uvalde

What We Know About the Police Response to the Uvalde Shooting

Law-enforcement officers gather outside of Robb Elementary School following the mass shooting there on May 24, 2022, in Uvalde, Texas. Photo: Brandon Bell/Getty Images

On the morning of May 24, a gunman armed with an AR-15 walked into Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, and opened fire in a fourth-grade classroom, killing 19 children and two teachers. Salvador Ramos, 18, had already shot and critically wounded his grandmother by the time he arrived at the grade school; ultimately, it was a U.S. Border Patrol agent, and not police officers outside the building, who killed Ramos at the scene. The attack had gone on for over an hour before that.

In the hours after the shooting — the deadliest at an elementary school since Sandy Hook, the 22nd at a school so far this year, and the second mass shooting to occur within a ten-day time span — questions emerged about why this pattern keeps playing out. Some general answers to that question are clear. In no other country is it so easy to get a gun as it is in the U.S., where lawmakers remain steadfastly resistant to tightening restrictions even as kids continue to die. But with regard to Uvalde specifically, authorities have offered “conflicting reports” on the role police officers played, or didn’t, in confronting Ramos. “Let’s just rush in because the cops aren’t doing anything like they are supposed to,” parent Javier Cazares, whose 9-year-old daughter Jacklyn died inside her elementary school, said to the crowd that gathered outside, according to the Associated Press. “More could have been done.”

In the days following the shooting, and in light of troubling witness accounts, officials began investigating law enforcement’s response to the shooting. In late May, the New York Times reported that the Texas Rangers had been called in to help with the case; a few days later, after repeated calls from politicians, the Justice Department announced it would be launching its own inquiry.

Steven C. McCraw, the director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, has since said that the order by local police officers to not breach the classroom Ramos occupied for more than an hour “was the wrong decision. Period.” Below, everything we know about what police did and didn’t do in Uvalde.

What do we know about these “conflicting reports”?

There are many details from the first official reports of the Uvalde shooting that have since changed or been completely debunked. For example, initial reports indicated that Ramos wore body armor during the shooting, though that does not appear to have been the case.

Was there a school resource officer stationed outside Robb Elementary when Ramos arrived?

In a press conference after the shooting, McCraw said a school resource officer — the Uvalde City School District reportedly retains its own police department, “staffed with a chief, five cops, and a security guard,” according to the Intercept — “engaged” Ramos as he approached Robb Elementary’s back door. Ultimately, McCraw said, “the subject was able to make it into the school.”

“He went down a hallway, turned right and then turned left and there were two classrooms that were adjoining,” McCraw told reporters. “And that is where the carnage began.”

At first, officials said that an officer shot at Ramos, but that account changed: Days later, Victor Escalon, a regional director at the Texas Department of Public Safety, said Ramos entered the school “unobstructed” without encountering or exchanging fire with the resource officer. Moreover, Escalon reportedly stated that actually, there was no resource officer on the scene, seemingly directly contradicting McCraw’s earlier assertions that one had engaged the shooter.

How long did it take for law enforcement to enter the school?

Ramos reportedly arrived at the school after driving from his grandmother’s house about two minutes away and crashing his truck into a nearby ditch. By that time, he had sent three direct messages on Facebook outlining his plans to shoot his grandma, confirming that he had done it, and saying he was headed for an elementary school next. His grandmother’s neighbor called the cops, as (apparently) did a witness to the crash who saw Ramos exit his car with a gun. Children inside the school called 911 too: One father reported that his 10-year-old daughter died trying to get help.

Despite initial reports to the contrary, it seems that Ramos was already inside the school by the time police and state troopers arrived. Public Safety Department lieutenant Chris Olivarez told the Today show that when they arrived, they could hear gunshots coming from inside the building. Ramos had “barricaded himself inside” the classroom, Olivarez said, and “began shooting numerous children and teachers that were in that classroom, having no regard for human life.” He claimed that police did try to enter the school, but Ramos shot at them, so police started breaking windows to get the students out. But the official explanation of law enforcement’s response to the attack remains vague. “The bottom line is law enforcement was there,” McCraw said at the press conference on Wednesday. “They did engage immediately. They did contain [Ramos] in the classroom.”

