Texas state police deflect blame in Uvalde shooting failures
This article is co-published with ProPublica, a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for ProPublica’s Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox as soon as they are published.
Also, sign up for The Brief, our daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.
Ever since the Uvalde elementary school shooting left 19 students and two teachers dead, blame for the delayed response has been thrust on local law enforcement. The school police chief was fired and the city’s acting police chief was suspended.
But the only statewide law enforcement agency, the Texas Department of Public Safety, has largely avoided scrutiny even though it had scores of officers on the scene. That’s in part because DPS leaders are controlling which records get released to the public and carefully shaping a narrative that casts local law enforcement as incompetent.
Now, in the wake of a critical legislative report and body camera footage released by local officials, law enforcement experts from across the country are questioning why DPS didn’t take a lead role in the response as it had done before during other mass shootings and public disasters.
The state police agency is tasked with helping all of Texas’ 254 counties respond to emergencies such as mass shootings, but it is particularly important in rural communities where smaller police departments lack the level of training and experience of larger metropolitan law enforcement agencies, experts say. That was the case in Uvalde, where the state agency’s 91 troopers at the scene dwarfed the school district’s five officers, the city police’s 25 emergency responders and the county’s 16 sheriff’s deputies.
The state police agency has been “totally intransparent in pointing out their own failures and inadequacies,” said Charles A. McClelland, who served as Houston police chief for six years before retiring in 2016. “I don’t know how the public, even in the state of Texas, would have confidence in the leadership of DPS after this.”
Instead of taking charge when it became clear that neither the school’s police chief nor the Uvalde Police Department had assumed command, DPS contributed to the 74-minute chaotic response that did not end until a Border Patrol tactical unit that arrived much later entered the classroom and killed the gunman.
“Here’s what DPS should have done as soon as they got there,” said Patrick O’Burke, a law enforcement consultant and former DPS commander who retired in 2008. “They should have contacted [the school police chief] and said: ‘We’re here. We have people.’ They should have just organized everything, said, ‘What are all of our resources?’ And they should have organized the breach.”
DPS has fought the release of records that could provide a more complete picture of the role state troopers played during the mass shooting. Agency officials declined to answer repeated questions from ProPublica and The Texas Tribune for more than three months, citing an ongoing investigation. On Tuesday afternoon, DPS officials said they had referred five responding troopers to the agency’s internal affairs division, the Office of Inspector General, for an investigation into whether they broke any department policies. Two have been suspended, according to DPS.
DPS also released a July email in which its director, Col. Steve McCraw, said the agency would “provide proper training and guidelines for recognizing and overcoming poor command decisions at an active shooter scene.” The agency has refused to share its active shooter policies and training manuals.
The latest moves by DPS come a week after reporters from ProPublica and the Tribune sought comments from the four appointed members of the Public Safety Commission, which oversees the agency, about the response by state troopers.
DPS did not identify which officers were being investigated or detail potential wrongdoing.
Previously, agency officials referred reporters to comments made by the head of DPS during a June legislative hearing in which he largely blamed the Uvalde school district’s police chief, Pete Arredondo, for the failed response.
During that testimony, McCraw told lawmakers that the time it took for law enforcement to rescue teachers and students at the elementary school was an “abject failure.” He called Arredondo the only obstacle between armed police and the teenage shooter while dismissing the idea that DPS could or should have taken control of the emergency response.
“I’m reluctant to encourage or even think of any situation where you’d want some level of hierarchy where a larger police department gets to come in and take over,” McCraw said.
Yet, DPS has sprung into action time and again when disaster strikes in Texas, which has proved key during mass shootings and public emergencies, local officials across the state said.
More than three decades ago, for example, state troopers helped local law enforcement confront a gunman after arriving within minutes of a shooting at a Luby’s Cafeteria in Killeen, about 60 miles north of Austin. The shooter killed himself after a brief exchange of gunfire.
“They knew that people were dying, and so they acted,” said Suzanna Hupp, a former Republican state representative whose parents died during the 1991 Luby’s massacre. She said that didn’t happen in Uvalde, adding that “clearly there was a command breakdown there.”
