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Federal review of Uvalde shooting likely to focus on delay in confronting gunman

Investigators will uncover lessons for law enforcement to avoid any mistakes made during the Texas elementary school siege and improve future responses.

The Justice Department review of the law enforcement response to the Uvalde, Texas, shooting is likely to focus on the school police chief’s order to delay sending officers into the classrooms where 19 children and two teachers were massacred — as well as whether the officers knew about 911 calls from students inside, experts say.

The “critical incident review,” requested by the Uvalde Police Department after parents, witnesses and Texas authorities faulted officers for waiting an hour before they entered a locked classroom to confront the gunman, will examine why that decision was made. The meticulous and painstaking process, which could last months, will contrast sharply with the piecemeal, inconsistent and frustrating release of information by authorities so far, according to current and former law enforcement officials who have conducted such investigations. 

Investigators are expected to gather all sorts of information that has yet to be shared publicly — 911 calls, phone calls, dispatch records, radio transmissions, body camera video, security video and interviews with officers, witnesses and victims — and combine them into a detailed account of the police response. 

They will explore what officers and commanders knew and what they were thinking as the attack unfolded. They will examine what kind of training officers and commanders received for such situations. They will analyze how officers and commanders communicated with one another and with the public. And they will come up with a set of lessons for law enforcement agencies to avoid the mistakes made during the Uvalde siege and improve the response the next time a gunman storms into a school and opens fire.

“The decision to wait an hour is a symptom of something else,” said Rick Braziel, a retired Sacramento, California, police chief and consultant who conducts critical incident reviews for law enforcement agencies. “You have to figure out what caused that decision. To do that you have to peel away the layers, and that will take time. The goal is to learn from this and potentially prevent it from happening in the future.”

Law enforcement near Robb Elementary School in Uvalde on May24.
Law enforcement officers near Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, on May 24. Jordan Vonderhaar / Getty Images

Critical incident reviews, also called after-action reviews, have been customary in law enforcement for years, not just in mass shootings, but also in smaller-scale emergencies, such as hostage rescues, riots and police shootings. They are often done by the agency involved. But in complex, high-profile cases that have drawn intense criticism, like the Uvalde attack, it helps to have an independent organization perform the review, experts said. 

The Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, which is overseeing the Uvalde review, has commissioned three others: of the 2014 deadly ambush of two Las Vegas police officers, in which a good Samaritan was also killed; the 2015 terrorist attack on a San Bernardino, California, government building, in which 14 people were killed and more than 20 others were injured; and the 2016 shooting at Pulse, an Orlando, Florida, nightclub, where 49 people were killed and 58 others were injured.

The Justice Department, which has not yet said who will conduct the Uvalde review, declined to comment on its plans.

It is unusual for officers to wait to confront a gunman outside a shooting scene, and understanding why that happened in Uvalde will be important to the Justice Department review, said Frank Straub, the director of the Center for Targeted Violence Prevention at the National Policing Institute and an author of Justice Department-commissioned reviews of the San Bernardino and Orlando attacks.

“That would be one of the key areas that I think should be looked at,” Straub said. “Incident command is a critical issue in all of these events, and in the Uvalde incident it’s even more critical.”

Completed reviews become crucial documents for U.S. law enforcement agencies, providing lessons in how police should prepare for and respond to mass shootings. In recent years, such reviews have called for tougher and more realistic training conducted jointly with multiple local agencies, more care in where arriving officers park their cars at scenes, the creation of multiagency command posts, better-organized family reunification centers and more attention to the mental health needs of officers. 

Reviews have also helped change how police are taught to handle “active shooters.” Decades ago, the recommended response was to wait to confront a shooter until a tactical unit had arrived. After the 1999 attack on Columbine High School in Colorado, the guidance changed to have the first four or five responding officers go after the shooter. Today, police are told to immediately “engage” the attacker, even if only one officer is on the scene. 

