For the second time in 10 months, police officers were called to confront a mass killer at an American elementary school. But this time, unlike last spring in Uvalde, Texas, the officers at the Covenant School in Nashville rushed right in.
Body-camera footage released Tuesday showed heavily armed officers methodically sweeping colorful classrooms and backpack-lined hallways until they find and kill the suspect - a police response experts described as “textbook.”
“They did an awesome job in a very high-stress situation,” said A.J. Yokley, an instructor in firearms and building clearing at the Tennessee Law Enforcement Training Academy in Nashville. “You’re going into a situation where you can hear the shots fired. It’s a difficult thing to run towards the sound of gunfire, but that’s what they did. Every single one of them displayed tremendous courage.”
Robert Carlson, a firearms instructor and owner of the Brave Defender Training Group in Memphis, said the Nashville police response was the “exact opposite” of how law enforcement responded to the attack at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde in May, when an 18-year-old armed with an AR-15 killed 19 students and two teachers and injured 17 other people.
Police waited 77 minutes to confront the Uvalde shooter, in direct conflict with mainstream law-enforcement training for active-shooter situations since the Columbine High School mass killing in 1999. The Texas Tribune reported last week that some officers in Uvalde said they feared entering the school because they knew the gunman was armed with an AR-15.
The Nashville shooter, Audrey Hale, also was heavily armed, with three guns, two of them assault-type weapons, according to Nashville police. The school was locked down and its hallways deserted when police found Hale alone on the second floor, according to the footage released Tuesday. The three young students and three employees who were killed are not visible on the video footage, and no other potential victims appear to be nearby. But Carlson said the response by the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department was reaffirming nonetheless.
“We already knew what ‘right’ was supposed to look like before Uvalde. Uvalde was an example of an utter failure,” Carlson said. “So for a lot of people in law enforcement, it was a reinforcement of what we’re supposed to be doing. Because we saw that failure and the tragic result that came from it.”
Police received a 911 call about an active shooter at school at 10:13 a.m. Monday. When Metro Nashville Police Officer Rex Engelbert arrived at the school several minutes later, a woman outside told him there had been gunfire, the shooter was upstairs, the children were locked down, and two were unaccounted for.
“Yes ma’am,” Engelbert said.
Engelbert approached the door with his tactical rifle and looked back to see fellow officers approaching. One was carrying a shotgun; another, a pistol. “Give me three! Let’s get three!” he shouts.
Seventeen seconds later, he stuck a key in the door and entered the school as alarms blared.
“They don’t waste any time going in, and they put the rifle first, which is your best option,” said Marko Galbreath, a former police officer and founder of T4Tactics, a Virginia-based company that specializes in active-shooter training.
For two minutes and 15 seconds, the officers cleared first-floor classrooms and hallways until Engelbert heard gunshots upstairs and raced up a stairwell. Officers in front of Engelbert tracked the shooter down a hallway, which opens to an atrium, where Hale was standing in front of a wall of glass windows. Engelbert fired four times at 10:24 a.m.
“They heard gunfire and immediately ran to that and then took care of this horrible situation,” Metropolitan Nashville Police Department chief John Drake said at a Tuesday news briefing. “I was really impressed, with all that was going on - the danger - that somebody took control and said, ‘Let’s go! Let’s go! Let’s go!’ and went in.”
Footage from a second body camera shows the perspective of officer Michael Collazo, a paramedic on Nashville’s SWAT team, approaching the felled suspect, who is still clutching a gun. Collazo fires four more shots and yells, “Stop moving! Stop moving!” before removing two guns from the suspect’s grasp.
Security camera video released by the police late Monday showed Hale firing through a glass door and entering the school, then stalking through the hallways, peering into offices while aiming an a rifle. The body-camera footage captured the sound of gunfire as Engelbert, Collazo and others reached the atrium area. Drake said Hale fired on responding officers from a second-story window before being killed.
Galbreath said many in the law-enforcement community sharpened their active-shooter plans after Uvalde, stressing the importance of going after the shooter right away.
“You don’t have the luxury of waiting for backup,” he added. “It’s nice to finally see a proper, fast, efficient response.”
Drake said he had spoken with the officers involved in the response and that President Biden had plans to speak with them, as well. “They’re trying to decompress, trying to make sense of all of this,” Drake said.
The shooting has focused attention on gun laws in Tennessee, which gun-control advocates say are among the most lax in the country.
Drake said Hale, who had legally purchased multiple guns, had previously been under a doctor’s care for an undisclosed emotional disorder. Hale’s parents, the chief added, told law enforcement officials after the shooting they had felt Hale should not own weapons.
Tennessee is not one of the 19 states that has passed a version of a red-flag law, which gives citizens and police the ability to petition to have firearms legally removed from the possession of someone who is deemed a danger to themselves or others.
In 2020, state Rep. Gloria Johnson (D) introduced a red-flag bill that met heavy opposition from state Republican leaders who described such statutes as unconstitutional. The bill was shelved that summer.
In June, following the Uvalde school shooting, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R) issued an executive order requiring more security assessments of public schools and more active-shooter training for law enforcement, among other measures. The order did not address gun laws.
“We’re not looking at gun-restriction laws in my administration right now,” Lee told reporters last year. “Criminals don’t follow laws. Criminals break laws. Whether they are a gun law, a drug law - criminals break laws. We can’t control what they do.”
His office did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
Johnson, a former schoolteacher, taught in Jefferson County public schools in Colorado in the early 2000s, where she encountered students who had transferred from Columbine schools after the 1999 mass killing. She described Lee’s statement on gun-control laws as “the laziest, most dishonest argument I’ve ever heard.”
“In that case, why have laws against murder?” Johnson asked. “This idea that there’s nothing we can do is so frustrating. These are common-sense measures to make sure the wrong people don’t have guns, and Republicans are ignoring them to make the NRA and the Tennessee Firearms Association happy. I don’t understand the mentality.”
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The Washington Post’s Holly Bailey contributed to this report.