Education

Why the Police Took 78 Minutes to Stop the Uvalde Gunman


sabrina tavernise

From The New York Times, I’m Sabrina Tavernise. This is The Daily.

[music]

Four days after the shooting in Uvalde, Texas, the explanation for how the police responded kept shifting. Now a clearer picture has emerged. Today: My colleague, David Goodman, on why officers waited so long before storming the classrooms where the gunman was, and the questions that raises about what happened to the people inside.

It’s Tuesday, May 31.

David, there have been a lot of questions about the way that the police responded to the shooting in Uvalde, Texas. Tell us what we know at this point.

david goodman

Well, getting to what we know now has been really quite a journey. When the shooting happened on Tuesday, one of the first things that we wanted to try and answer after confirming that this horrific event had taken place and the number of killed and wounded was when did they finally end it? When did they finally kill the gunman? And that fact was not something that they brought out immediately. They weren’t revealing that.

And so that raises a lot of questions for me — that there was something sort of so basic that they weren’t either willing or able to share. And so on Friday we finally got a chance to hear directly from the state police. They’d been conducting the inquiry into the law enforcement response to the shooting, and they laid out their timeline in a press conference.

archived recording (steven mccraw)

Good morning. Thank you for being here today. My name is Steven McCraw, director of Texas Department of Public Safety.

sabrina tavernise

Tell me about this press conference.

david goodman

So Steven McCraw, who’s the head of the Texas Department of Public Safety — and this is the agency that runs the state police and also the Texas Rangers — he calls reporters to a press conference right by the elementary school.

archived recording (steven mccraw)

Our goal today is to provide the parents, the community of Uvalde, the public, as much information as we can on where we are on the investigation. I’ll begin first and foremost with the timeline as we know it.

david goodman

So here’s what he lays out.

archived recording (steven mccraw)

11:28, the suspect vehicle crashes into the ditch as previously described.

david goodman

On Tuesday, at about 11:28 in the morning, the gunman crashes a pickup truck in a ditch that’s by the school. And he emerges pretty much immediately and starts shooting at the school and moving towards it.

archived recording (steven mccraw)

— in a panic, and apparently calls 911.

david goodman

Now, this time a teacher calls 911 and says there’s been a crash at the school and a man with a gun.

archived recording (steven mccraw)

There was discussion early on that an I.S.D. resource officer had confronted —

david goodman

Now, I should say initially we thought, or we were told, that an armed school district police officer had been at the school at this time, and that that armed officer had confronted the gunman.

archived recording (steven mccraw)

That did not happen.

david goodman

But that turned out actually not to be true.

archived recording (steven mccraw)

And certainly police officers, like anyone else under stress, sometimes witnesses get it wrong. But the bottom line is that officer was not on scene, not on campus.

david goodman

And instead, the gunman walks into the school through a door that’s been propped open by a teacher just a short time before, and he’s able to go in unchallenged and unconfronted by anyone.

archived recording (steven mccraw)

At 11:33 is when the suspect entered the school at the door that I’m pointing to now. At 11:33 the suspect began shooting in the room 111 or 112. It’s not possible to determine from the video.

david goodman

He then goes into a pair of connected classrooms that are joined in the middle via a bathroom, and he starts shooting.

archived recording (steven mccraw)

He shot more than 100 rounds, based on the audio evidence at that time — at least 100 rounds.

sabrina tavernise

OK. So he’s shooting. When did the police get inside?

archived recording (steven mccraw)

At 11:35, three police officers entered the same door as the suspect entered. All three of those police officers worked for the Uvalde Police Department.

david goodman

Well, McCraw says that three police officers enter the school just two minutes after the gunman had entered. Those officers approached the classroom where the gunman was shooting.

archived recording (steven mccraw)

And two received grazing wounds at that time from the suspect.

david goodman

And two of them were grazed by bullets that came through the locked classroom door.

archived recording (steven mccraw)

They were later followed by another four — the team of Uvalde police officers, three, and also a county sheriff — a county deputy sheriff.

david goodman

Now, in the meantime, more officers were arriving on the scene. And by 12:03 — which is 30 minutes after the shooter had entered the classroom — there are 19 officers from different agencies gathered in the school hallway near that classroom door.

sabrina tavernise

Wow, 19 officers. And what are they doing at this point?

david goodman

Well, by the time those 19 officers are in the hallway, the commanding officer on the scene had made a critical decision. He determined that this was a situation at that point of a barricaded subject and not an active shooter. And so the officers were told not to try to go into that classroom.

sabrina tavernise

David, hold on. What’s the difference between barricaded subject and active shooter? I don’t understand that terminology. I mean, how is law enforcement supposed to respond in each type of case?

david goodman

So there’s been a lot of law enforcement thinking around this in recent years. And in an active shooter situation, the practice is you go in immediately, you don’t wait, as soon as you have enough officers to safely do so. Or even one officer can make that determination to go in.

