Nation/World

Police made ‘wrong decision’ not to pursue Uvalde gunman, official says

UVALDE, Texas -- Police responding to a gunman at an elementary school here made the calamitous choice not to pursue him into a classroom where students were trapped, some officers even waiting outside in a hallway while panicked children inside repeatedly called 911 pleading for help, a top Texas official said Friday.

The commander of the law enforcement response during Tuesday’s massacre at Robb Elementary School had incorrectly determined that the gunman was no longer an active shooter and that no more children were at risk, said Steven C. McCraw, director of the Texas Department of Safety.

“It was the wrong decision,” McCraw said during a news briefing. “Period.”

McCraw delivered his sometimes emotional remarks while standing in front of the school where 19 students and two teachers were slaughtered on Tuesday, offering the most detailed account yet from law enforcement officials about their actions and decisions during the carnage. Authorities say officers breached the classroom and killed the gunman -- who they identified as 18-year-old Salvador Ramos -- more than an hour after he first entered the school.

Since Tuesday, officials have faced swelling outrage over how they handled the tragedy, particularly after revelations that parents had begged police outside to go in and confront the shooter sooner, only to be blocked from entering themselves. Disclosures about the response have only compounded the grief in this small community west of San Antonio, where anguished families who were supposed to be starting summer break are now instead faced with the unthinkable task of burying child after child.

“They could have saved her,” said Joe Rodriguez, 64, before dropping flowers off at a wooden cross erected to honor his granddaughter, Tess Mata. “They could have saved some lives.”

The victims killed Tuesday included Tess, a 10-year-old known to many as Tessy; Amerie Jo Garza, a 10-year-old honor-roll student; Eliahana Cruz Torres, a 10-year-old softball player; and 16 other children. They also included two fourth-grade teachers -- Eva Mireles, 44, and Irma Garcia, 48. Police say an additional 17 people were injured.

Speaking three days after the massacre, McCraw outlined a series of missteps, some still unexplained, in how police responded.

He said 19 officers had made it into a school hallway -- only to have nearly 45 minutes elapse before law enforcement finally confronted the gunman, breaking with the widely accepted police practice of pursuing active shooters. While police waited, McCraw said, children trapped inside called 911 again and again, pleading for help; at one point gunshots could be heard. Even before the shooter made it inside, McCraw said, a school police officer who was not on campus was summoned by another 911 call, but “drove right by the suspect.”

Officials have provided frequently shifting depictions of how the tragedy unfolded, announcing details they have later changed or withdrawn entirely. Speaking later on Friday at a news conference, Gov. Greg Abbott, R, who had previously praised the swiftness of the law enforcement response, said he was given incorrect information.

“I am livid about what happened,” he said, after a lengthy recitation of state services to which the grieving families would be entitled.

Although he said in Uvalde that he would seek state action to limit the chances of a future massacre, Abbott released a prerecorded message to the National Rifle Association’s convention on Friday in Houston rebuffing calls for new gun laws.

“Thousands of laws on the books . . . have not stopped madmen from carrying out evil acts,” Abbott said. Former president Donald Trump made his own appearance at the NRA convention, offering a similar defense of gun rights.

It remains unclear whether McCraw’s account on Friday will hold up or be amended further. In his telling, the crucial mistake made by police at the scene was choosing not to pursue the gunman and instead to treat him as not threatening further loss of life. That broke with a protocol that has been the norm nationwide since the Columbine High School attack in 1999, rules that are supposed to guide responders in Texas, he said.

The commander on the scene determined that the situation had “transitioned from an active shooter to a barricaded subject,” McCraw said, so police did not try to break into the classroom sooner. The on-site commander, McCraw said, believed “there was time and there were no more children at risk.”

McCraw said the person in charge at the scene was the school district’s police chief, Pedro “Pete” Arredondo. He did not respond to requests for comment Friday.

“Obviously, based upon the information we have, there were children in that classroom that were at risk,” McCraw said. “And it was, in fact, still an active-shooter situation, and not a barricaded subject.”

The law enforcement response in Uvalde carries grim echoes of previous mass violence. After a gunman opened fire in a Parkland, Fla., high school in 2018, a sheriff’s deputy did not go inside -- for which he was assailed, and later charged with child neglect. A state commission later faulted several others there for dawdling rather than pursuing the shooter.

In 2016, a gunman opened fire inside the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, but police stopped actively pursuing him when he retreated into a bathroom with wounded victims, leading to an hours-long standoff. Police later defended that response by saying the gunman had stopped firing, so the scene had shifted from an active shooter to a barricaded attacker with hostages.

