Police had enough officers on the scene of the Uvalde school massacre to have stopped the gunman three minutes after he entered the building, and they never checked a classroom door to see if it was locked, the head of the Texas state police testified Tuesday, pronouncing the law enforcement response an “abject failure.”
Police officers with rifles instead stood andwhile the gunman carried out the May 24 attack at Robb Elementary School that left . The 18-year-old gunman used an AR-15-style semi-automatic rifle.
The classroom door, it turned out, could not be locked from the inside, yet there is no indication officers tried to open it while the gunman was holed up, Col. Steve McCraw, director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, said in blistering testimony at a state Senate hearing. Instead, he said, police waited around for a key.
“I have great reasons to believe it was never secured,” McCraw said from the door. “How about trying the door and seeing if it’s locked?”
Delays in the law enforcement response have become the focus of federal, state and local investigations.
McCraw lit into Pete Arredondo, the Uvalde school district police chief who was in charge, saying: “The only thing stopping a hallway of dedicated officers from entering Room 111 and 112 was the on-scene commander who decided to place the lives of officers before the lives of children.”
“Obviously, not enough training was done in this situation, plain and simple. Because terrible decisions were made by the on-site commander,” McCraw said. He said investigators have been unable to “re-interview” Arredondo.
The public safety chief presented a timeline that said three officers with two rifles entered the building less than three minutes after the gunman. Several more officers entered minutes after that.
The decision by police to hold back went against much of what law enforcement has learned in the two decades since the 1999 Columbine High School shooting in Colorado in which 13 people were killed, McCraw said.
“You don’t wait for a SWAT team. You have one officer, that’s enough,” he said. He also said officers did not need to wait for shields to enter the classroom. The first shield arrived less than 20 minutes after the shooter entered, according to McCraw.
Also, eight minutes after the shooter entered, an officer reported that police had a “hooligan” crowbar that they could use to break down the classroom door, McCraw said.
State police initially said the gunman entered the school through an exterior door that had been propped open by a teacher. However, McCraw said the teacher had closed the door, but unbeknownst to her, it could be locked only from the outside. The gunman “walked straight through,” McCraw said.
Texas Sen. Paul Bettencourt said the entire premise of lockdown and shooter training is worthless if the doors can’t be locked.
Bettencourt challenged Arredondo to testify in public and said he should have removed himself from the job immediately. He angrily pointed out that shots were heard while police waited in the hallway.
“There are at least six shots fired during this time,” he said. “Why is this person shooting? He’s killing somebody. Yet this incident commander finds every reason to do nothing.”
Questions about the law enforcement response began days after the massacre. McCraw said three days after the shooting that Arredondo made “the wrong decision” when he chose not to storm the classroom for more than 70 minutes, even as trapped fourth graders inside two classrooms were desperately calling 911 for help and anguished parents outside the school begged officers to go inside.
Arredondo later said he didn’t consider himself the person in charge and assumed someone else had taken control of the law enforcement response. He declined repeated requests for comment from The Associated Press.
As for the amount of time that elapsed before officers entered the classroom, McCraw said: “In an active shooter environment, that’s intolerable.”
“This set our profession back a decade. That’s what it did,” he said of the police response in Uvalde.
Police haven’t found anything that would be a red flag in the shooter’s school disciplinary files but learned through interviews that he engaged in animal cruelty. “He walked around with a bag of dead cats,” McCraw said.
In the days and weeks after the shooting, authorities gave conflicting and incorrect accounts of what happened, sometimes withdrawing statements hours after making them. But McCraw assured lawmakers: “Everything I’ve testified today is corroborated.”
McCraw said if he could make just one recommendation, it would be for more training. He also said a “go-bag” should be put in every state patrol car in Texas, including a shield and door-breaching tools.
“I want every trooper to know how to breach and have the tools to do it,” he said.
Families of those who lost their lives during the shooting arefrom law enforcement after the Austin American-Statesman published a photo of armed police in the school hallway. The images reviewed by the newspaper show a timestamp taken nearly one hour before the gunman was stopped.
Several family members of victims made emotional pleas during a school board meeting on Monday to fire Arredondo.
“We were failed by Pete Arredondo,” said Brett Cross, the uncle and guardian of victim Uziyah Garcia. “He failed our kids, teachers, parents, and city, and by keeping him on your staff, y’all are continuing to fail us.”
“My mom died protecting her students. But who was protecting my mom?” said Lyliana Garcia, the daughter of Irma Garcia, one of the two teachers who died trying to protect their students.
A senior sheriff’s deputy told The New York Times that two Uvalde city police officers also passed up a fleeting chance to shoot the gunman before he entered the school.
The unidentified officers, one of whom was armed with an AR-15-style rifle, said theyplaying in the line of fire outside the school, Chief Deputy Ricardo Rios of nearby Zavalla County told the newspaper.