McCraw’s specific claim that officers “did contain [Ramos] in the classroom” has since been disputed. Did law enforcement contain him, or did he barricade himself in a fourth-grade classroom? Raul Ortiz, chief of the U.S. Border Patrol, told CNN that Border Patrol came after police and sent in a tactical team to find Ramos. According to the AP, they had to have a staff member unlock the classroom door for them, a detail that raised questions about what police were doing in the meantime.

On May 26, Chris Olivarez appeared on CNN’s The Situation Room and said that a reason police took so long to enter the school was because they didn’t know where the gunman was. “They are receiving gunshots,” he said. “At that point, if they proceed any further not knowing where the suspect was at, they could’ve been shot, they could’ve been killed, and that gunman would have had an opportunity to kill other people inside that school.”

On June 20, the Texas Tribune published a report drawing on a law enforcement investigation, radio transcripts, and surveillance footage; the Texas Department of Public Safety reportedly confirmed its contents. According to the Tribune, a handful of police officers gained entry to the school “early” on, shortly after Ramos initially opened fire. The first three officers (two from the Uvalde police department along with one from the school district’s police force) carried handguns. Eight others — including the Uvalde school district’s police chief, Pete Arredondo, who apparently left his radios outside the building — arrived just after and, according to the Tribune, remained stationed outside the classroom without firing a shot for the duration of the shooting. Initially, Arredondo said they lacked the “firepower” to take on the gunman; he also requested that a SWAT team be stationed across the street and asked for keys to the classroom. Over the next 40 minutes, more officers reportedly entered the building. They had access to a Halligan bar (a tool firefighters use to break down locked doors), and within minutes they had ballistic shields. They also had firsthand information about what was happening in the classroom: One officer received a call from his wife, teacher Eva Mireles, telling him she was shot and bleeding. Mireles ultimately died from her injuries.

And yet all these officers held back, the Tribune reports, waiting in the hallway as Ramos fired off round after round. One Texas Department of Public Safety officer who entered the building asked the group stationed outside the classroom if there were still kids inside. “If there is, then they just need to go in,” he told his colleagues, one of whom responded that they didn’t know. “Y’all don’t know if there’s kids in there?” the agent countered. “If there’s kids in there we need to go in there.” Another officer replied, “Whoever is in charge will determine that.” But it doesn’t seem clear that anyone knew definitively who that person was. Despite that DPS agent’s insistence that they get into the classroom, the waiting officers waffled about needing a supervisor’s approval. According to the Tribune, Arredondo did not believe he was the person in command during the incident, though law-enforcement sources — and body-cam transcripts — suggested it would’ve been him. In a statement to the Tribune via his attorney, Arredondo said, “My memory is that the team on the north side of the hallway tried [the] room on their side, which would be room 112 and I tried to open room 111 within minutes of arriving on the scene. We both took the sprayed gunfire through the walls.”

What was law enforcement doing before entering the classroom?

Between the time of the crash and Border Patrol’s entry into the school — approximately 40 minutes; law enforcement reports that Ramos was shot within an hour — a crowd had gathered outside. Juan Carranza, who lives across the street from Robb Elementary, told the AP that he saw Ramos get out of his truck but police officers on the scene made no immediate attempt to enter the school. “Go in there! Go in there!” he said a woman shouted at them, but police didn’t go. “There were more of them. There was just one of him.” Another parent who arrived at the school after the shooting began told the Washington Post he saw other parents breaking windows in an attempt to evacuate the kids. “There were five or six of [us] fathers, hearing the gunshots, and [police officers] were telling us to move back,” Cazares told the paper. “We didn’t care about us. We wanted to storm the building. We were saying, ‘Let’s go,’ because that is how worried we were, and we wanted to get our babies out.”

