throughout the ranks as to what the next steps would be.

Uvalde police policy urges officers to act quickly, stating that they should move swiftly to the shooter and “stop the violence.” It also notes that, ideally, the first two to five officers should form a team and enter the building. The footage shows that at least three officers were just beyond school grounds together before Ramos walked into the building.

Once inside, the gunman began firing as he burst into rooms 111 and 112, where he shot at dozens of children who had gathered to watch movies on the last day of school.

Two groups of officers — including several supervisors — gathered on each side of the hallway outside those classrooms.

“It’s an AR! It’s an AR! It’s an AR!” an officer yelled.

Minutes later, the shooter fired several rounds and two supervisors — Uvalde SWAT commander Sgt. Eduardo Canales and Uvalde Lt. Javier Martinez — were injured by fragments of building material.

Startled, Canales tells fellow officers, “We gotta get in there. He’s gonna keep shooting.” Martinez also acknowledged the urgency of the crisis, later trying to approach the classrooms before eventually retreating. In his post-shooting interview with investigators, stating he thought children were probably inside: “It’s a school. You’re going to assume there’s kids in there.”

But none of the officers shift to an active-shooter response. At 11:40 a.m. — four minutes after the officers are injured — Coronado radioed that the suspect was barricaded, according to a review of body-camera footage and available audio.

The Uvalde police department defines an active shooter as an armed individual likely to use “deadly force in an ongoing manner” and who has injured, killed or threatened other people, according to the agency’s officer guidelines. In a barricaded shooter scenario, an assailant is contained with little or no ability to harm others.

Coronado told investigators that he saw no signs of injuries, leading him to assume no children were at risk — even though during a lockdown, students are trained to stay quiet.

Texas Department of Public Safety radio communications show dispatchers repeat the assessment that officers are responding to a barricaded shooter at least 10 times, spreading the word to state officers that Ramos was not an active shooter threat.

“You don’t see any bodies, you don’t see any blood, you don’t see anybody yelling, screaming for help,” Coronado told investigators later. “Those are motivators for you to say, ‘Hey, get going, move.’ But if you don’t have that, then slow down.”

But officers soon started getting information that children were inside, The Post review found.

At 11:42 a.m. — nine minutes after the gunman stepped inside Robb Elementary — Coronado’s body camera captured audio of another officer confirming with school administrators that students were probably in the classroom.

Coronado is heard on a body camera saying: “Oh no, oh no.” But the available body-camera footage does not show him relaying this information to anyone else. Unbeknown to Coronado, his 10-year-old cousin, Xavier Lopez, was inside, struggling to stay alive from multiple gunshot wounds.

Officers at the scene gave at least 12 orders to hold back and not enter the classrooms despite hearing the gunfire blasts, The Post’s investigation found.

Several supervisors suspected there were children inside. “As much as he was shooting, I mean, he had to be shooting at something,” Page told investigators later. But time and again, radio communications and body-cam video captured supervisors telling each other and subordinates to wait. Uvalde County Constable Johnny Field tells the others, “There’s no active shooting.”

Gunshots, cries for help

Texas Ranger Ryan Kindell arrived around noon, about 30 minutes after the gunman entered the school. At the time, he was one of the highest-ranking Department of Public Safety officers at the scene. He told investigators he immediately recognized that someone needed to take charge and started organizing the responders stationed outside.

Yet he, too, failed to challenge the conclusion that Ramos was a barricaded subject — even as the gunman continued to fire and further information confirming children were inside reached officers, body-camera footage shows.

About 10 minutes after Kindell arrives, an officer’s body-camera footage captures the moment a dispatcher reveals a student had called 911 from inside one of the rooms. Kindell walks by and Canales and Field are in earshot as this information is shared loudly to those nearby, the footage shows.

That detail was quickly shared with Paul Guerrero, acting commander with the U.S. Border Patrol’s elite tactical unit, who arrived a minute later, according to body-camera footage. A rifle shield is brought in by a U.S. marshal. But Guerrero did not breach the classroom with his team for almost 40 more minutes, according to The Post’s review of available post-shooting interviews and videos.

“There’s victims in the room with us?” Guerrero asked an officer, body-cam footage shows, as he stands in the hallway outside the classrooms.

“Child on the phone, multiple victims,” the officer responds.

Despite that confirmation, officers continue focusing on trying to find a key to one of the two doors. Investigators now believe neither was probably locked. Arredondo repeatedly insisted on finding a “master key” and urged others to stay back.

“Tell them to f--- wait,” he told officers in the hallway.

At 12:21 p.m., the gunman fired his final burst of shots. Kindell, Guerrero, Coronado, Martinez, Field and Canales visibly reacted to the gunfire , but video footage and audio records show they did not change their response. The breach team led by Guerrero waited until 12:50 p.m. to enter the room and kill Ramos.

Law enforcement’s overall 77-minute delay came with potentially deadly consequences.

Three victims emerged from the school with a pulse but later died. For teacher Eva Mireles, 44, and Lopez, 10, critical resources were not available when medics expected they would be, delaying hospital treatment, an investigation by The Post, the Texas Tribune and ProPublica found last year. Another student, Cazares, 9, likely survived for more than an hour after being shot and died in an ambulance.

Uvalde records reveal chaotic medical response as victims lost blood

Gov. Greg Abbott (R) initially said that a “quick response” by law enforcement had saved lives. But two days after the massacre, authorities acknowledged officers had left a gunman in the rooms with children for more than an hour. Outrage grew as parents prepared to bury their children — some left barely recognizable by the AR-15-style weapon’s carnage.

An award for valor

In the initial aftermath, the state Department of Public Safety’s director put the blame for the botched response squarely on one man: Arredondo.

