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DOJ report on Uvalde shooting calls police response a ‘significant failure’

UVALDE, Tex. — The nation’s top law enforcement official on Thursday punctuated a scathing report on police failures during the 2022 massacre at Robb Elementary School by declaring that “lives would have been saved” if officers had responded quickly.

Families of the victims bowed their heads and looked at the floor as Attorney General Merrick Garland told them that law enforcement’s 77-minute delay in confronting the gunman also impacted the medical response to the mass shooting.

“The report concludes that had law enforcement agencies followed generally accepted practices in an active shooter situation and gone right after the shooter to stop him, lives would have been saved and people would have survived,” Garland said.

The Justice Department’s report is a damning 575-page catalogue of confusion, lack of courage and their deadly consequences. Many of the grim, maddening details of the faulty response were already known, but the federal report is the fullest, most detailed account of one of the worst school shootings in the nation’s history.

The report is highly critical of local police commanders but also criticizes state law enforcement, saying its officers added to the disorganization and confusion that contributed to delays and indecision after a young gunman burst into the school.

“Leadership in law enforcement is absolutely critical, especially in moments of dire challenge,” the report said. “It requires courageous action and steadiness in a chaotic environment. … This leadership was absent for too long in the Robb Elementary School law enforcement response.”

Minute by minute and step by step, the report traces how police officers first arrived at the school but quickly retreated in the face of gunfire, deciding to treat a gunman in a room with dozens of children as a barricaded suspect and wait for backup.

During that time, police officers spent about 40 minutes searching for a key to a classroom space that, the federal reviewers concluded, was probably unlocked the entire time. The pointless search for keys “was partly the cause of the significant delay,” and police never tried to simply turn the doorknob, the report found.

Overall, local authorities were unprepared for the crisis and swamped by the demands of the day. They were also unable to keep the crime scene clear of contamination or give families of the victims accurate information, the reviewers found.

The death notification process was “disorganized” and “chaotic,” the report said. “Family members encountered many obstacles to locating their loved ones, getting access to the hospital, and getting information from leadership, law enforcement, and hospital staff in a timely matter.”

Garland and senior Justice Department official Vanita Gupta traveled to Uvalde to meet with victims’ families and hold a news conference to announce the findings. Garland described the law enforcement response in the hours and days after the shooting as “a failure.”

“As a consequence of failed leadership, training, and policies, 33 students and three of their teachers — many of whom had been shot — were trapped in a room with an active shooter for over an hour as law enforcement officials remained outside,” he said.

Garland became emotional at times as he described the danger of mass shootings and what that danger means for America’s police officers.

“Our children deserve better than to grow up in a country where an 18-year-old has easy access to a weapon that belongs on a battlefield, not in a classroom,” the attorney general said. “But that is the terrible reality that we face” — one that “every law enforcement agency in every community across the country must be prepared for.”

When Garland said the tragedy had “shattered families,” parents of the slain children wept and nodded, their heads bowed.

“There was no leader,” she said. “We cannot look away from what happened here. We cannot look away from these children.”

A rare look at the devastation caused by AR-15 shootings

For decades, it has been widely accepted among law enforcement agencies that in active-shooter situations, police cannot wait to bargain or negotiate with the suspect. They must move toward the threat and eliminate it because of the likelihood that more people will die if police wait.

In Uvalde, however, police officials quickly reverted to a waiting posture, even as they heard gunshots inside the combined classrooms and got calls and messages from teachers and children trapped inside.

The Justice Department review is designed not with an eye toward charging anyone with crimes for those failures, but to provide a full accounting of them and make recommendations about training, policies and future crisis response.

But it did not flinch in assigning blame for the failures.

The report was highly critical of Pete Arredondo, who at the time led the Uvalde school system police force. State investigators have faulted Arredondo for failing to take command when he arrived at the scene. He has defended his response, saying he did not believe he was in charge. But the review concluded that Arredondo was indeed the “de facto on scene commander” and fell short in many ways.

Arredondo repeatedly told officers who were trying to enter the classroom to stop, the review found, because he believed there were other victims from nearby classrooms who should be removed first. He did not provide the appropriate “leadership, command and control” in basic tasks like establishing a command structure and ordering officers into classrooms, the report said.

Other police commanders were also sharply criticized. Uvalde County Sheriff Ruben Nolasco did not have incident command training or demonstrate adequate leadership. Uvalde’s acting police chief, Mariano Pargas, was also faulted.

“No leader effectively questioned the decisions and lack of urgency of” Arredondo and Pargas, the review found.

Officers who botched Uvalde shooting response face few consequences

In the wake of the Uvalde rampage, officials offered a series of shifting accounts about what happened, making some claims they soon withdrew and changing certain details multiple times.

The federal report said this helped breed “misinformation, rumors, and a lack of trust and confidence in the relevant authorities.” The report also said these erroneous accounts from government officials “caused further harm to victims of the tragedy.”

In one example, Texas officials initially said the gunman entered the school through a door “propped open by a teacher,” then later retracted that and said she had shut the door.

That person “was vilified and suffered significant emotional distress as a result of this misinformation,” the report said.

The poor communication from officials continued well after the attack, according to the report.

“The Uvalde community has yet to hear adequate information of the tragic events that transpired,” the report said. Despite attending meetings and asking for specific details, it said, they consistently lack answers. “This void of information about the circumstances of the death of their loved ones has contributed to their trauma.”

According to the report, hundreds of personnel from at least two dozen agencies rushed to Robb Elementary, but because no one had taken command or set up any sort of command post, officials who arrived found themselves operating “without direction or alignment.”

Officers who arrived were left “in limbo with a lack of urgency,” which confused some who arrived later and presumed incorrectly that the threat was already eliminated, the report said.

This poorly structured response at Robb Elementary also hampered the way emergency medical services were able to react. The on-scene commander for emergency medical services “struggled to obtain information or identify who was in charge,” the report said, and there was poor communication between law enforcement officials and these medical services providers.

According to the report, several emergency medical services staffers who were interviewed “were visibly upset and even in tears several weeks later when relaying the difficulties they experienced in trying to help the victims and do their jobs.”

Ultimately, the report said, emergency medical services “personnel had to force their way into the school to do vital checks on the remaining victims.”

The delays in the medical response were outlined in a 2022 Washington Post investigation with the Texas Tribune and ProPublica.

The Justice Department report notes that the delay in confronting the shooter allowed him additional time to “reassess and reengage his deadly actions” and contributed to a delay in medical interventions with “the potential to impact survivability.”

Felicha Martinez, whose son was killed in the attack, said learning that some of the victims might have survived was agonizing.

“Our babies would be here,” she said, her voice cracking. “Some of them would not have been here, but just knowing some of them would have been here, running around with their brothers and sisters, with us, their aunts and uncles, their grandparents, that’s hard.”

Other family members said they felt vindicated by the findings and hoped it would pressure the local district attorney to move forward with any plans, including bringing charges against some of those named in the report. Arredondo was fired from his job shortly after the attack, but the vast majority of the officers who responded remain in their posts.

“It was a validation of what we feel each and every day living here when we see police officers, DPS troopers, deputies,” said Oscar Orona, whose 10-year-old son was injured. “We weren’t expecting supercops, superheroes we were just expecting gentleman to do their jobs, that they signed up for.”

Barrett and Berman reported from Washington.

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