Opinion | Uvalde’s shooting showed America has too many police departments

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The more we know about the police response—or lack thereof—to the Robb Elementary School massacre in Uvalde, Texas, the less likely we will learn. Humans have a penchant for absorbing facts that fit well into our existing presumptions, while remaining largely impervious to new ideas. Almost nothing about Uvalde matches the world we learned from TV and movies.

Few ideas are more deeply embedded in the American psyche than the power of the gun. The gun is alpha and omega; it sets drama in motion by empowering a bad guy, then wraps it up in the hands of a good guy. If one gun creates a problem, the solution is another gun – or a bigger gun, or lots of guns.

So it confuses our worldview to see images of the brightly colored elementary school hallway showing a small army of men packing guns and larger guns and protective helmets and shields – and all these rifles do not solve anything. Although armed to the teeth, the good guys are right there. The villain is a few feet away, with only one door (unlocked, we now learn) between him and the police. Still, most of an hour passes, and little happens except bleeding, death, and fear.

What was missing in this hallway was strong leadership and clear communication. The good guys had more than enough firepower, but they didn’t know what they were up against. Knowledge was fragmentary and compartmentalized. Information from inside the classroom, relayed by desperate calls to a 911 operator, was not reaching them. Some officers apparently had the false impression that the shooter was locked up alone. Some may have thought they were waiting for a door key or a crowbar.

Everyone was waiting for the word “go” from someone they knew was in charge.

These failures all stem from the same root cause: America has way too many police departments.

Putting together various accounts, we conclude that officers from at least four agencies were quickly on the scene: Uvalde School District Police, Uvalde Town Police, Uvalde County Sheriff, and – possibly – the US Border Patrol. The Texas Rangers arrived at some point, as did the FBI. This represents six agencies in a city of approximately 16,000 inhabitants.

Anyone who has ever tried to get two bureaucracies to cooperate effectively at the best of times can perhaps appreciate the difficulty of getting four, five or six bureaucracies to work together at worst.

This proliferation of jurisdictions is a uniquely American problem. According to a rough estimate, the United States is home to approximately 18,000 separate police departments. Sweden has one. Canada spans a continent, like the United States. Canada is made up of local and provincial governments united in a federated whole, like the United States. But Canada has fewer than 200 agencies.

It’s true: the United States has nearly 100 police departments for every one in Canada.

According to the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, nearly 150 school districts in Texas have created their own police department since 2010. It’s not hard to imagine the thinking behind this trend. A city department or sheriff’s office might not see the point of putting a full-time officer in an elementary school, where entire years could pass without seeing anything more dangerous than a wedgie. With a dedicated school police department, the superintendent and school board can deploy their forces as they see fit.

But then a crisis arises and officers from multiple jurisdictions rush to an ongoing crime. And what do you know? Their radios are not on the same frequency. Or some don’t have a radio. The leader of a force arrives before the other leaders and begins to give orders to people who do not know each other. Perhaps the agencies have all trained for a crisis — Uvalde’s school force completed active shooter training as recently as March — but the departments have rarely trained together.

People who have learned to follow orders from a chain of command will be distraught when the chain breaks and commanders multiply. People who have learned to work closely with colleagues will be stuck when they find themselves surrounded by strangers. Urgent details will not be passed on to everyone who needs them. Paralysis can set in.

Long ago, American soldiers coined a word to describe operating under extreme pressure, even in the best of circumstances: “snafu.” It means, politely, “normal situation, all dirty”. In the United States, our passion for creating more and more – and more – police agencies, fiefdoms and sinecures makes even normal performance highly unlikely.

It would be a good lesson to learn from Uvalde.

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