McCraw’s narrative on Friday was marked by harrowing depictions of children pleading with police to come and help them.

He described numerous 911 calls that were made by students inside adjoining classrooms, begging for rescue and reporting that “multiple” people were dead.

A female student first called 911 nearly half an hour after the gunman entered the school, McCraw said, and then called back several times. A student in a nearby classroom called a little later, but “hung up when another student told her to hang up,” McCraw said. One student called a short time after to report that the gunman “shot the door,” McCraw said.

By 12:47 p.m. -- more than an hour after the gunman first went into the school -- a fourth-grade student made a plea to 911. “Please send police now,” the student said, according to McCraw. He said both of the children who called 911 survived the shooting, but did not identify either of them.

By 12:51 p.m., the gunshots were reported over emergency medical services audio. Police announced a short time later that they had stopped the attacker.

When asked Friday whether any children in Uvalde had been accidentally shot by officers who were attempting to hit the gunman, Sgt. Erick Estrada, a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety, said that “as of now there is no indication that occurred.”

Officials have previously said the gunman shot his grandmother in the face before heading to the school and crashing his truck nearby. The gunman’s grandmother survived the shooting and called police, authorities say.

McCraw said that after the crash, the gunman quickly began firing shots -- toward two men at a nearby funeral home and then at the school. At 11:30 a.m., McCraw said, police had received a 911 call telling them about the crash and an armed man.

The timeline once the gunman arrived at the school underscores how much the official narrative has been recast again and again.

Officials initially said he exchanged gunfire with a school police officer outside the school before going in. Then, on Wednesday, McCraw said the gunman encountered that officer but no gunshots were exchanged. On Thursday, another official with his agency said there was no confrontation at all and the gunman never encountered an officer.

On Friday, McCraw offered a fourth iteration of what happened, saying that a school police officer was not on campus but heard the 911 call about an armed man there and drove over. But, McCraw said, the officer “drove right by the suspect,” who was lurking behind a vehicle, and instead “sped to what he thought was the man with a gun” near the back of the school.

That man, McCraw said, was a teacher.

The gunman made it in unimpeded by 11:33 a.m., using a door that had apparently been propped open by a teacher, McCraw said. He was inside within five minutes of arriving, in McCraw’s account on Friday; a day earlier, his agency had said the gunman remained outside, firing his weapon, for 12 minutes.

Once the gunman got inside the school, McCraw said Friday, he quickly began firing into a classroom, unleashing “more than 100 rounds” at that time. The gunman, he said, was carrying more than 1,600 rounds in total.

Police soon followed behind. At 11:35 a.m., two minutes after the gunman entered the school, three Uvalde police officers went in through the same door, McCraw said, and more would follow later. Of those first three officers, he said, “two received grazing wounds . . . while the door was closed.”

More gunfire continued to ring out over the minutes that would follow, McCraw said. And more officers soon arrived, he said.

“At 12:03, officers continue to arrive in the hallway,” McCraw said. “And there were as many as 19 officers at that time in that hallway.”

Yet more than 45 minutes elapsed before any officers finally made it inside, he said, something they accomplished only by using keys from a janitor because “both doors were locked.”

In Uvalde, the emerging accounts of the response have only led to further pain. Ruben Montemayor Mata, whose great-granddaughter Alexandria Rubio was killed, stood in front of a cross honoring her on Friday and seethed at what he saw outside the school during the shooting.

The agents, he said, were “putting their vest on, grabbing their rifles and walking -- walking!” Montemayor Mata said, as he broke down in tears. “They were young people. Why couldn’t they be running?”

He said the gunman “only had a rifle and ammunition,” and they had dozens of officers who could surround the school or try to distract the attacker.

Rodriguez, who lost his granddaughter Tess Mata, was also pained by what he learned about the police behavior.

“It hurts to think there are many things that they didn’t do,” he added.

For now, though, he said he was focused on supporting his grieving family, driving from his home in a rural area 30 miles away to offer to shuttle them around. While the family was offered the chance to view his granddaughter’s body, Rodriguez said he didn’t want to. He feared the 10-year-old had been shot in the head and didn’t want to see her face punctured by bullet holes.

“It’s not going to bring her back,” Rodriguez said. “I just went home and said some prayers. That’s the best thing to do.”

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Berman reported from Washington. The Washington Post’s Tim Craig in Uvalde, Texas, and Silvia Foster-Frau, Timothy Bella, Kim Bellware and Meryl Kornfield contributed to this report.

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