In a 2013 chemical explosion in West, about 70 miles south of Dallas, state troopers immediately took control of the law enforcement response at the request of the county’s emergency management coordinator. And in the 2018 shooting at Santa Fe High School, about 30 miles south of Houston, state troopers quickly fired at the gunman, according to local law enforcement officials who initially responded. The rapid engagement by school police and DPS was key to the gunman surrendering, district and county officials said.
“DPS had a tremendous role in Santa Fe of stopping the killing because they were among the first to arrive and they actually did what they were supposed to,” said Texas City Independent School District trustee Mike Matranga, the district’s security chief at the time of the shooting. He added that, in Uvalde, DPS supervisors “should have essentially asked [Arredondo] to stand down due to his ineffectiveness and taken over.”
Police experts and lawmakers pointed to clear signs that they believe should have alerted emergency responders that no one was in control. Arredondo, who resigned from his elected City Council seat in July and was fired from the school district on Aug. 24, remained inside the hallway on the phone during the shooting. He said he was trying to find a key to the classroom that the gunman was in. Investigators later determined that the door was likely unlocked. The school police chief did not identify himself as the incident commander and told The Texas Tribune he never issued any orders; his lawyer later said his firing was unjust. In a letter, Arredondo’s attorneys said the police chief “could not have served as the incident commander and did not attempt to take that role” because he was on the front lines.
Separately, no command post was set up outside of the school, which lawmakers noted should have been an indicator to responding officers that no one was in charge.
About 45 minutes after the gunman began shooting, a U.S. Border Patrol SWAT team, known as BORTAC, arrived at the scene. The unit typically handles dangerous situations involving migrants. Its responsibilities do not include responding to school shootings, but Paul Guerrero, the team’s acting commander, told the House committee that issued the legislative report that he chose to act after arriving and encountering the disorganized scene.
Guerrero requested surveillance through classroom windows, retrieved a door breaching tool from his car, ordered officers to set up a medical triage for victims and organized an assault team that consisted of several agencies. Eventually, he led about a half-dozen officers into the classroom and a Border Patrol agent killed the gunman at 12:50 p.m. No state troopers or school police were on that team.
Guerrero could not be reached for comment, and a spokesperson for Customs and Border Protection did not answer questions about the agency’s response, saying it was conducting a review.
According to the House committee report released in July, “the attacker fired most of his shots and likely murdered most of his innocent victims before any responder set foot in the building.” But the report said that given the information known about “victims who survived through the time of the breach and who later died on the way to the hospital, it is plausible that some victims could have survived if they had not had to wait 73 additional minutes for rescue.”
The disconnect over who should take charge and when exemplifies a need for detailed planning and frequent training between larger law enforcement agencies and smaller departments, police experts told ProPublica and the Tribune.
Larger agencies with more personnel, equipment and training should have agreements with school districts that clearly state that they will assume command upon arriving at critical incidents that include active shooters, hostage situations and explosive devices, said Gil Kerlikowske, a former Seattle police chief and CBP commissioner until 2017. He and other experts said that even if school police are designated as the lead, the role of every law enforcement agency in the region should be specified.
San Antonio, one of the state’s biggest police departments, has such agreements with local school districts and universities that name the bigger city police agency as the incident commander in the event of a mass shooting. After the Uvalde shooting, San Antonio police Chief William McManus met with school officials in his city and reminded them that his agency would take charge in an active shooter situation.
McManus, whose officers arrived in Uvalde after the gunman was killed, said in an interview that because of the confusion at the scene, he felt the need to emphasize how his department would respond to such an incident in San Antonio.
It is unclear what, if any, involvement DPS or another law enforcement agency had with the Uvalde school district’s mass shooting plan because those governmental bodies declined to release such documents or answer questions. The state police did not have a written memorandum of agreement with the school district outlining its role in such situations, according to DPS records.
Alfred Garza III, who lost his only child, 10-year-old Amerie, during the Uvalde shooting, wonders if his daughter could have been saved had law enforcement, including DPS, acted faster. Her death was largely due to blood loss from gunshot wounds to her torso, according to a preliminary autopsy report.
“They can sit there and point fingers at everybody else and say that they weren’t responsible or they don’t have any accountability over what happened,” Garza said of DPS. “They were there, too, and they didn’t do shit.”
Diana Olvedo-Karau, who was a secretary in the Uvalde school district’s transportation department before retiring in June and has three nephews who attended Robb Elementary at the time of the shooting, was shocked when she watched body camera footage and learned for the first time “how many DPS officers were there.”
