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DOJ Finds ‘Significant Failure’ in Uvalde Police Response to Shooting

A Justice Department investigation released on Thursday found that a near-total breakdown in policing protocols hindered the response to the 2022 school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, that left 21 people dead — but the gravest error was the reluctance of officials to confront the killer during the first few minutes of the attack.

The department blamed “cascading failures of leadership, decision-making, tactics, policy and training” for the delayed and passive law enforcement response that allowed an 18-year-old gunman with a semiautomatic rifle to remain inside a pair of connected fourth grade classrooms at Robb Elementary School for 77 minutes before he was confronted and killed.

The “most significant failure,” investigators concluded, was the fateful decision by local police officials to classify the incident as a barricaded standoff rather than an “active-shooter” scenario, which would have demanded instant and aggressive action regardless of the danger to those responding or the lack of appropriate weapons to confront the gunman.

The nearly 600-page report largely mirrors the conclusions of a state investigation released last July. The federal report, compiled from 260 interviews and nearly 15,000 documents and videos, represents the most comprehensive assessment of a killing spree that helped spur passage of new federal gun control legislation and continues to haunt a community traumatized by the slaughter and the inadequacy of the police response.

Some of the families of those killed and wounded, who were briefed on the findings hours before the report was released, expressed mixed feelings about the report. Some had hoped the department would bring federal criminal charges against any local officials found to be responsible for the confused and ineffective response.

The department offered a list of detailed recommendations. They included requiring adherence to guidelines, created in the aftermath of the 1999 Columbine school shooting, that call for neutralizing the gunman immediately in any situation where an active shooter might be present.

Officers responding to such a situation “must be prepared” to risk their lives for the protection of their communities, the report said, even if they have inadequate firepower and are armed with only a standard-issue handgun to confront a gunman with a much more powerful weapon.

“The victims and survivors of the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School deserved better,” Attorney General Merrick B. Garland said in a statement released before a scheduled news conference in Uvalde. “The response by officials in the hours and days after” the killings, he added, “was a failure.”

The report, known as a critical incident review and initiated 20 months ago at the request of the town’s former mayor, Don McLaughlin, also found fault with local and state officials who provided incomplete and at times inaccurate information to the families of students and the news media.

The local district attorney, Christina Mitchell, has been conducting an investigation to determine whether any state criminal charges should be brought.

Mr. Garland and Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta met on Wednesday with the families of some of the students who were killed or injured, as well as survivors, before releasing the report.

The report includes a lengthy to-do list for systemic improvements, like establishing a clear chain-of-command structure at the scenes of mass shootings and adhering more strictly to school safety protocols.

For some of the Uvalde families, like the parents of one of the survivors, Noah Orona, the findings supported what they had been saying since the shooting. “It’s not just us saying, ‘Somebody failed,’ but now the federal government has come and said, ‘Hey, this was a colossal failure,’” said Oscar Orona, the boy’s father.

Some of the report’s recommendations have already been implemented, and several police officials in Uvalde — including the school district police chief, Pedro “Pete” Arredondo, and the acting Uvalde police chief Mariano Pargas — have already been fired or have resigned.

The department’s conclusions echoed the findings of a July 2022 investigation by a special committee of the Texas House of Representatives. Their report chronicled a perfect storm of dysfunction and circumstance that led to the delayed response, despite the presence of more than 370 local, state and federal law enforcement personnel, including federal border agents who eventually burst into a classroom and killed the gunman.

That state report cited a range of factors unrelated to law enforcement that contributed to the sluggish response, including the remote location of Uvalde, a small city of 14,000, and its proximity to a border crossing with Mexico that has been a popular gateway for illegal immigration.

Low-quality internet service and poor mobile phone coverage “led to inconsistent receipt of the lockdown notice by teachers,” the Texas House report found. In addition, the frequency of so-called “bailout” alarms — chases involving migrants attempting to escape Border Patrol agents — “contributed to a diminished sense of vigilance about responding to security alerts,” according to state investigators.

The state committee did not find any “villains” other than the shooter but “found systemic failures and egregious poor decision making.”

The failures extended far beyond the response on the day of the killings, reflecting an all-too familiar pattern of missed opportunities found in many previous mass shootings, including a racially-motivated massacre at a supermarket in Buffalo by another 18-year-old 10 days before the shooting in Texas.

There were significant signs that the Uvalde killer, a troubled and bullied loner nicknamed “school shooter” by some acquaintances, posed a deadly threat.

He had recently dropped out of high school, and used money saved from fast-food jobs to buy an arsenal that included two semiautomatic weapons, conversion devices used to increase rates of fire and thousands of rounds of ammunition. In the days leading up to the shootings, he made menacing remarks to co-workers and talked openly about being suicidally depressed, investigators found.

At 11:10 a.m. on May 24, 2022, he shot his grandmother in the face, then texted a 15-year-oldgirl in Germany he met online that he planned to “shoot up” an elementary school.

His grandmother survived. The gunman then drove her pickup truck to the nearby school, crashed in a ditch, hopped a fence, entered through an unlocked door and began firing indiscriminately at young students gathered in the pair of connected classrooms.

Law enforcement officers arrived almost immediately and approached the classrooms. The shooter fired at them, and they backed off down a hallway. For more than an hour, local, state and federal officials, including agents from the U.S. Border Patrol, discussed how to deal with the situation — and made the fateful decision to classify the incident as a barricaded standoff, requiring negotiation, rather than an active-shooter scenario, which would demand an immediate and aggressive response.

Justice Department officials initially said their investigation, led by the department’s office of community-oriented policing, would take about six months. The investigation turned out to be more complex, and information harder to obtain, than they originally thought, according to an official familiar with the situation.

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