That standard was violated in the Uvalde attack, Texas law enforcement officials and policing experts said.

“This one does cry out for a real thorough investigation,” said Dan Oates, who led the local police response to the 2012 movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado, and recently came out of retirement to be Aurora’s interim police chief. “The public needs to know. The community needs to know what occurred. And the law enforcement community needs to learn whatever lessons there are from this event.”

Oates hired a private firm to conduct a critical incident review of his department’s response to the theater shooting, in which a gunman killed 12 people and injured 70 more. The review noted that in the chaos of responding emergency vehicles, police struggled to get the wounded to ambulances, so they drove them to the hospital themselves, saving lives. That technique was shared widely and used by police in the 2016 attack on Pulse in Orlando. The Aurora review also pointed out communication failures that the police department fixed, Oates said.

He cautioned that very little is known about why police in Uvalde waited to enter the classroom and said the review will reveal much more information. “I don’t put much stock in what’s been reported publicly, which is why we do these reviews,” Oates said. 

Although a critical incident review commonly critiques the person or agency that took control of the scene, the investigation must not be perceived as punitive or be used to punish people, current and former law enforcement officials said. Otherwise, investigators will have a hard time earning the trust of officers who made critical decisions.

“If you approach it as seeking blame, then everyone will clam up,” said Jim Bueermann, who ran the National Policing Institute — then called the National Police Foundation — when the Justice Department hired it to conduct reviews of the San Bernardino and Orlando shootings. 

In this case, the commander was Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District Police Chief Pete Arredondo. As the head of the six-member force, Arredondo had clear authority to take command of the shooting response, law enforcement experts said. But experts also said incident commanders sometimes choose to share authority with commanders from larger departments as responses increase in complexity, including the arrival of officers and rescue workers from multiple agencies. 

Arredondo decided to wait for a tactical team before entering the locked classroom where an 18-year-old gunman had opened fire with an AR-15-style rifle, according to Texas authorities. After an initial burst of gunfire inside the classroom, the chief treated the standoff as a “barricaded subject situation,” in which there was time to move strategically and try to negotiate, rather than as an ongoing shooting in which every moment that passed was a potential missed opportunity to save a child’s life, Steven McCraw, the director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, told reporters last week. During that time, children called 911 from the classroom asking for help.

Agents from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s tactical unit arrived about a half-hour after local officers had entered the building. Local law enforcement instructed the tactical team to wait, but after another half-hour or so, the agents ignored the initial guidance and led a group of officers into the room, where they killed the gunman, two senior federal law enforcement officials have said. State authorities have since said that Arredondo made the wrong decision.

Texas state Sen. Roland Gutierrez, a Democrat whose district includes Uvalde, said Thursday that he was told by officials that 911 calls from the school were routed to the city police department, not to Arredondo. That points to a “systemic failure” in the response, Gutierrez said. 

Arredondo has not responded to requests for comment. He told CNN on Wednesday that he was trying to be respectful to the families of victims and that he had been in daily contact with the Texas Department of Public Safety, which is leading the investigation into the shooting.

Travis Norton, who leads a team that reviews police response to “active shooter” incidents for the California Association of Tactical Officers, has studied more than dozen critical incident reviews and found that almost all turned up problems related to leadership or “command and control.” He also has found that reviews almost always turn up new information that helps explain why things went wrong.

“I’ve learned that there is always something we didn’t know happened, and whatever it is, it’s not obvious to everybody right now,” Norton said. “I’d venture to guess that when they do the review, they’re going to find something that’s not out yet that might actually explain why a decision was made. We don’t know what he saw.” 

Robert Mac Donald, Uvalde’s police chief from 2010 to 2013, said he wants to know whether the city and school district police departments trained together for “active shooter” incidents. That did not happen when he was chief, he said.

“I’m aghast at how badly this was handled,” Mac Donald said. “This shouldn’t happen. This is 21st century policing in America.”