The New York Times reports that two members of the Uvalde police department did go into the school once the massacre was underway but “fell back” after being shot and called in the tactical team. Cazares told the Times that he rushed to the scene and witnessed officers “just standing out there” in front of the school for 15 to 20 minutes as they waited for protective shields. “They were there without proper equipment,” he said.

Angeli Rose Gomez told The Wall Street Journal that she drove to her children’s school after hearing about the attack and saw police “just standing outside the fence. They weren’t going in there or running anywhere.” She said she and others politely asked them to intervene, then began pleading. Gomez said federal marshals handcuffed her, telling her she was under arrest for interfering in the investigation. She saw other parents pepper-sprayed and tackled to the ground and Tasered, she added. Once she persuaded other cops to uncuff her, she ran into the school and removed her kids. Regarding authorities’ forceful response to parents, Gomez said, “They didn’t do that to the shooter, but they did that to us. That’s how it felt.”

Per the Washington Post, radio transmissions from a channel used by EMS workers show one official told first responders to “please, just stay back,” at 11:53 a.m. the day of the shooting. About an hour later, another warning went out on the radio channel: “Do not attempt to get closer.” Police had reportedly set up a perimeter by then.

Olivarez has stated that law enforcement didn’t have the “manpower” to “make entry,” so “their primary focus was to evacuate as many children as possible.” McCraw said they contributed by keeping Ramos “pinned down,” by which he appears to mean contained in the classroom where he shot and killed 21 people.

“Obviously this is a situation we failed in the sense that we didn’t prevent this mass attack,” he noted, “but I can tell you, those officers that arrived on the scene and put their lives in danger, they saved other kids.”

Video subsequently circulating on social media suggests some officers may have been otherwise engaged. In the footage, officers appear to have pinned a bystander to the ground in the parking lot outside the school, while colleagues in tactical gear walk around, trying to corral the crowd away from crime-scene tape. But once officers did make it into the elementary school, the shooting reportedly did not end immediately. A fourth-grader who made it out of the classroom alive, having hidden under a table, told CBS affiliate KENS 5: “When the cops came, the cop said, ‘Yell if you need help!’ And one of the persons in my class said, ‘Help.’ The guy overheard and he came in and shot her. The cop barged into that classroom. The guy shot at the cop. And the cops started shooting.”

On July 6, a report by the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training, originally commissioned by DPS, added new details to the story. An officer outside the school reportedly had Ramos in his crosshairs but held off on firing while awaiting “confirmation from his supervisor” that he could shoot. “When he turned back to address the suspect,” according to the Austin American-Statesman, which obtained a copy of the report, “the suspect had already entered (the school).” The document says law enforcement had a number of options both to stop Ramos and get into the school, none of which they took. It also says they had more weapons than previously acknowledged. But after Ramos fired on officers in the hallway outside the classroom, it states, their overall response started “losing momentum.”

“There were multiple points in time where the driving force increased through additional gunfire,” the report notes. “However, officers did not act on these increases in driving force. Additionally, officers on the scene continually received equipment and tactical components that increased their capabilities to address the suspect.” Though it stays away from concrete conclusions about law enforcement’s handling of the shooting, the report nonetheless concludes that if they had acted differently and more decisively, “it is possible that some of the people who died during this event could have been saved.”

A leaked security video obtained by the Austin American-Statesman appears to further confirm police inaction, with footage showing officers gathering in the school’s hallways but not moving to engage Ramos. Throughout the video, officers appear to do little besides huddle or take cover, even as more heavily armed officers arrive at the scene; at one point, two officers appear to fist-bump; at another, one stops to apply hand sanitizer before more gunfire sounds off. Uvalde officials have criticized the leak, arguing that the footage should have first been shown to the victims’ families. “Someone in government gave it to the media before the families had a chance to deal with it and prepare themselves for this highly sensitive material,” said Texas state senator Ronald Gutierrez, who has been critical of the investigation.

