Police officers stand near a makeshift memorial for the shooting victims at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, on May 26, 2022. (Photo by CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP via Getty Images)
The only people who really know what happened inside Robb Elementary School last week are the cops who responded to the scene, the 19 kids and teachers who were killed, the survivors, and the deceased gunman himself. The rest of us have been left to piece together the nightmarish chain of events with minimal information provided to the public by Texas officials. And there are still a lot of questions: the main one being, what could the police see and hear from the hallway they stood in for 78 minutes waiting for backup, while the gunman was barricaded into a classroom slaughtering kids?
In the absence of clear answers, some have hoped that video footage from the scene will shed light on the apparent lack of action from the nearly 20 cops who waited outside the classroom, even as fourth-grade kids were desperately calling 911 begging for help inside. It’s highly likely that at least some of those officers, which included officers from Uvalde Police Department as well as the school district’s police department, were outfitted with body-cameras. (Neither Uvalde Police Department nor the Uvalde School District Police Department responded to VICE News’ inquiries). Officers with the Uvalde Police Department first got bodycams in 2015. In November 2020, they borrowed more than $13,000 from the city council to spend on state-of-the-art bodycams. According to an article in Uvalde Leader-News at the time, the plan was to get that money reimbursed by a grant from the Justice Department (there’s currently no record of the city of Uvalde receiving a DOJ grant since then). They got 16 bodycams in total, manufactured by a California tech company, plus a sophisticated “evidence management system.” Under a recently-enacted Texas law, officers in the Lone Star State whose departments have bodycams are required to keep the devices on whenever they are working. (The new rule was a provision in “Bo’s Law,” named for the Black man who was killed in his own home by a Dallas police officer who claimed she’d mistook his apartment for her own).
There are now at least two planned probes into the massacre underway, and any bodycam footage will be major assets to investigators. The DOJ announced Sunday that they were launching a “critical review” of law enforcement’s response to the shooting. The goal of the review, which will be conducted through its office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), is to provide an independent account” of police’s actions and “identify lessons learned and best practices to help first responders prepare for and respond to active shooter events.” Separately, Texas’ Department of Public Safety is also conducting an investigation into the shooting itself, though it’s unclear how much Uvalde is cooperating in it. Criticism of the police response to last week’s massacre has increasingly focused on Uvalde School district police chief Pete Arredondo, who was the on-scene commander while the shooting was happening. DPS Director Steven McCraw said last week that Arredondo made the determination that no children inside the barricaded classroom were “at-risk”—because he assumed they were all dead—and believed he had the luxury of waiting for back-up. Meanwhile, McCraw said, 911 calls were coming from inside the classroom from terrified children. Several media outlets reported earlier this week that Arredondo, and Uvalde law enforcement, were no longer cooperating with DPS. But Arrendondo has since claimed that’s not true, and told CNN he’s spoken to investigators “every day” since the shooting.
A spokesperson for DPS told VICE News only that this was an ongoing investigation and referred further questions to Uvalde County’s District Attorney, Christina Mitchell Busbee. Regardless of their level of cooperation, Uvalde law enforcement will be obliged to preserve that bodycam footage for the purpose of investigators. “Any bodycam footage, under state law, they’re going to have to preserve,” said JT Morris, a First Amendment lawyer based in Austin, Texas. “State law makes clear that if there’s bodycam footage related either to an officer's use of deadly force or an investigation or administrative proceeding related to an officer, that bodycam footage cannot be deleted or destroyed until any proceedings are done.” Whether those videos (or other materials, such as audio recordings of 911 calls) are ever shown to the public really depends on Uvalde’s own policy, and the interpretation of Texas laws around releasing bodycam footage. For “critical matters that are under investigation,” Texas law says police agencies should only publicly release bodycam footage if they believe releasing that information would somehow further a law enforcement purpose. Otherwise, Texas law grants law enforcement agencies broad discretion to set their own policies for handling the public disclosure of bodycam footage. Some law enforcement agencies cite what’s known as the “dead suspect loophole” when resisting the public release of materials. The logic of that loophole is that the suspect was killed in a police operation, and therefore cannot be convicted. Given that the 18-year-old gunman in Uvalde was ultimately killed by Border Patrol agents, it’s possible that Uvalde could try to use this loophole to avoid public disclosure of video and audio from the scene, said Morris.
Though the Uvalde police department and Uvalde School District police are receiving the bulk of public scrutiny, they were not the only police agencies present at Robb Elementary on May 24. Little is known about the actions of the Border Patrol agents who arrived on scene and ultimately “breached” the classroom where the shooter had barricaded himself into. The shooter had initially locked himself into room 111, which was internally connected to room 112. The majority of fatalities were in room 111, but it’s unclear which room Border Patrol agents breached first. Border Patrol rolled out a massive bodycam plan last year, saying they planned to outfit 6,000 officers and agents with the devices by the end of 2021 (with specific focus on those agents stationed in the southwest and at the northern border). They did not respond to VICE News’ request for comment. Questions about bodycam footage from the shooting are also being raised in the context of the gun debate. If they exist, the videos will undoubtedly show unimaginable horrors of children riddled with bullets from a high-powered weapon purchased days earlier by an 18-year-old. Since the shooting, some gun control advocates have asked whether the public and lawmakers need to be confronted with that kind of shocking imagery in order to drive change. Follow Tess Owen on Twitter.