But the important thing is that there’s no hesitation. There’s no waiting for special equipment or any of that. You go in to stop the shooting, which means to try and incapacitate or kill the shooter, and then to stop people from dying. So you treat the wounded. And you do that in that order. But the paramount important thing is to stop the shooting from happening.

sabrina tavernise

So what about a barricaded subject? What is that? And how should the police respond in that kind of situation?

david goodman

So a barricaded subject is very different. It’s someone who’s armed inside a space that’s hard to get into and isn’t posing any kind of immediate risk to civilians at that moment, but is instead focused on keeping law enforcement away. And so the response to a barricaded subject is a lot more strategic. Rather than rushing in, the police are trained to go in more slowly with specialized equipment and more tactically so that they can avoid any kind of injury or any of the law enforcement officers being killed.

sabrina tavernise

So less a focus on safety of civilians and more focus on safety of law enforcement.

david goodman

Right.

sabrina tavernise

So, David, this decision seems huge. I mean, they’re treating the gunman like a barricaded subject, not like an active shooter. And that means that they’re not immediately going into the classroom. But do we know why they made that call?

david goodman

Well, it’s not really clear why they made that call, especially because another thing that came out during the press conference was that there were kids in the classroom who were still alive, whose lives were still at risk. And the way we know that is because some of them were calling 911.

sabrina tavernise

Wow.

archived recording (steven mccraw)

And now I’d like to go over the 911 timeline.

david goodman

McCraw, during the press briefing, he starts going through a timeline of these 911 calls.

archived recording (steven mccraw)

I’ve got to warn you, it’s not —

it’s better that I read it than you listen to it.

The caller identified — I will not say her name, but she was in room 112 — called 911 at 12:03. The duration of the call was 1 minute and 23 seconds. She identified herself and whispered she’s in room 112.

david goodman

So at 12:03, a student calls 911 and whispers that she’s in the classroom with the gunman.

sabrina tavernise

Wow.

david goodman

And this is the exact moment that we know that 19 officers are gathered in the hallway outside the door.

sabrina tavernise

Crazy.

archived recording (steven mccraw)

At 12:10 —

david goodman

And she calls multiple times.

archived recording (steven mccraw)

— she called back. In room 12, advised there are multiple dead. 12:13, again she called on the phone. Again, at 12:16, she’s called back and said there was eight to nine students alive.

david goodman

And from these calls, it’s clear from what she says that there are still some children who are alive.

archived recording (steven mccraw)

Then another person in room 111 calls. She hung up when another student told her to hang up.

david goodman

And then, at 12:19, another student from one of these linked classrooms calls. And during this time —

archived recording (steven mccraw)

You could hear over the 911 call that three shots were fired.

david goodman

— McCraw says the shots are still being fired sporadically. And then —

archived recording (steven mccraw)

The initial caller called back, a student child called back.

david goodman

— that first 911 caller, she calls back at 12:43 and again at 12:47, and is asking to please send in the police.

sabrina tavernise

OK. So you’re saying that over the course of more than 40 minutes there are kids calling 911 from inside the classrooms, which is kind of incredible. And it makes me think I really don’t understand why, at this point, the officers still aren’t going in.

david goodman

Well, yeah. From the press conference it was not clear whether the officers on the scene we’re hearing about these 911 calls. That would be a pretty serious communications breakdown in the middle of this incredibly serious event.

archived recording (steven mccraw)

And if the 911 operators were aware that children were alive in that classroom, why weren’t officers notified of that? And if that’s the case, why didn’t they take action? That’s the question.

david goodman

McCraw is actually asked directly about this.

archived recording (steven mccraw)

And, again, I’ll go back to the answer. But right now is that it was considered. OK? The decision was made on the scene. I wasn’t there.

david goodman

And he didn’t really answer.

archived recording (steven mccraw)

A decision was made that this was a —

david goodman

And certainly, the officers who were outside the classroom, they could hear the gunshots that were happening sporadically. And by this time there are multiple law enforcement agencies there at the elementary school. And many of these officers we’re bristling, were really getting upset at the order to stand by and wait.

