AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Police had enough officers and firepower at the scene of the Uvalde school massacre to arrest the shooter three minutes after he entered the building, and they reportedly found the door to the classroom where he was locked unlocked had they bothered to check it, the Texas state police chief testified on Tuesday, calling law enforcement’s response a “failure lamentable”.
Officers armed with rifles instead stood in a hallway for more than an hour, partly waiting for more weapons and equipment, before finally storming the classroom and killing the shooter, ending to the attack of May 24. which left 19 children and two teachers dead.
“I don’t care if you’re wearing flip-flops and bermuda shorts, you walk in,” Col. Steve McCraw, director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, said in scathing testimony at a US Senate hearing. State.
It turned out that the classroom door couldn’t be locked from the inside by design, according to McCraw, who also said a teacher had reported before the shooting that the lock was broken. Still, there was no indication that officers attempted to open it during the standoff, McCraw said. He said the police waited for the keys instead.
“I have good reason to believe it was never secured,” McCraw said of the gate. “How about trying the door and seeing if it’s locked?”
Delays in law enforcement response at Robb Elementary School became the focus of federal, state and local investigations.
McCraw lit Pete Arredondothe Uvalde School District Police Chief who McCraw said was responsible, saying, “The only thing stopping a hallway of dedicated officers from entering rooms 111 and 112 was the on-scene commander who decided to put the lives of officers before the lives of children.”
Arredondo made “terrible decisions,” said McCraw, who lamented that the police response “set our profession back a decade.”
Arredondo said he did not consider himself the person responsible and assumed that someone else took control of the law enforcement response. He declined repeated requests for comment from The Associated Press, and his attorney did not immediately respond Tuesday.
The police chief testified for about five hours Tuesday in a closed hearing of a Texas House committee also investigating the tragedy, according to the panel chairman.
Members of the Senate hearing the latest details reacted with fury, with some decrying Arredondo as incompetent and saying the delay cost lives. Others asked McCraw why state troopers at the scene didn’t take matters into their own hands. McCraw said the soldiers did not have the legal authority to do so.
The public safety chief presented a timeline that three officers with two rifles entered the building less than three minutes behind the shooter, an 18-year-old with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle. Several other officers entered a few minutes later. Two of the officers who entered the hallway at the start were grazed by gunfire.
The police decision to hold back went against much of what law enforcement has learned in the two decades since the Columbine High School shooting in Colorado, during of which 13 people were killed in 1999, McCraw said.
“You’re not expecting a SWAT team. You have one officer, that’s enough,” he said. He also said officers did not need to wait for shields to enter the classroom. The first shield arrived less than 20 minutes after the shooter entered, according to McCraw.
Eight minutes after the shooter entered, an officer reported that police had a heavy-duty crowbar they could use to break down the classroom door, McCraw said.
The public safety chief spent nearly five hours offering the clearest picture of the massacre, describing a series of other missed opportunities, communication breakdowns and errors based on an investigation that included around 700 interviews. Among the missteps:
“Arredondo didn’t have a radio with him.
— The police and sheriff’s radios weren’t working inside the school. Only the Border Patrol agents’ radios on site worked, and they didn’t work perfectly.
— Some of the school diagrams the police used to coordinate their response were wrong.
Public leaders, including Texas Governor Greg Abbott, initially praised the police response to Uvalde. Abbott said officers reacted quickly and ran towards the gunfire with “incredible courage” to take out the killer, saving lives. He later said he had been misled.
State police first said the shooter, Salvador Ramos, entered the school through an exterior door that was held open by a teacher. However, McCraw said the teacher closed the door, but unbeknownst to him, it could only be locked from the outside. The shooter “went straight through,” McCraw said.
The shooter was familiar with the building, having attended fourth grade in the same classrooms where he led the attack, McCraw said. Ramos never communicated with the police that day, the public security chief said.
Senator Paul Bettencourt said the whole premise of lockdown and shooter training is worthless if the school doors cannot be locked. “We have a culture where we think we’ve trained an entire school for lockdown…but we’ve put a condition in place to fail,” he said.
Bettencourt challenged Arredondo to testify in public and said he should have immediately retired from his job. He angrily pointed out that gunshots were heard as police waited.
“There are at least six shots fired during this period,” he said. “Why is this person shooting? He kills someone. Yet this incident commander finds every reason not to do anything.
Uvalde Mayor Don McLaughlin said Tuesday the city had “specific legal reasons” for not answering questions publicly or releasing records.. “There is no cover-up,” he said in a statement.
Later in the day, the Uvalde city council voted unanimously against granting Arredondo, who is a council member, time off to miss public meetings. Relatives of the victims had pleaded with city leaders to fire him instead.
“Please, please, we’re begging you, get this man out of our lives,” said Berlinda Arreola, Amerie Jo Garza’s grandmother.
After the meeting, the mayor pushed back on McCraw’s testimony blaming Arredondo, saying the Department of Public Safety repeatedly spread false information about the shooting and glossed over the role of its own officers.
He called the Senate hearing a “clown show” and said he hadn’t heard anything from McCraw about the involvement of state troopers, even though McLaughlin said their number in the hallway of the school at times the massacre exceeded that of any other law enforcement agency.
Questions about the response from law enforcement began days after the massacre. McCraw said three days later that Arredondo made “the wrong decision” when he chose not to storm the classroom for more than 70 minutes, even as fourth graders trapped in two classrooms were desperately calling 911 for help and distressed parents outside the school were begging officers to go inside.
An hour after the shooter first crashed his truck outside the school, Arredondo said, according to McCraw’s timeline, “People are going to ask why we’re taking so long. We try to preserve the rest of life.
But McCraw said on Tuesday that the time that passed before officers entered the classroom was “intolerable.”
Police found no red flags in Ramos’ school disciplinary records, but learned in interviews that he engaged in animal cruelty. “He was walking around with a bag of dead cats,” McCraw said.
In the days and weeks following the shooting, authorities gave conflicting and incorrect accounts of what happened. But McCraw assured lawmakers, “Everything I testified today is corroborated.”
McCraw said if he could make one recommendation, it would be for more training. He also said every state patrol car in Texas should have shields and door opening tools.
“I want every soldier to know how to breach and have the tools to do it,” he said.
Associated Press writers Jamie Stengle and Terry Wallace in Dallas, correspondent John Seewer in Toledo, Ohio, and photographer Eric Gay in Austin contributed to this report.
Find more AP coverage of the Uvalde school shooting: https://apnews.com/hub/uvalde-school-shooting