More than a year and a half after the school massacre in Uvalde, Texas, the Justice Department on Thursday published a painstaking and independent examination of the law enforcement response, finding broad and “unimaginable” failures that delayed medical care to the victims.
Nineteen children and two teachers were killed, and at least 17 others were wounded. Officers took 77 minutes to confront and kill the gunman, who was contained with his victims inside a pair of connected classrooms at Robb Elementary School. “People would have survived,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said, had there been a swifter response.
The 600-page report describes, in often-minute detail, the breakdown in leadership, training, coordination and communication among the large number of local, state and federal law enforcement agencies that arrived at the scene.
It highlighted the misinformation and poor handling of the immediate aftermath of the school shooting on May 24, 2022, that deepened the pain of the victims’ families who, in some cases, were told their children were alive, only to later find out they had been killed.
Here are five takeaways from the report:
Federal investigators faulted the school police chief for delays.
Within days of the shooting, blame fell on Chief Pete Arredondo, who led the small police force in charge of the Uvalde public schools. The director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, Steve McCraw, accused Mr. Arredondo of being primarily responsible for the delay in confronting the gunman. Mr. Arredondo, who was fired, has defended himself, saying he never believed he was in charge.
Others among the scores of officers who initially responded also did not move to quickly confront the gunman, including state police troopers and Texas Rangers.
But the Justice Department report refocused scrutiny on Mr. Arredondo, whom they called the “de facto on-scene incident commander,” repeatedly highlighting decisions he made that investigators said had been wrong. In particular, the report faulted Mr. Arredondo for a critical decision: transitioning from treating the gunman as an active shooter, who must be immediately confronted, to a barricaded subject, who is contained and can be approached more slowly.
“With the lack of action by the FOS and UCISD PD Chief Arredondo’s leadership decision to transition to a barricaded posture, all forward momentum stopped for the substantial number of officers in the hallway,” the report found, using abbreviations to refer to the officers who were first on the scene and to the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District.
Another decision came later, the report found, as Mr. Arredondo directed some of the officers to clear children from other classrooms before seeking to go after the gunman. “This was a major contributing factor in the delay to making entry into rooms 111/112,” the report found.
As a group of officers was preparing to breach the classroom around 12:12 p.m., about 40 minutes into the encounter, Mr. Arredondo “put up a hand as if to slow them down or stop them,” the report found. “‘Guys, hold on, we are going to clear the building first,’” Mr. Arredondo said, according to the report.
But other police leaders also failed to step in.
The report found that while he gave orders, Mr. Arredondo failed to establish a command post to organize the response. The same was true of the supervisors who arrived from other, much larger police agencies: the Uvalde Police Department, the Uvalde County Sheriff’s Office and the Texas Department of Public Safety.
The agencies showed “no urgency for establishing a command and control structure,” the report found, leading to problems with sharing information and “limited-to-no direction for personnel in the hallway” just outside the classrooms where the gunman was holed up.
And, the report found, none of the supervisors at the scene effectively questioned why the officers were not quickly trying to get into the classrooms.
The police chief had no active shooter training. Neither did the sheriff.
The Uvalde police chief was out of town on the day of the shooting so a lieutenant, Mariano Pargas, was the acting chief. But, the report found, he “lacked the requisite training to manage the incident” and had no active shooter or tactical training.
That fact, the report said, was out of line with the department’s policy and suggested “a failure of agency leadership to hold personnel accountable.”
Mr. Pargas, after the school shooting, resigned from the police department.
The report also said the county sheriff, Ruben Nolasco, had no active shooter training and “minimal leadership/supervision training.” Sheriff Nolasco did not try to establish command and did not coordinate with Mr. Pargas, even when the two were near each other.
Sheriff Nolasco is up for re-election in the spring.
The report gave clear direction: Officers must confront a shooter.
A central conclusion of the report was that officers who respond to active shootings must continue trying to confront a gunman and end the threat, rather than waiting for better equipment. The report found that officers at the scene were waiting for such things as keys to the classroom doors, or ballistic shields, or more highly trained officers, before attempting to make entry.
“Officers should be trained to confront and stop the subject’s actions immediately,” the report found, reiterating guidance that has been part of the active shooter protocols after the shooting at Columbine High School in 1999.
The report found that police departments and their leadership in Uvalde needed better training on how to differentiate between active shooter and barricaded subject situations. Federal investigators found that training for the school police department “seemed to suggest, inappropriately,” that an active shooter could become a barricaded subject situation.
The Robb Elementary School shooting should have been considered an active shooting, even during the long stretches where the gunman was not firing, because he was inside with victims, preventing law enforcement and medical personnel from reaching and treating them, the report found.
There were 11 officers who were “first on scene,” and they “had sufficient training and equipment, as well as personnel, to engage the subject,” the report found. They did not need more than they had to do so, it said.
“Every second counts,” said Mr. Garland, speaking in Uvalde on Thursday. “The priority of law enforcement must be to immediately enter the room and stop the shooter with whatever weapons and tools officers have with them.”
The federal inquiry is over, but others remain.
While Mr. Garland said lives could have been saved with a faster response, the report itself does not investigate or analyze that possibility. The state has promised to make a determination as part of its inquiry, which remains ongoing. Complete autopsies of the victims have not been released.
There is also an open investigation by the local district attorney for Uvalde who has promised to present her findings to a grand jury to consider any possible state criminal charges against the officers.
The report by the Justice Department, aimed at making recommendations for how to improve policing in Uvalde and elsewhere in the future, did not consider criminal wrongdoing.