UPDATE | On Sunday, the U.S. Department of Justice said it would investigate the police response to the shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. Read more
Residents of Uvalde, Texas, say they don’t know what to make of the stunning admission by police Friday that they waited more than an hour outside the locked door of two classrooms at Robb Elementary School while children were inside with the gunman who shot 19 of their classmates and two teachers.
“With the benefit of hindsight … of course, it was not the right decision,” Steven McCraw, director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, told reporters at a press conference outside the school.
He said the incident commander on-site Tuesday, Chief Pedro “Pete” Arredondo of the school district’s own police force, had determined that by the time three Uvalde police officers entered the school at 11:35 a.m., the situation was no longer an active shooting but a barricaded-shooter scenario and “no more children were at risk.”
“Obviously, based upon the information we have, there were children in that classroom that were at risk, and it was, in fact, still an active shooter situation,” McCraw said.
By 12:03 p.m., there were 19 officers from four different police agencies inside the hallway outside the adjoining classrooms and yet officers did not breach the doorway until 47 minutes later— and only after obtaining keys from a school janitor.
No surprise for parents who watched shooting unfold
The new detailed timeline confirmed what many of the parents and relatives who had rushed to the school Tuesday and tried desperately to push past officers to save their children had suspected.
A father who had driven to the school to check on his niece said the officers on scene were urging onlookers in nearby houses to get inside.
“”Get in the house! Get in the house!’ That’s what they were yelling. ‘There’s an armed shooter, a high-powered rifle,'” he said while stopping for snow cones at Extreme Southern Sno Pitt Stop with his two children.
“They knew everything already. Like, OK, so why didn’t you all go in?”
The father did not want to be identified in interviews about the police but said he had relatives in law enforcement and believes rushing in to try to save lives in such a situation, even at the expense of one’s own, is part of the oath officers commit to when taking the job.
“What is the reason to be careful? That’s your duty. That’s your job. That’s what you swear into — especially [with] kids.”
Selena Tristan, 46, didn’t watch the press conference because she has been trying to keep news coverage away from her son, who was in a Grade 2 classroom at the opposite end of Robb Elementary during the shooting, but she says many parents are angry.
“I know a lot of people are pissed off because they don’t understand what took so long.”
‘As long as someone’s firing, you go to the gun’
McCraw said Friday that officers were following “barricaded-subject” protocol and thought there was time to retrieve classroom keys and wait for a tactical team with equipment to breach the door, but he admitted they should have broken that protocol.
“When you have an active shooter, you don’t have to wait on tactical,” he said. “As long as there’s kids and as long as someone’s firing, you go to the gun, you find him, you neutralize him. Period.”
While McCraw told reporters that the “barrage” of rounds Salvador Ramos, 18, fired into the two classrooms occurred in just the first four minutes that he was inside the school and that any firing afterward was sporadic and at the door, there were still multiple 911 calls being made by children inside over the 47 minutes that 19 officers waited in the hallway.
McCraw said police were still trying to determine whether anyone died during that time. He said the two girls who called from inside rooms 111 and 112 whispered details of the shooter’s movements and the number of dead and living to 911 dispatchers. One pleaded, as late as 12:43 p.m., to “please send the police now.”
“It gets to me,” said Linda Sosa.
The 74-year-old grandmother said she has lived in Uvalde all her life and has not had good experiences with local police. She has a son in prison serving time for drug possession who, she says, was rough handled by officers during his arrest.
“My son was doing wrong, I can accept that, but the way they treated him they should have treated that guy that killed so [many] little kids that didn’t know what was going on.”
Sosa grew up living next door to Celia Gonzalez, Ramos’s grandmother — who was the first to be shot as he set off on his rampage. She described Gonzalez, who survived the shooting, as a friendly person and Ramos as “very quiet.”
“I wouldn’t believe that he would do something like that,” Sosa said.
Reluctant to criticize
Gloria Garcia is more prepared to give officers the benefit of the doubt.
“I don’t know what the truth is,” said the 88-year-old, who lives on Geraldine Street, steps away from Robb Elementary. “I hate to say anything bad about the police, but, you know, it could be true that they were slow in responding.”
She was home the day of the shooting, just down the street from where Ramos crashed his car into a ditch before setting off for the school on foot a few metres away. She heard three loud thumps and thought someone had hit the wall of her house.
“A few minutes later, I heard bang, bang, bang, bang. I thought they were killing birds because there are a lot of trees there.”
It was only when she got a call from her daughter, who is a therapist at a local middle school, that she realized it was more serious.
“She says, ‘Mom, if you’re outside, get inside. There’s something terrible going on at Robb,'” she said. “And then I looked out the window and saw all the commotion.”
Officer passed shooter moments before he got inside
Another distressing detail for families to come out of Friday’s press conference was that an officer with the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District passed the gunman while he was still in the school parking lot. The officer was pursuing what he thought was the shooter near the school’s back door and didn’t spot Ramos hiding behind a car.
It’s common for school districts in Texas to have their own police force. The Uvalde district has four officers for eight schools, plus a detective and the chief, and had just held active-shooter training two months ago.
Officials had initially said the school’s officer was on-site and had engaged the gunman. But they later clarified that was not the case and that he only arrived after the first 911 call and later helped evacuate children in other classrooms with fellow officers.
“There’s a police officer set for every school right here in the district, but I mean, I’ve come several times for other things, like ceremonies, and they’re not always here,” said Sandra Medina, whose daughter Jazmine was in a Grade 4 classroom a few rooms down from where the gunman was.
Parents desperate to ‘rush in’ and help
Some parents who had watched the police hold back and then later give a contradictory account of their intervention had been openly critical of the response even before Friday’s admission of multiple failures.
“I even asked the cops, ‘Do you all need help?'” said Javier Cazares, who tried desperately to get to his nine-year-old daughter, Jacklyn, who was killed inside the school along with her cousin, Annabell Guadalupe Rodriguez.
“We were willing to rush in … we were just so angry.”
Cazares told CBC’s Susan Ormiston earlier this week that he couldn’t bear the thought that his daughter, whom he described as a kind, spunky “firecracker” who loved gymnastics and making TikTok videos, and her classmates were alone with the gunman for so long before help arrived.
“God knows how long my little girl and the rest were like that,” he said, his voice trembling and his breath catching at the realization.
He said he wished more parents would get angry and demand accountability from the officials and police.
“Their job was to go in and save lives, not wait,” he said Thursday.
But on Friday, McCraw had little consolation to offer Cazares and others when asked by reporters what he would tell them.
“I don’t have anything to say to the parents other than what had happened,” he said. “We’re not here to defend what happened; we’re here to report the facts…. If I thought it would help, I would apologize.”