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Desperate 911 calls from inside Uvalde classrooms never got to school police chief, legislator says

A gunman broke into Robb Elementary School and opened fire last week, killing 19 children and two teachers. Questions linger about the initial police response.
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UVALDE, Texas — Desperate 911 calls from inside the school where 21 people were killed last week went to city police and weren't shared with the campus law enforcement chief, who opted against an immediate confrontation, a local legislator said Thursday.

State Sen. Roland Gutierrez cited the Commission on State Emergency Communications for his revelation, which could further complicate an investigation into the police response to the shooting May 24 at Robb Elementary School.

"I was told specifically," Gutierrez told reporters. "My question specifically was: Was the [school district] police officer ... on duty [told] about the calls? I was specifically told no."

A week ago Tuesday, Salvador Rolando Ramos, 18, wounded his grandmother before he took off with her truck and crashed it into a ditch near the school, police said.

He then entered the school and opened fire, killing 19 children and two teachers, before a federal police tactical squad arrived an hour later and fatally shot him.

The immediate law enforcement response has been called into question, with the focus on Pete Arredondo, the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District's police chief.

Policing experts around the country have criticized Arredondo, who headed operations at the scene, for ordering officers to treat the matter as a barricade situation.

But Gutierrez said Arredondo hadn’t been given all the necessary information when he opted against an immediate confrontation.

"I have no doubts Arredondo was the so-called incident commander. I have no doubts about that. I'm telling you that he did not have privy" to the 911 calls, Gutierrez said.

Gutierrez insisted, "I'm not covering him." He blamed a systemic failure that hampered police communication at a crucial moment.

"Last week we were told the 911 calls were going through the incident commander. That simply is not the case," Gutierrez said. "System failure."

Though Gutierrez said Arredondo wasn't fully informed on the rampage, at least one school district officer may have known what was going on in the classrooms the gunman locked himself in, according to another official.

Fourth grade teacher Eva Mireles called her husband Ruben Ruiz, a school district police officer, before she died in the shooting, Uvalde County Judge Bill Mitchell told The New York Times.

The couple spoke as she was in the adjoining classrooms the gunman raided and he was outside the school, according to the newspaper. 

“I don’t know what was said,” Mitchell said, but it appeared she told him the gunman was attacking the classrooms.

“He’s outside hearing his wife: ‘I’m dying,’” he said of the gist of that harrowing call.

Mitchell wasn’t sure Ruiz relayed the message to Arredondo. 

Representatives for the Uvalde police couldn’t immediately be reached for comment Thursday.

But on Friday, Commission on State Emergency Communications Executive Director Kelli Merriweather said no one in her agency would've been aware of what city police did or did not do with information gleaned from those 911 calls.

"To clarify, I would have no way to know," Merriweather said in a statement to NBC News. "As such, I do not know what information was or was not provided to the incident commander."

Several law enforcement experts said the 911 revelation is unlikely to alter criticism of the police response.

"This absolutely does not change what should have been done," said Sean Burke, a recently retired Lawrence, Massachusetts, school resource officer who is president of the School Safety Advocacy Council, which trains districts in how to respond to shootings.

"It does not make his decision any less wrong. When you arrive on the scene and there's already over 100 rounds fired, you know there are injured and dead children, that's still an active scene and you have to go in there to eliminate the threat."

Steve Nottingham, a retired Long Beach, California, police lieutenant who trains tactical units, said he wouldn’t be surprised if 911 calls weren't passed on to the incident commander in the confusion of the moment.

"Maybe I'm not getting incident information from 911 which I should be getting," Nottingham said. "But if there's an armed barricaded suspect and there are people in there bleeding out, wounded and dying, then it's still active — it doesn't matter."

Brian Higgins, a former Bergen County, New Jersey, police chief and an adjunct professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, was also skeptical that the new information would lessen criticism.

"The 911 calls would only matter if he didn't know there were wounded people," Higgins said.

"If he knew there were wounded people in the room or heard shots being fired, then it wouldn't matter. Where it'd matter is if he just thought he had a barricade and didn't know people were in the room. Then yes, not getting those 911 calls would matter."

Gutierrez, a Democrat who represents Uvalde in Austin, said that with the shooter having been killed and therefore no criminal trial on tap, law enforcement officers have no reason to conceal or slow the flow of information about last week's response.

"They need to pull this Band-Aid off and tell this community where the failures happened," Gutierrez later told NBC News.

"We haven’t gotten a whole lot of transparency here. I shouldn’t have to go about piecing things together on my own, talking about a systemic failure in radio systems in rural Texas."

He choked back emotions, recalling a conversation he had with a little boy who survived the gunfire.

"'There’s just gunshots, and they wouldn’t stop,'" he quoted the youngster telling him. "What third graders ... should have to deal with that?"

He added: "What the hell is wrong with us? What’s wrong with us?"

Morgan Chesky reported from Uvalde, Texas, and David K. Li from New York.