Where was the Border Patrol tactical team?

Reports about Border Patrol’s involvement in the response to the shooting are still incomplete, but on Friday, May 27, it was reported that the tactical team that eventually led the charge into the classroom arrived between 12 p.m. and 12:10 p.m. That’s 50 minutes before they breached the classroom and subdued the shooter. The New York Times reported that it was the Uvalde Police Department that kept Border Patrol from engaging, though it’s unclear why.

Predictably, Texas leadership has come down on the side of law enforcement.

“The reality is, as horrible as what happened, it could have been worse,” Governor Greg Abbott said in the shooting’s aftermath, according to the Texas Tribune, praising law enforcement’s “amazing courage.”

“It is a fact,” he said on May 25, that because officers responded quickly, “they were able to save lives. Unfortunately, not enough.” Abbott blamed shootings in general on “mental-health challenges” — though Ramos, he noted, didn’t have diagnosed mental-health problems; in any case, Abbott recently cut $211 million from the state’s department that would provide such support. Abbott’s proposed solution on shootings typically involves adding more guns: Hours after the tragedy, for example, Texas attorney general Ken Paxton lobbied for arming schoolteachers, telling Fox News: “Law enforcement cannot react quick enough to stop these things every time. So we’re gonna need people on the ground, whether they’re trained police officers or whether they are people that are trained in the school.”

It’s an illogical argument to make, particularly as the police officers Abbott and Paxton praise claim that even with their firearms and their training, they couldn’t stop one person with an assault rifle. How an elementary-school teacher with a handgun could’ve ended the attack is unclear, but what does seem apparent is that armed guards do little to deter mass shooters. America offers up a lot of data on gun violence, and according to the Trace, schools with armed officers tend to be the schools gunmen target, not the reverse. Looking at four school shootings from 2018 (including Parkland, where the school resource officer did not intervene), the Trace noted that none of the campus cops managed to stop the attacks. What these officers often end up doing, per the Trace, is escalating harassment — particularly against students of color — on a day-to-day basis. Yet another thing for kids to fear in the classroom.

State officials have now said that local police standing and waiting outside the room was “the wrong decision.”

On May 27, DPS director McCraw shared more details at a news conference outside the school. According to McCraw, the school district’s chief of police had told officers and Border Patrol agents on the scene not to engage with Ramos, believing there was “no one living anymore” in the classroom and that “no kids were at risk.” This despite the fact that 911 calls were still coming in at the time — including from at least two students. The chief of police, who already had 19 officers on the scene, believed that “they needed more equipment and more officers to do a tactical breach.” McCraw told reporters that Ramos had shot at least 100 rounds from his AR-15 before police entered the school.

When asked if parents of the victims were owed an apology, McCraw responded, “If I thought it would help, I’d apologize.”

At a Texas Senate hearing on June 21, McCraw claimed that police could’ve put an end to the shooting within three minutes if they’d acted, and called their response an “abject failure.” Based on the information currently available, McCraw said, it appeared the classroom door only locked from the outside — meaning that Ramos couldn’t have closed himself inside, and police wasted valuable time looking for a key they didn’t need. McCraw added that he did not believe anybody ever checked to see whether or not the door was locked.

“The officers had weapons; the children had none,” he said. “The officers had body armor; the children had none. The officers had training; the subject had none. One hour, 14 minutes, and eight seconds. That’s how long children waited, and the teachers waited, in room 111 to be rescued.”

The Justice Department will investigate the police response to the shooting at Robb Elementary.

After repeated calls from politicians, like Castro, and the public for the Justice Department to get involved, the department finally responded on Sunday, May 29, announcing a “critical incident review.” The review was reportedly requested by the Uvalde mayor, and will be conducted by the Office of Community Oriented Policing. An official report is expected to be made public once the investigation is concluded.

