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Amid failures in Uvalde school shooting response, there were attempts at heroism

A Texas House committee's preliminary report noted how one Uvalde police officer tried to gain momentum to "stop the killing," but "no other officers followed him."
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A lack of leadership and a communications breakdown contributed to the May 24 massacre at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, according to a Texas House committee's preliminary report into one of the nation's deadliest school shootings in a decade.

But tucked within the 77-page report outlining sweeping failures are glimmers of bold behavior and members of law enforcement who trusted their own instincts in a crisis that demanded unflinching urgency.

In one instance, a veteran Uvalde police lieutenant named Javier Martinez was among those who initially rushed into the threatening scenario. He had heard a report of a crashed truck near Robb Elementary and that shots had been fired just before 11:30 a.m.

Martinez "drove toward the intersection of Geraldine and South Grove, and as he arrived, he saw a man on the side of the road pointing," according to testimony in the report. Martinez "jumped out of his car, popped the trunk to get his vest, then proceeded toward the west side of the school's west building."

Two separate groups of officers converged on the building, focusing on adjoining classrooms 111 and 112, where the gunman was holed up. At about 11:37 a.m., Martinez peered into a vestibule between the classrooms and was met by gunfire, "getting grazed by fragments of building material on the top of his head. He immediately retreated to the north end of the hallway," the report said.

Lt.  Javier Martinez.
Lt. Javier Martinez.Uvalde Police Dept.

Another Uvalde officer, Sgt. Eduardo Canales, a commander of the SWAT team, was struck in the ear by the fragments. After running away, body camera footage captured him saying, "We got to get in there," before calling for more backup.

Martinez turned back around toward the classrooms.

"Following active shooter training, he began to advance again toward Rooms 111 and 112 in an evident desire to maintain momentum and to 'stop the killing,'" the report said, "but this time no other officers followed him. Several law enforcement officers suggested to the Committee that if others had followed him as backup, Lt. Martinez might have made it back to the classroom doors and engaged."

Instead, Martinez was tasked with helping to evacuate children from classrooms and then moved to the south side of the building. "Ultimately he was part of the stack of officers on that side of the hallway when" federal agents breached the classroom more than an hour later and killed the gunman, the report said.

A former Uvalde police chief, Robert Mac Donald, said he knows Martinez to be a "competent, capable officer," and his attempt to advance toward danger is to be commended. But Mac Donald said Martinez's persistence alone was apparently not enough to convince his fellow officers to join him.

"The fight or flight response comes into play with stress and adrenaline running through the body," said Mac Donald, who led the Uvalde Police Department from 2010 to 2013 and is a consultant on officer safety. "But for some reason, they froze."

Martinez, a member of the Uvalde Police Department for almost three decades, was promoted to lieutenant of operations in 2018. A person who answered a phone belonging to him declined to comment Monday.

The state House committee report laid out how what began as an effort to stop an active shooter situation within the first few minutes of officers getting inside the school turned into a laggard response once the shooter fired upon them with an AR-15-style rifle.

They "lost critical momentum by treating the scenario as a 'barricaded subject' instead of the greater urgency attached to an 'active shooter' scenario,'" the report said.

Surveillance video from the scene shows multiple officers expressing confusion and doubt over the delay in moving in on the shooter.

According to the report, 376 officers — representing local, state and federal agencies — responded to the scene, but it took more than 70 minutes before they finally entered the classroom. While the report concluded it is "likely that most of the deceased victims perished immediately during the attacker's initial barrage of gunfire ... it is plausible that some victims could have survived if they had not had to wait 73 additional minutes for rescue."

Ultimately, 19 students and two teachers were killed.

The report also highlights the lack of an effective command post, focusing on the Uvalde school district police chief, Pete Arredondo, who under the district's active shooter policy was supposed to be the incident commander that day. But according to the report, he failed to effectively communicate and said he didn't know about 911 calls coming from inside the classroom, which would have made it known to everyone on scene that some were still alive inside.

Arredondo has been on administrative leave since June 22. He previously told the Texas Tribune that he never considered himself the incident commander and instead acted as a front-line responder.

The report cites another law enforcement officer who testified to the special House committee that he was motivated to act.

Special Agent Luke Williams of the Texas Department of Public Safety said that upon his arrival at Robb Elementary, he "disregarded a request that he assist at the perimeter, and instead he proceeded into the east door on the north side of the building."

There, he started clearing rooms along the hallway when he heard a student hiding in a bathroom.

"The student had his legs up so as not to be seen, and as he had been trained to do, he demanded that Special Agent Williams confirm he was with law enforcement, which he did by showing his badge under the stall," the report said.

After clearing the bathroom, Williams returned to the hallway and saw a group of officers with guns pointed toward rooms 111 and 112. One of the officers asked: "Y'all don't know if there's kids in there?"

According to the report, Williams interjected: "If there's kids in there, we need to go in there."

But "an officer who had been positioned in the hallway responded to Special Agent Williams that whoever was in charge would figure that out," the report said. Williams then moved on, continuing to clear out other classrooms.

State Sen. Roland Gutierrez, a Democrat whose district includes Uvalde, said Monday that more could have been done by state agents and that they "had superior firepower and manpower and should have gone in."

"They knew better and they stood around just like everybody else," he said on MSNBC, adding, "I need to know why these state troopers that were massed in great numbers didn't go in."

The Department of Public Safety had 91 members respond to the shooting in Uvalde, the most of any agency behind the U.S. Border Patrol.

In a statement Monday, the department said an internal committee is continuing to review the actions of "every DPS Trooper, Officer, Agent and Ranger that responded to Robb Elementary to determine if any violations of policy, law, or doctrine occurred and where the department can make necessary improvements for future mass casualty responses." It declined to comment further until the review is complete.