Within three minutes of police responding to the deadly school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, there were enough officers and firepower to stop the gunman from continuing his massacre, the state’s public safety chief testified Tuesday, calling the local cops’ response an “abject failure.”
New details about how the Uvalde school district’s six-person police force, led by Chief Pete Arredondo, operated in the critical minutes after the gunman opened fire at the school emerged Tuesday, based on video footage and audio recordings from the May 24 attack that left 19 elementary students and two teachers dead, the worst school shooting in Texas history.
“Terrible decisions were made by the on-scene commander,” Col. Steve McCraw, director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, testified at a state Senate hearing. “It should have never happened, plain and simple.”
While the gunman rampaged inside two adjoining classrooms full of young children, Arredondo and a handful of other officers stood in a school hallway for more than an hour despite having access to rifles, ballistic shields, and a device capable of breaching a locked door, according to McCraw’s testimony and reports from Texas media outlets.
The classroom door, however, was not even locked. While Arredondo has claimed that a locked door impeded the police response and that they needed to wait for keys to get inside, McCraw said Tuesday that the lock was actually broken—a teacher had reported the problem to the school a few days earlier—and that police could have opened the door immediately without a key or any type of special tool. Yet for more than one hour and 14 minutes, the school cops didn’t even try to open the door, McCraw testified, and there was no attempt to enter the classroom and take out the shooter until an elite team of Border Patrol agents took the initiative and killed the gunman, 18-year-old Salvador Ramos.
“We could never see anybody put their hand on the door up until the breach,” McCraw said, basing his statement on school video surveillance footage recorded during the standoff.
“The only thing stopping a hallway of dedicated officers from entering room 111 and 112 was the on-scene commander, who decided to place the lives of officers before the lives of children," McCraw said.
Arredondo has defended his actions on the day of the shooting.
“Not a single responding officer ever hesitated, even for a moment, to put themselves at risk to save the children,” Arredondo told the Texas Tribune earlier this month. “We responded to the information that we had and had to adjust to whatever we faced.”
But the evidence tells a different story.
The 50-year-old Arredondo was personally on the scene within a matter of minutes, though he did not bring his police radio with him, saying it did not function properly in the area of the school where the shooting occurred. Instead, he called police dispatch from his cellphone.
The chief had 11 officers at his disposal, including at least two who can be seen on video footage carrying rifles. And yet, according to transcripts of his calls to dispatch, Arredondo believed they needed to wait because the gunman was armed with an AR-15 rifle.
“OK, we have him in the room,” Arredondo said, according to a transcript of the call reviewed by the Texas Tribune. “He’s got an AR-15. He’s shot a lot. He’s in the room. He hasn’t come out yet. We’re surrounded, but I don’t have a radio.”
Arredondo then called for a SWAT team.
“Yes and they need to be outside of this building prepared,” he said. “Because we don’t have enough firepower right now. It’s all pistol and he has an AR-15. If you can get the SWAT team set up, by the funeral home, OK, we need — yes, I need some more firepower in here because we all have pistols and this guy’s got a rifle. So I don’t have a radio. I don’t have a radio. If somebody can come in —”
Arredondo also asked for a rifle for himself, along with a radio, according to the Texas Tribune’s recounting of the call transcript.
“So, so I need you to bring a radio for me, and give me my radio for me,” Arredondo said. “I need to get one rifle. Hold on. I’m trying to set him. I’m trying to set him up.”
Shooting could be heard from inside the classrooms during the call, but Arredondo and his officers still held back for another hour and 10 minutes.
McCraw testified Tuesday that a ballistic shield capable of stopping bullets was available on the scene within 19 minutes of the shooting starting, and that four total shields—including at least one able to block high-powered AR-15 rounds—were available by the end of the standoff. Asked by a Texas lawmaker whether it was justified to wait for a shield before engaging the gunman, McCraw did not mince words
“You don’t need a shield,” McCraw said. “You gotta get in there, plain and simple.”
McCraw also said there was no justification in Arredondo calling for additional AR-15 rifles to match the gunman’s firepower. Nine officers were in the hallway outside the classroom with pistols and rifles but were not willing to risk taking fire in order to save the lives of the children and teachers who were wounded and bleeding out, McCraw said.
“There was never a need for rifles,” he said. “As a commissioned officer you don’t need a rifle. You have a gun. You have body armor.”
One firearm and tactical expert interviewed by VICE News agreed with McCraw’s assessment. Rick Vasquez, a former chief of the Firearms Technology Branch at the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms, said the Uvalde cops had an obligation to put their lives on the line.
“It shouldn’t have mattered,” Vasquez said of the gunman having an AR-15. “It’s the mission first. That’s what your job is. If somebody is under threat, you're there to defend them. If you have multiple people with handguns, of course it’s more dangerous because a handgun is lower power than a rifle, but it’s still a very mild tactical issue. Why didn’t they run around the building and shoot him through the window? It doesn’t make sense. It’s a very simple tactical thing. It’s Boy Scout level.”
Vasquez added: “In my opinion there’s no excuse other than they were not willing—you have to be willing to sacrifice your life. That’s a given. They were not willing to do it, to do what they were paid to do.”