“The goal of the review is to provide an independent account of law enforcement actions and responses that day, and to identify lessons learned and best practices to help first responders prepare for and respond to active shooter events,” said Justice Department spokesperson Anthony Coley. The spokesperson stressed that the investigation would be “fair, transparent, and independent.”

Local law enforcement has reportedly stopped cooperating with the Texas Department of Public Safety investigation.

On Tuesday, May 31, it was ABC News reported that the Uvalde Police Department and the Uvalde Independent School District police — both of which were on site during the Robb Elementary School shooting — had stopped cooperating with the state-level investigation into the response. ABC News cited sources that claimed that the cooperations topped after Col. Steven McCraw told reporters that standing down and not going into the classroom was “the wrong decision.”

The Uvalde Police Department and the Independent School District police did not comment on the report at the time, but the Texas Department of Public Safety, which is conducting the investigation, released a statement. “The Uvalde Police Department and Uvalde CISD Police have been cooperating with investigators,” they said. However, per the statement, cooperation may have stalled. “The chief of the Uvalde CISD Police provided an initial interview but has not responded to a request for a follow-up interview with the Texas Rangers that was made two days ago.”

The Texas Rangers aren’t the only agency investigating the response to the shooting. The Justice Department announced an official review of the response in late May, but it was unclear if local law-enforcement agencies were still cooperating with that investigation.

A House report confirms “systemic failures” in the police response.

A specially convened Texas House investigative committee released its 77-page report on July 17, cataloguing a series of failures and “egregious poor decision making” by the almost 400 responding officers and people who should have been in command. The report points to widespread confusion over who was in charge of law enforcement’s response, a communications breakdown that substantially slowed the officers’ actions. Even after they knew that Ramos had wounded people inside the classrooms, for example, seemingly no one on the scene considered “shifting to an active shooter–style response or otherwise acting more urgently to breach the classrooms,” the report says. Officers lost time looking for that key they apparently didn’t need but never asked the principal, who definitely had one. The Uvalde police chief was on vacation when the shooting occurred, but told the acting chief — Lieutenant Mariano Pargas, who would be suspended over the report — to set up a command post. Pargas sort of did, but quickly left it, contributing to what the New York Times describes as a “rudderless law enforcement response.”

Meanwhile, misinformation spread on the ground, which the report says probably stopped officers “from taking a more assertive role” earlier on. Bad judgment reportedly permeated every level of law enforcement on the scene, from the school-district police force (under Arredondo’s leadership) to the Department of Public Safety even to Border Patrol, which ultimately assumed control over the situation.

The report also says that Robb Elementary “did not adequately prepare for the risk of an armed intruder on campus,” with staff routinely neglecting to lock doors with faulty latches. It points to frequent lockdowns and security alerts that may have led to “relaxed vigilance on campus.” But how much responsibility should an elementary school shoulder for defending itself against the hypothetical threat of an active gunman when legislators could make it much harder for anyone to obtain an assault rifle in the first place? Notably, the report found that no existing gun laws — both state and federal — would have kept Ramos from purchasing his AR-15. That alone should arguably offer a clue to politicians looking to prevent similar tragedies in the future. The report states that “a safer environment for all Texas children is one of the ways we can honor the memory of the students and teachers murdered in Uvalde,” but Texas Republicans, who control the statehouse, have not made any moves toward restricting firearm sales.

In any case, the point of the report was to provide more information to both the public and the victims’ families, and it did not change the basic facts of the shooting that have emerged over the past two months. “We all make mistakes. We are all human. But they should have admitted to it and then resigned,” Leonard Sandoval told the Times. His grandson, Xavier Lopez, died from his injuries in the hospital. Ultimately, Sandoval said, “It’s the lying that hurts.”

School police chief Pete Arredondo has been fired.

Three months after the shooting, the Uvalde school board voted to fire Pete Arredondo, the now-former school police chief who was said to have been the incident commander at the response to the shooting. (Arredondo has denied he was ever the incident commander — an allegation he called “patently false” in a statement released on August 24.)

