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US Department of Justice says police response to Uvalde school shooting was a failure

  • By Brandon Drenon
  • BBC News, Washington

Image source, Getty Images

Image caption,

US Attorney General Merrick Garland visited with bereaved families in Uvalde, Texas on Wednesday

The Justice Department rebuked police involved in the deadly 2022 mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas, calling their response a failure.

Teachers and students “were trapped in a room with an active shooter for over an hour”, US Attorney General Merrick Garland said.

“That should not have happened.”

His comments followed Thursday’s release of a long-awaited report into one of the deadliest school shootings in US history.

The sharply critical report, spanning more than 400 pages, found “cascading failures of leadership, decision-making, tactics, policy and training” in how local police responded to the shooting that killed 19 students and two teachers.

It described “a great deal of confusion, miscommunication, a lack of urgency and a lack of incident command,” as the shooting at Robb Elementary unfolded.

Speaking sombrely and often having to pause, Mr Garland repeatedly said the killing, which lasted more than an hour, “was a failure that should not have happened”.

“[The victims] loved ones deserved better,” he said.

The Justice Department will not be bringing any charges and was not looking to aid any criminal investigations into what happened with this report, as it does not have jurisdiction, Mr Garland said,

It conducted its investigation to provide clarity around the circumstances that led to the grave loss of life and to provide guidance for responding to future shootings.

Police officers’ slow response was a major focus of the report, which found police failed to understand there was an active shooter.

Hundreds of officers responded to Robb Elementary school but it took 77 minutes after the first officers arrived for police to confront and kill the gunman, according to the report.

When there is an active shooter, law enforcement is supposed “to immediately neutralize the subject; everything else, including officer safety, is subordinate to that objective”, the report said.

But the Uvalde police waited, treating the deadly rampage as a barricade situation instead, according to the report.

“The most significant failure was that responding officers should have immediately recognized the incident as an active shooter situation,” the report said.

They also were delayed by miscommunications and issues as simple as locked doors.

“Inaccurate information… shared over the radio” misled officers to believe the shooter had already been killed, stalling their effort, according to the report.

Within three minutes of the gunman opening fire, the first officers arrived and headed to a classroom but retreated after being hit by shrapnel from the gunfire.

The report said 48 minutes after the gunman entered the school, and four additional shots were fired, officers moved toward sounds of gunfire “outside the classroom doors but did not make entry”.

It became the third-deadliest US school shooting, just behind 2007’s Virginia Tech and 2012’s Sandy Hook mass killings.

Much of the blame for the confused and slow response was put on Pete Arredondo, Uvalde’s former school police chief who was “the de facto on-scene commander on the day of the incident”.

“He did not provide appropriate leadership, command, and control,” the report said, adding his “failures may have been influenced by policy and training deficiencies”.

Mr Arredondo’s missteps left his radio behind, and had to communicate with his team either verbally or over a cell phone, the report said.

Residents in Uvalde, a small Texas town of roughly 15,000, have been anticipating the Justice Department’s report since the department first made the announcement days after the 24 May shooting.

Mr Garland visited families in Uvalde on Wednesday and stopped by the murals of victims painted around town. Justice Department officials held a private meeting with the families of victims and briefed them ahead of the report’s release.

Berlinda Arreola, whose granddaughter was killed in the shooting, told the Associated Press after the meeting: “I have a lot of emotions right now. I don’t have a lot of words to say.”

Oscar Orona, whose then-10-year-old son was shot inside one of the classrooms, told the Washington Post: “I think the report will validate what we knew all this time, that is was an abysmal failure.

“But now the world will know, too.”

Video caption,

Watch: Families hope for answers from new report on Uvalde shooting

The review had been requested by former Uvalde Mayor Don McLaughlin after state officials provided conflicting accounts about what happened during the roughly 77 minutes that transpired before police stopped an 18-year-old gunman from firing an AR-15 style rifle inside two fourth-grade classrooms.

Nearly 400 police were on the scene at Robb Elementary but victims and their families say police were too slow to act.

A stinging report from Texas lawmakers in 2022 reached many of the same conclusions, accusing the police of failing to “prioritize saving innocent lives over their own safety”, and ascribing the atrocity to “egregiously poor decision-making” by police. It also placed much of the blame on Mr Arredondo, who was fired shortly after the report was released.

The gunman had fired roughly 142 rounds inside the building before he was stopped, according to the Texas report.

Body camera footage showed police waiting in hallways outside classrooms where the gunman had opened fire.

Bereaved families labelled police cowards while calling for their resignation.

At least four other officers have also lost their jobs,

Multiple community members have filed lawsuits against the city police and local officials that are pending.

Uvalde County District Attorney Christina Mitchell said in December that a criminal investigation into the police response will continue into 2024 before she anticipates presenting her findings to a grand jury, according to CBS News, the BBC’s media partner.

“My office will continue our independent review for any potential criminal charges,” Ms Mitchell said in a press release on Thursday.

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