McCraw said the school police chief had incorrectly determined that the gunman was no longer an active shooter and that no more children were at risk. Arredondo oversaw the Uvalde district’s six-person police department. He has declined multiple interview requests but told the Texas Tribune he did not consider himself in charge of the scene.

Nearly a month after the shooting, he was placed on leave. Two months later, he was fired.

But earlier this year, Arredondo managed to upgrade his discharge status, which indicates the circumstances under which an officer leaves an agency, improving his prospects of future employment in law enforcement. The school district is attempting to overturn that.

A Texas House investigative report published in July spread blame across every law enforcement agency responding to the attack, noting more experienced agencies also failed to take charge.

A handful of other officers faced reprimand. Kindell was ordered fired, with McCraw writing in his termination letter in early January that the Ranger “should have recognized the incident was and remained an active shooter situation,” the Tribune reported. But records obtained exclusively by The Post show Kindell is still employed with the Department of Public Safety.

Travis Considine, a spokesman for DPS, characterized Kindell’s dismissal letter as a “preliminary decision” that will not be finalized until the officer is given a chance to meet with McCraw. In the meantime, Kindell has been “suspended with pay.”

Six other senior and supervising officers who The Post found were in a position to hear gunshots but did not immediately act, remain on the job. One officer — Guerrero, who took more than a half-hour to mount the assault that killed Ramos — later received a Department of Homeland Security award for valor for his actions that day.

Of the nearly 200 responding officers from state and local agencies, around 180 remain in law enforcement, according to records reviewed by The Post. Nine left their posts for jobs in other agencies.

For victims’ relatives, that tally is infuriating.

“Anyone who knew and sat there and listened to him reload, they should all lose their jobs,” said Brett Cross, the uncle and guardian of 10-year-old Uziyah Garcia, whom he called his son. “Anybody who made an order that they shouldn’t go in should face possible jail time.”

Unsatisfied with Arredondo’s firing, Cross camped for 10 days last fall outside the offices of Hal Harrel, then the Uvalde school district superintendent, pressuring officials to make good on their promises to hold officers accountable. His demands were partially met: The school district voted in October to suspend its entire police force. But he still wants to see more officers disciplined for inaction — and doesn’t hesitate to confront them when he sees them in Uvalde.

At one City Council meeting last year, Cross recalled, he stood toe-to-toe with the man he thought he recognized from one of the police body cam videos circulating on the internet, showing officers standing around while children were being killed.

“Is this you?” he recalled asking, showing the man an image on his cellphone of a large, bearded police officer in the Robb Elementary School hallway.

The man said it was. “What the f---, dude?” Cross spat out instinctively. He said the officer smiled and walked away: “Have a nice day.”

Mariano Pargas Jr. — who was serving as interim chief of the Uvalde police the day of the attack — was also soon suspended and later resigned. He is captured on body-cam footage telling Guerrero that a child had called from inside the room with the gunman, but like the others, available video and audio records show, he failed to take charge or push officers to enter and kill the gunman.

The suspension didn’t stop Pargas from running for reelection as a county commissioner.

Cazares who lost his daughter Jackie in the massacre — had never considered political office, but when he learned one of the officers condemned for inaction the day of the slaughter was running uncontested, he decided to challenge him.

“No, we can’t have that,” Cazares recounted thinking while campaigning as a write-in candidate.

But on Election Day, voters in Uvalde reelected every incumbent who was in office the day of the tragedy — including Pargas.

That night, Kimberly Mata-Rubio, whose 10-year-old daughter Lexi was killed, wrote on Twitter that, “I wanted to send a message, but, instead, the state of Texas sent me a message: my daughter’s murder wasn’t enough.”

‘No officer has to save you’

There have been moments in the past year where Uvalde families said life seemed almost normal despite the tunnel of their unbearable loss. There were quinceañeras and graduations that were almost enjoyable. And then there are the moments of anguish.

Martinez, whose son Xavier Lopez was killed, comes from a family filled with law enforcement officers — including Coronado. These days, they have no communication.

“If we were to run into each other, they try to say hi,” she said, “but I want nothing to do with them.”

The parents, siblings and friends of those killed relive their agonizing stories over and over again in interviews, in therapy and in legislative hearings where they push for gun control. Sometimes they read prepared remarks from their phone’s Notes app or paper. Some can deliver gut punches on the spot through breathless gulps and hot tears.

“Tess didn’t have a choice in life or death, but you as leaders have a choice of what my daughter’s life will be remembered for,” Veronica Mata said about her slain daughter during an April bill hearing. “Will she die in vain? Or will her life have saved another child? Maybe, your child.”

Yet while the broader gun control community has been supportive, in Uvalde, the victims’ families face critics. They have been accused of making things political. Their unapologetic advocacy makes neighbors — especially those flying “Thin Blue Line” flags — uncomfortable. Local clergymen have criticized them in newspaper op-eds as thirsting for revenge instead of forgiveness. It hurts, a few said, but it doesn’t discourage them.

For Mata-Rubio, it’s the memory of her daughter Lexi that keeps her going. While sitting in a lawmaker’s office recently, the mother of four other children said she looked up and felt like she saw Lexi with her, biting her nails and bored while playing on her iPad, wanting to go home.

The apparitions remind her what she’s fighting for.

Mata-Rubio said she has too many what-ifs of her own to worry about whether the cops feel regret, shame or sorrow about their actions that day.

“I should never have left her in the hands of anyone else,” she said. “It was my job to protect her.”

But the massacre also left her convinced of something else: “No officer has to save you. They have immunity, they won’t face punishment. This country needs to be aware of that.”

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