Arredondo’s contract was terminated by unanimous vote after the school board listened to testimony from six grieving family and community members. “If a law enforcement person’s job is to protect and serve, why didn’t you protect my friends and teachers on May 24?” asked 10-year-old Caitlyne Gonzalez, a friend of one of the shooting victims, Jackie Cazares. “I have messages for Pete Arredondo and all the law enforcement that were there that day: Turn in your badge and step down. You don’t deserve to wear one.”

The former school police chief has been on administrative leave since June and did not attend the meeting. He did, however, release a 17-page letter addressed to the school board through his lawyer, denying any responsibility and calling the vote “an unconstitutional public lynching.” Arredondo claimed that neither he nor his council attended the school-board meeting for fear of their safety due to “death threats.”

The letter also questioned the motives of parents and community members calling for his removal. “Those fighting with anger lash out, trying to find a means to move on, and with anger, comes the blame game.” The statement continues, suggesting that Arredondo is being blamed for the tragedy because the shooter is already dead “so those grieving do not have a target to direct their anger toward.” The statement further insists that Arredondo “did everything he knew how to save the children and school employees on May 24.”

Meanwhile, the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District is facing a $27 billion class-action lawsuit from parents and family members of those killed in the shooting.

More departures slowly followed Arredondo’s.

In late October, the DPS fired Sergeant Juan Maldonado over the shooting without clarifying his role in law enforcement’s response. Though the DPS put seven of its troopers under internal investigation over the summer, Maldonado was the first to lose his job. (One of the other troopers, Crimson Elizondo, resigned from her post and took a campus-officer job with the Uvalde school system only to be fired 24 hours after her professional history became public knowledge.) Meanwhile, Chance Collins, the chief of the Texas Rangers, the DPS department handling the investigation into the shooting, and his deputy retired without any announcement or notice in September and August, respectively. The DPS confirmed their departures in October, but did not say whether or not they were related to the Uvalde response.

Harrowing audio of 911 calls underscores the extent of law enforcement’s inaction.

In November, the Texas Tribune and ProPublica released recordings of 911 calls from inside and outside the school along with radio chatter between the responding officers. The audio paints a picture of rampant miscommunication and conflicting information — that there were no kids inside classrooms 111 and 112, for example; that the school police chief was in there with them; that the gunman was contained in an office; that, actually, the rooms were full of victims and that one officer’s wife was dying inside. That last report, of course, turned out to be true, though it’s not presently clear how many of the responding officers received intel on the 911 calls. Although the confusion at the scene has been well documented, it’s the desperation of children calling for help from inside the school — and repeatedly being told to wait — that’s stirring outrage once again.

“I’m in classroom 112,” 10-year-old Khloie Torres, who survived, told a dispatcher at 12:10 p.m. Torres said that there was a school shooting in progress and pleaded for help. “Please hurry,” she said. “There is a lot of dead bodies.” This was the first of three calls Torres made; aid would not arrive for more than 40 minutes. Over 20 minutes after she made her first call, she dialed 911 again: “Can you tell the police to come to my room?” Khloie whispered into the phone. The dispatcher replied, “I’ve already told them to go to the room. We’re trying to get someone to you.” But border patrol wouldn’t break into the room after 12:50 p.m. And yet at 12:20 p.m., Arredondo could be heard on body-cam footage telling an officer that “we have victims in there. I don’t want to have any more. You know what I’m saying?”

Ruben Torres Jr., Khloie’s father, told the Tribune that law enforcement’s slow response to his daughter’s calls for help left him “disgusted.” A veteran of the Marine Corps, Ruben said, “There was no control. That dude had control the entire 77 minutes. They didn’t have him barricaded. He had the police barricaded outside. It’s plain and simple. The police didn’t go in. That’s your job: to go in.”

This article has been updated.

What We Know About the Cops’ Response to the Uvalde Shooting