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And what’s remarkable is that it’s not even clear at this point, to us, who made the ultimate decision to go in or how that decision was reached. What we do know is that 78 minutes after the shooter enters the school, at about 12:50 on Tuesday —

archived recording (steven mccraw)

They breached the door using keys that they were able to get from the janitor, because both doors were locked.

david goodman

— officers finally go in.

archived recording (steven mccraw)

At 12:50, shots are fired. They can be heard.

david goodman

In 911 calls you can actually hear the shots being fired, McCraw said.

archived recording (steven mccraw)

At 12:51, it’s very loud and sounds like the officers are moving children out of the room.

david goodman

And we know from the police report the shooter is killed at that moment.

archived recording (steven mccraw)

Questions?

[REPORTERS CLAMORING]

sabrina tavernise

We’ll be right back.

David, so much of the police response really hinges on that one decision to wait to go into the classrooms. So what do we know about the commander in charge, the guy who made the call to hold off?

david goodman

So the guy who made the decision, his name is Pete Arredondo. And he’s someone who has a long law enforcement career. He had been at Uvalde Police Department. He’s actually from the city. And he’d gone on to a sheriff’s office in a nearby county and actually run a school police department in a different county. He recently came back and started working again in Uvalde. But he wasn’t the chief of the Uvalde Police Department. He came back as the chief of the Uvalde school district Police Department.

sabrina tavernise

And what’s that?

david goodman

That’s a school police force of just six cops, including Arredondo. And it’s a structure that you actually find quite commonly in Texas and in other parts of the country, although it’s not universal. But what it means is that Arredondo and his officers had jurisdiction over the campuses of the schools in Uvalde. And there were eight different schools. And so these six officers would either stay at the schools or go between them and provide security for those schools.

sabrina tavernise

So it’s like a tiny police force literally for the school system.

david goodman

That’s right.

sabrina tavernise

But why did this chief have the ultimate say? I mean, why not, for example, the police chief of the city of Uvalde, who I assume has a bigger police force?

david goodman

Right. I mean, it’s a good question. And it would seem from the outside that you would want, of course, the police department of the city to run a scene like this. But, in fact, really the reason is that the shooting is happening on the campus of the schools. And that’s the jurisdiction of this police chief. And other departments in these kinds of situations will come into the incident.

There are officers arriving from all different kinds of agencies, and you need to have some kind of hierarchy and organization. And it generally falls to the person who has the jurisdiction to maintain that control over the scene until they hand it off. Now, they don’t have to hand it off. And, in this case, the chief of the school district police didn’t hand it off. And it’s not clear whether anyone tried to take it away from him or at least assert any kind of control when there were clearly disagreements among the officers about the tactics that were being used.

sabrina tavernise

And what are the consequences of that decision he made, David? I mean, do we know if anyone died who might not have had the police come in earlier?

david goodman

Well, that’s really difficult for us to say. But what we do know is that the vast majority of the gunshots inside those two connected classrooms came in the very start of the attack. And we know that the two girls who called 911, those two girls survived.

But what we don’t know is whether any of those gunshots that were heard after the initial burst — if any of those hit any people inside the room. And we also don’t know whether any of the children or the two teachers who were inside of these two classrooms — whether they would have survived if police had gotten in there and killed this gunman sooner and allowed them to get medical attention much more quickly.

archived recording

[REPORTERS CLAMORING]

david goodman

And during this press conference, you know, McCraw is pressed multiple times about the order, about the decision to treat this scene in a way that even those officers thought was not correct.

archived recording (steven mccraw)

OK. Hey, from the benefit of hindsight, where I’m sitting now, of course it was not the right decision. It was the wrong decision, period.

david goodman

And McGraw acknowledged. He says, this had been the wrong decision.

archived recording (steven mccraw)

