Saturday, March 25, 2023

Uvalde police department, school police dept. under scrutiny


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The police response to the Texas school massacre was led by the chief of a six-officer police department that oversees about eight schools. The first officers on the scene were from the Uvalde city police force, which has a part-time SWAT team and about 40 officers on the payroll.

Policing experts said it makes sense that the school police chief was in charge, given that it was his campus and he knows the safety protocols.

But authorities made clear Friday that many other things went wrong as those small police departments were joined by state, local and federal law enforcement agencies in the town of 16,000. Officers waited nearly an hour inside Robb Elementary School before a group stormed into the classroom and confronted 18-year-old Salvador Rolando Ramos. At that point, police say, officers with Customs and Border Protection shot and killed the gunman, who had slain 19 children and two teachers and wounded 17 others.

Trapped alongside gunman, students called 911 and pleaded, ‘Please send police’

State officials have offered contradictory and partial accounts of the slow response, which included police forcing parents away from the school and subduing them as they pleaded with the officers to go in.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) and others initially said officers had responded quickly and saved lives. Officials now say the school-system police chief erred by deciding the gunman had shifted from an active shooter to a “barricaded subject,” and making no effort to break down the door and get inside.

An off-duty Border Patrol tactical agent was the first to arrive outside the classroom and “basically said let’s get this done,” according to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection official who spoke on condition of anonymity to share preliminary details of the investigation. “They have not told me they were frustrated,” the official said of other border patrol agents who converged. “But they told me it was hard to discern who was in charge.”

Police made ‘wrong decision’ not to pursue Uvalde gunman, official says

Pedro “Pete” Arredondo, chief of the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District Police Department, who was the incident commander, did not respond to requests for comment on Friday. A spokeswoman for the Uvalde Police Department referred inquiries to the Texas Department of Public Safety, and requests to the local district attorney’s office went unanswered.

“We needed the help ASAP for our kids, and it wasn’t there,” Amanda Flores, who said she knew all 21 victims, said at a memorial on Main Street on Friday. “I saw those parents running, wanting to go get their children and the police tackling the parents, and that should have never happened.”

Since the Columbine school massacre in 1999, many police departments have trained officers to go after an attacker as soon as possible, to minimize the number of teachers and children shot. Before then, guidance often emphasized waiting for specially trained tactical officers with specialized equipment.

In March, the school district police hosted active shooter training at Uvalde High School, according to a post on the agency’s Facebook page. “Our overall goal is to train every Uvalde area law enforcement officer so that we can prepare as best as possible for any situation that may arise,” the post said.

The state-mandated course curriculum advises that, “In the event of an active school attack, school-based law enforcement officers should do the best they can to fill the gap until other first responders can arrive.” An arriving officer’s “first priority is to move in and confront the attacker,” even if that officer has to act alone, the guidance says.

Live updates: Latest developments in the aftermath of the Texas school massacre

The Texas legislature in 2019 approved a measure that required such training for all school police officers. The curriculum teaches officers about Columbine and the shift in police response tactics since then, as well as the mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla., in 2018. It notes that an armed school resource officer remained outside the Parkland high school rather than confronting the gunman, bringing criticism upon himself and his department.

“First responders to the active shooter scene will usually be required to place themselves in harm’s way and display uncommon acts of courage to save the innocent,” the state’s curriculum says.

Chris Grollnek, a retired police officer and active shooter prevention expert, said he was baffled that the school officers waited to confront the gunman while children and teachers were inside the room with him.

“The first responding officer — I don’t care if it’s the deputy dog cartoon guy — he goes in and stops the shooter. That’s just part of the job,” Grollnek said. “You’ve got a ballistic vest. You know what the kids have? Crayons. You are duty-bound to do something. If someone is telling you to stay outside, you disobey that order.”

In 2020, the city of Uvalde’s police SWAT team toured school campuses to interact with students and familiarize themselves in case of an emergency, according to a department Facebook post. The department’s 2018 annual report said the SWAT unit had monthly tactical training sessions, open to all officers to attend.

Rogelio Martin Muñoz, an Uvalde defense attorney and former city council member, said Friday that Uvalde “isn’t one of these communities where you have the distrust between the police and the populace. There isn’t an issue of police violence, police brutality. The criticism is more about that they just don’t do a very good job.”

“I’m not saying I take that position,” Muñoz added. “They’re people that are trying to do a good job that are probably underpaid.”

Sara Spector, who worked as a prosecutor in Uvalde about a decade ago, said officers in the area tend to be both underpaid and undertrained. “They’re asked to do something that you would expect to see out of a New York Police Department or a Dallas Police Department.” said Spector, who is now an attorney in Midland, Tex. But “it’s a different world, especially as you get into less affluent rural communities.”

Abbott said Friday that he is seeking a full examination of the law enforcement response.

“There will be ongoing investigations that detail exactly who knew what when, who was in charge of what strategy. Why was that particular strategy employed? Why were other strategies not employed? Bottom line would be why did they not choose the strategy that would have been best to get in there and to eliminate the killer and to rescue the children? Abbott said.

Tim Craig and Teo Armus in Uvalde, Tex., and Timothy Bella and Nick Miroff in Washington contributed to this report.

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