She said she and others trusted DPS to act more decisively during the city’s worst tragedy. The state agency has a major presence in the city of more than 16,000 residents because of Gov. Greg Abbott’s border security initiative, Operation Lone Star, which has deployed thousands of state National Guard members and DPS troopers to the border. (It is separately being investigated by the Department of Justice for alleged civil rights violations. The governor’s office has said arrests and prosecutions under Operation Lone Star are “fully constitutional.”)
Olvedo-Karau said most residents believed McCraw when he placed the blame almost solely on local police. Now, she said, she and other residents feel betrayed after seeing where DPS troopers were in relation to the shooter and how early some arrived.
“To not take any responsibility for the fact that they were there early on, earlier than a lot of the local law enforcement agencies, and to shift the focus and the blame onto the local organizations doesn’t speak very well of them and is in many ways very unethical,” she said.
Uvalde school police failed to follow their own policies, which outlined that in an active shooter situation, Arredondo would become the “person in control of the efforts of all law enforcement and first responders on the scene,” according to the state House committee report. But the report also stated that school police “were not the only ones expected to supply the leadership needed during this tragedy.”
“Hundreds of responders from numerous law enforcement agencies — many of whom were better trained and better equipped than the school district police — quickly arrived on the scene. Those other responders, who also had received training on active shooter response and the interrelation of law enforcement agencies, could have helped to address the unfolding chaos. Yet in this crisis, no responder seized the initiative to establish an incident command post,” the report states.
While the report was among the first to acknowledge that failures in the response extended beyond local law enforcement, it did not name specific agencies.
National emergency protocols teach that the first officer at a critical scene typically becomes the incident commander because that person has the most knowledge about the developing situation. But often that role will be transferred as officers with higher ranks or from larger agencies who are more equipped to oversee the broader law enforcement response arrive, experts said. Typically that happens when the initial incident commander requests help, but it can also occur if other supervisors or officers with different agencies note that the scene is not under control and speak to the first responder.
Any DPS supervisors should have immediately asked their troopers who was in command, said Bob Harrison, a former California police chief and homeland security researcher at the RAND Corp., a national think tank. If they responded that “he’s inside the building, we can’t get a hold of him, I would say, ‘Let’s send somebody in to get him,’” while organizing the external police presence, Harrison said.
The Texas Rangers, which are part of DPS and report to McCraw, are leading a statewide probe into the flawed reaction by law enforcement. After the state House report last month, DPS announced a separate investigation into the role state police played in the Uvalde response.
But McCraw’s willingness to focus blame primarily on local law enforcement before the results of any investigation has raised questions about the agency’s objectivity. In three news conferences in the days following the shooting, McCraw and a DPS regional commander spoke at length about the response of local police without mentioning the role of state troopers.
Abbott, who appoints the members of the commission that oversees DPS, has largely not mentioned the agency’s actions in the shooting. When the House investigative report was released, he said that its findings were “beyond disturbing” and that critical changes were needed, but he did not single out any person or agency.
McClelland, the former Houston police chief, characterized the fact that the Texas Rangers are investigating the law enforcement response as “a fix from day one.”
The DOJ is also reviewing the response of all law enforcement officers at the request of Uvalde Mayor Don McLaughlin. McLaughlin, who did not respond to phone calls seeking comment, has accused McCraw of continuing to “lie, leak” or otherwise misstate information to “distance his own troopers” from criticism of law enforcement conduct that day. McCraw has denied that his agency leaked information and said he is committed to holding his own troopers accountable.
DPS has declined to explain the whereabouts and actions of the majority of its troopers during the shooting, but agency officials noted that eight entered the school before noon and quickly left when they saw the hallway full of police.
Body camera footage released by the Uvalde Police Department shows that at least one DPS officer was outside of the school within four minutes of the shooting.
At 11:37 a.m., after the gunman fired more than 100 rounds, Uvalde Police Sgt. Eduardo Canales, a commander of the local SWAT team, stumbled outside. With blood on his hands after a bullet fired by the gunman grazed his ear, he encountered DPS Sgt. Juan Maldonado, a 23-year veteran of the state agency and public information officer for the region.