There’s no excuse for that. But, again, I wasn’t there. But I’m just telling you from what we know, that we believe there should have been an entry of that as soon as you can. Hey, when there’s an active shooter, the rules change. You don’t have to have a leader on the scene. Every officer lines up, stacks up, goes and finds where those rounds are being fired at and keeps shooting until the subject is dead, period.

archived recording

[REPORTERS CLAMORING]

sabrina tavernise

It seems like a pretty big deal for law enforcement to admit that they were wrong.

david goodman

That’s right. Now —

archived recording (steven mccraw)

It’s not about trying to defend or it’s not about trying to assess or even be hyper-critical. It’s about the facts and sharing whatever we learn on the facts as quick as we can.

david goodman

— McCraw says several times that he’s not there to place blame. But in the end he does end up rendering a judgment on the police response.

sabrina tavernise

David, on the one hand, focusing on the police response makes sense. Right? Because if something faster would have prevented even one of those deaths, we’d want to know that. But I guess I’m wondering, is that the right focus? Because it sounds like even if the police had gone in earlier, it might not have made that much difference.

I mean, as you said, most of the rounds were fired in the first few minutes. So I guess what I’m wondering is are we missing the bigger picture, that an 18-year-old who is determined to shoot up a school can legally buy two very powerful guns and do it?

david goodman

Well, I think that’s right. It’s a lot easier, especially in Texas, to focus on something like the police response than it is to focus on the guns that were used. And you’ve seen this after several major shootings in the last few years here in Texas.

You’ve had Sutherland Springs in 2017. That was at a church. You had a school shooting in 2018 in the town of Santa Fe, where 10 people were killed. And you had a gunman shoot multiple people inside a Walmart in El Paso in 2019. And throughout that time and afterwards, the state has actually moved in the direction of making it easier to own and carry weapons in the state, including last year when they passed a law to allow any Texan or pretty much any Texan over 21 to carry a handgun without a permit. And so the move here is really to look for other solutions. But it’s really anything other than preventing an 18-year-old from buying a weapon.

sabrina tavernise

Right. We talk about police response and these other things because that’s one of the few things on the table we actually can talk about. Because in Texas, we’re not going to talk about gun control.

david goodman

Right. I mean, what you see right now is that there’s agreement among Democrats and some Republicans that these officers should have done more during that hour to try and stop the shooter. That’s something that pretty much everybody can agree on. Something went wrong here in that response. And that’s a conversation that people are willing to have. And I think the conversation that people in Texas and elsewhere find it much more difficult to have is the question of why that 18-year-old was able to buy that gun and walk into the school to begin with.

[music]
sabrina tavernise

David, thank you.

david goodman

Thank you, Sabrina.

sabrina tavernise

Over the weekend, the U.S. Department of Justice said it would review the police response to the mass shooting in Uvalde. The D.O.J. said it was conducting the review at the request of Uvalde’s mayor, and that the goal was to provide an independent account of the response that day and to identify lessons learned and best practices.

We’ll be right back.

[music]

Here’s what else you need to know today. On Monday, European Union leaders reached a compromise to impose a partial ban on Russian oil. The embargo had been blocked by Hungary, an E.U. member. So leaders limited it, exempting pipeline imports in order to get Hungary to go along with it. The embargo is likely to hurt European economies and is the latest sign that Europe is willing to take far reaching steps to punish Russia. And —

archived recording (justin trudeau)

As a government, as a society, we have a responsibility to act to prevent more tragedies.

sabrina tavernise

— legislation introduced in Canada would require most owners of military style assault weapons to turn over their guns to a government buyback program. The Canadian government also imposed new regulations banning the sale, purchase, transfer and importation of handguns.

archived recording

This is about freedom. People should be free to go to the supermarket, their school or their place of worship without fear. These people should be free to go to the park or to a birthday party without worrying about what might happen from a stray bullet.

sabrina tavernise

The legislation is expected to pass, and the changes will apply to tens of thousands of firearms.

Today’s episode was produced by Rob Szypko and Stella Tan. It was edited by M.J. Davis Lin and Lisa Chow, with help from Paige Cowett; contains original music by Marion Lozano; and was engineered by Corey Schreppel. Our theme music is by Jim Brunberg and Ben Landsverk of Wonderly.

That’s it for The Daily. I’m Sabrina Tavernise. See you tomorrow.



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