UVALDE, Texas — Children's lives may have been saved if officers had responded differently to a gunman who opened fire at Robb Elementary School, the Justice Department said Thursday in its scathing report on the 2022 mass shooting that killed 21 people, including 19 students.
Poor coordination, training and execution of active shooter protocol contributed to a law enforcement response that can only be described as a “failure,” the 600-page report said, documenting a series of police missteps during the more than an hour that authorities waited to rush into the classroom.
"Their loved ones deserved better," U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland said at a news conference here Thursday, referring to victims and survivors.
The investigation found that Uvalde police officers had received improper active shooter training in the months leading up to the attack. They were erroneously taught that “an active shooter event can easily morph into a hostage crisis.”
Key findings of DOJ report
- Poor coordination, training and execution of active shooter protocol contributed to a failure in law enforcement response.
- Police officers were erroneously taught that "an active shooter event can easily morph into a hostage crisis."
- A lack of leadership led to a failure to recognize an active shooter situation and waiting too long to engage the gunman.
- At least six separate instances of gunfire, as well as officer injuries and the presence of victims, should have prompted officers to take steps to "immediately stop the killing."
- Some families received incorrect information about whether their loved ones survived, and others were notified of deaths by personnel not trained to deliver such traumatic news.
The findings describe a chaotic scene that should have triggered several coordinated responses by law enforcement officers who first arrived at the school. Instead, a dearth of leadership contributed to officers failing to recognize an active shooter and waiting far too long to engage the gunman.
In addition to the 19 students, two teachers were killed, and 17 other people were injured.
Uvalde officials said the city is reviewing the report and is waiting for findings from an independent investigation it commissioned into law enforcement's response.
“The resulting delay provided an opportunity for the active shooter to have additional time to reassess and reengage his deadly actions inside the classroom," the report said. "It also contributed to a delay in medical interventions with the potential to impact survivability.”
The Justice Department said that there were at least 10 "stimulus events" over the span of more than an hour that could have driven law enforcement officers to take steps under active shooter protocols to "immediately stop the killing."
“During that period, no one assumed a leadership role to direct the response towards the active shooter, provide situational status to responding officers, establish some form of incident command, or clearly assume and communicate the role of incident commander,” the report continued.
The stimulus events included “at least six separate instances of gunfire, approximately 45 rounds in law enforcement officer presence, as well as officer injuries and the presence of victims.”
Among the myriad errors was the failure of Pete Arredondo, then the chief of the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District Police Department, to immediately assume command, according to the report.
He was the “de facto” commander, yet he tossed his radio to the ground while running to the scene. He did not request another radio to better facilitate communication among responding officers.
Miscommunications stretched to the hospital where victims were initially treated and to the reunification center. Some families were reunited with their relatives but others were given incorrect information about whether their loved ones survived. Still others were notified of deaths by personnel not trained to deliver such devastating news.
Javier Cazares wonders whether his 9-year-old daughter, Jacklyn, might have survived had officers gone in sooner, he said in April 2023 as the first anniversary of the shooting approached.
“She wasn’t shot in the very beginning,” he said at the time. “She was shot somewhere in the middle. If they had gone in 30 minutes, 40 minutes earlier, maybe she would be alive.”
Other failures include not adequately evaluating victims' medical conditions before they were taken to the reunification center, potentially delaying medical care and risking further injury.
More than 90 children were evacuated from the school and hid in the back chapel of the funeral home for hours. At least one child was bleeding and required medical attention.
Parents have long been frustrated by shifting stories and a lack of transparency about the response at Robb Elementary School on May 24, 2022, and wary about whether the report would provide answers and the accountability they have sought for almost two years.
Attorney General Merrick Garland spent Wednesday in Uvalde visiting all 21 memorial murals, honoring the people killed in the shooting. He also spent more than two hours with the families of those who were killed or injured, taking questions about the report.
Oscar Orona, whose son Noah was injured but survived the shooting, said he and his wife were pleased with what they heard from Garland in the family forum, but that Noah is still changed forever.
“He’s not the same little boy that we left there that morning,” Orona said. “He’s a different person, and dare I say he’s experienced more than most men will ever experience in a lifetime. And he has seen stuff that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.”
The report builds on a scathing investigation by state lawmakers that found “systemic failures and egregiously poor decision-making” among the almost 400 law enforcement officers who responded.
Video from the scene released days later showed parents in anguish, begging officers to charge into the school and save their children. They were outraged when, soon after the shooting, authorities announced that Uvalde police had responded within minutes. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said at the time that it “could have been worse” had law enforcement officers not run toward the gunfire. He later said he had been “misled” about the response.
The Justice Department collected more than 13,000 items for review and analysis, including policies, procedures and training materials from responding agencies; manuals; and hours of video, photos and interview transcripts.
Adam Martinez, whose 8-year-old son, Zayon, survived the shooting, said the boy still cannot sleep in his own room and is triggered by loud noises. Martinez, who started a podcast on which family members and residents can discuss their challenges and achievements since the shooting, has been one of the most vocal critics of law enforcement's response.
“To us, for somebody to get fired, that’s what we would like,” Martinez said. “Out of this case, I don’t think that’s going to happen.”
Suzanne Gamboa reported from San Antonio; Alicia Victoria Lozano from Los Angeles; Ken Dilanian and Morgan Chesky from Uvalde; and Ryan Reilly from Washington.