“Dude, we got to get in there,” Canales told Maldonado, who, according to DPS, drove one of his closest friends, Ruben Ruiz, an Uvalde school district police officer, to the campus that morning. Ruiz’s wife was a teacher at the school.
“DPS is sending people,” Maldonado replied.
Eleven minutes later, Ruiz told officers that his wife had called him and told him she had been shot. But officers continued to treat the situation as if they were dealing with a barricaded suspect instead of an active shooter. The latter situation requires that the first action by officers, no matter their rank, should be to immediately “stop the killing.”
It’s unclear how many officers from which agencies knew that Ruiz’s wife was still alive in the classroom. Lt. Mariano Pargas, the acting Uvalde police chief, told the House committee that he heard Ruiz say his wife was injured inside as well as a dispatcher say, over the radio, that 911 calls were coming from the classrooms. He said officers did not attempt to enter the rooms because “they were waiting for other personnel to arrive from the Department of Public Safety or BORTAC, with better equipment like rifle-rated shields.” Pargas, who is also an Uvalde County commissioner, is suspended pending an investigation. Pargas did not respond to requests for comment.
In another interaction, DPS Special Agent Luke Williams rushed inside shortly before noon, disregarding a “request that he assist at the perimeter,” according to the state legislative report.
Williams heard someone ask whether there were children inside the classroom with the gunman and interjected: “If there’s kids in there we need to go in.”
An unidentified law enforcement officer responded that “whoever was in charge would figure that out.” Williams then left to evacuate children from other classrooms in the school.
City police body camera footage and information from DPS put at least a dozen troopers, including members of the state police’s most elite squad, the Texas Rangers, outside the school within 30 minutes of the gunman firing. The body camera footage, along with bystander video and photographs, shows troopers mostly helping to evacuate children and assisting local police with preventing residents from entering the school.
County Commissioner Ronald Garza said DPS was the agency with the best resources and most experience that arrived at the school within minutes. Troopers should have taken charge, Garza said.
“I wish they would have stepped up. And that didn’t happen,” he said. “The audio, the video, the pictures, pretty much speak for themselves.”
In fighting the release of records, DPS officials have said that they are following guidance from Uvalde County District Attorney Christina Mitchell Busbee, who has indicated that disclosure of such information could taint an ongoing investigation.
Busbee told ProPublica and the Tribune that she opposes the public release of information as she evaluates whether crimes were committed by people other than the shooter. But she has noted that, despite her objection, McCraw publicized key details when it suited him or his agency. She did not answer questions about whether she planned to prosecute law enforcement officers.
ProPublica, the Tribune and a consortium of media outlets have filed a lawsuit seeking to compel DPS to release records about the agency’s response. The news organizations argue that DPS is wrongly claiming the ongoing investigation exception to the state’s public records law because the guilt of the gunman, who is dead, is not in dispute, and authorities say the 18-year-old acted alone. The news organizations also sued the city of Uvalde, the school district and the county sheriff’s office, asking a judge to force them to release records including body camera footage, emergency communications and active shooter planning documents.
Both lawsuits are pending.
When Uvalde students this week returned to school for the first time since the shooting, they were joined by more than two dozen DPS troopers. In a news release announcing that troopers will be assigned to the school district, Abbott and McCraw said the assignments came at the request of Uvalde’s school superintendent, Hal Harrell, and were part of an effort to ensure that children and teachers feel safe.
Tina Quintanilla-Taylor, the mother of 9-year-old Mehle, who escaped the shooting at Robb Elementary, said she finds the message from the state offensive given DPS’ role in the failed response.
The mother said she is sending her daughter to online school this semester because Mehle is terrified of returning to class. But Quintanilla-Taylor said she worries about her 6-year-old son, who needs special education, and so must return in person.
She said she doesn’t trust DPS to keep her son safe.
“They were the elite governing force that failed us,” she said.
The full program is now LIVE for the 2022 Texas Tribune Festival, happening Sept. 22-24 in Austin. Explore the schedule of 100+ mind-expanding conversations coming to TribFest, including the inside track on the 2022 elections and the 2023 legislative session, the state of public and higher ed at this stage in the pandemic, why Texas suburbs are booming, why broadband access matters, the legacy of slavery, what really happened in Uvalde and so much more. See the program.