DOJ Uvalde report says law enforcement response to school shooting was a failure

Washington — The Justice Department on Thursday released a hard-hitting report on the response by law enforcement to the 2022 mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas, pointing to a series of “cascading failures” by the police chief and others that ultimately left nearly three dozen elementary school students and their teachers trapped inside a classroom with the gunman while police stayed outside.

Launched in late May 2022 at the behest of Uvalde Mayor Don McLaughlin soon after the shooting that killed 19 children and two teachers, the “critical incident review” sought to provide an independent account of law enforcement responses and identify lessons to be learned and applied to future active shooter events. It provides a federal accounting of the events that took place at Robb Elementary School and shocked the nation and Uvalde community, which is still reeling from the massacre.

Garland identifies major failures in response

“A series of major failures — failures in leadership in tactics, in communications, in training and in preparedness — were made by law enforcement and others responding to the mass shooting at Robb Elementary,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said during a news conference from Uvalde. “As a result, 33 students and three of their teachers, many of whom had been shot, were trapped in a room with an active shooter for over an hour as law enforcement officials remained outside.”

The attorney general reiterated a key finding of the Justice Department’s examination, stating that “The law enforcement response at Robb Elementary School on May 24, 2022, and in the hours and days after was a failure that should not have happened.”

“Lives would’ve been saved and people would’ve survived” had law enforcement confronted the shooter swiftly in accordance with widely accepted practices in an active-shooter situation, Garland said.

White House, Departments of Justice, Education to work on policies for more effective response

President Biden said the White House will work with the Justice Department and Department of Education to implement policy changes to help ensure a more effective response in the future. He again called for Congress to enact universal background checks, a new nationwide red-flag law and ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.

“The families of Uvalde — and all American communities — deserve nothing less,” Mr. Biden said in a statement. “The longer we wait to take action, the more communities like Uvalde will continue to suffer due to this epidemic of gun violence.”

“Cascading failures of leadership”

The 575-page review analyzed what it called “cascading failures of leadership, decision-making, tactics, policy and training” that contributed to breakdowns during all phases of the response to the shooting. There were also failures in “leadership, command and coordination,” according to the report.

The Justice Department found that 11 officers with the school district and Uvalde Police Department got to the school within three minutes of the shooter’s arrival and headed to a classroom after hearing gunfire. But the officers retreated to take cover after two were hit by shrapnel as gunman Salvador Ramos fired his weapon, a high-powered AR-15 rifle. It would be another hour before police tried to breach the classroom door again, the review found.

“There is a great deal of confusion, miscommunication, and lack of urgency and a lack of incident command,” according to the report. Though “overwhelming numbers of law enforcement” from different agencies went to the school, they did not receive accurate updates on the situation or direction on how to help response efforts because leadership didn’t establish command and control, the review found.

Law enforcement didn’t treat Uvalde as active shooter situation

Seventy-seven minutes elapsed from when law enforcement first arrived on the scene to when the suspect was confronted and killed. The incident was treated not as an active shooter situation, but rather as a “barricaded subject scenario,” the review found, and it noted that an “active shooter with access to victims should never be considered and treated as a barricaded subject,” with “never” in italics.

“The most significant failure was that responding officers should have immediately recognized the incident as an active shooter situation,” the review found. It noted that since the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado, a “fundamental precept” in active shooter response is to prioritize immediately neutralizing the suspect, with officer safety inferior to that objective. 

“These efforts must be undertaken regardless of the equipment and personnel available to those first on the scene. This did not occur during the Robb Elementary shooting response,” according to the Justice Department’s findings.

Officers at scene of school shooting in Uvalde, Texas
Children run from the scene of the shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, on May 24, 2022.

Pete Luna/Uvalde Leader-News

Citing a lack of urgency toward entering the classrooms at Robb Elementary School, the review found that many officers arriving on the scene incorrectly believed that the gunman had been killed, or that Pete Arredondo, the former police chief of the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District, was in the room with the suspect. The Justice Department said Arrendondo was the “de-facto on scene commander,” but he discarded his radios when he arrived “thinking they were unnecessary.”

Arrendondo, who was fired in the wake of allegations he made numerous critical errors during the shooting, receives much of the blame for the response, but the review found that law enforcement arriving on the scene acted counter to accepted practices. Some of the failures “may have been influenced by policy and training deficiencies,” according to the examination.

“Chaos and confusion” 

The Justice Department’s report scrutinized not only law enforcement’s response to the shooting, but found there was “chaos and confusion” in its aftermath. Students with bullet wounds, grazes and other injuries were not given medical attention, but rather put onto buses that went to the civic center, which was set up as a reunification center.

Families with children who attended Robb Elementary School received “incorrect information suggesting their family members had survived when they had not,” the review found. Others, meanwhile, learned of the deaths of their family members “by personnel untrained in delivering such painful news.” 

“Inaccurate and incomplete” information was relayed to the community following the tragedy, the Justice Department said, and the victims, their families and community members “struggled to receive timely and accurate information” about the events of May 24.

“It is hard to look at the truth that the law enforcement response on May 24 was an unimaginable failure and that a lack of action by adults failed to protect children and their teachers,” said Vanita Gupta, associate attorney general, who appeared alongside Garland in Uvalde. “But we cannot look away from what happened here. We cannot look away from these children and we cannot look away from what happened in Uvalde.”

Families of Uvalde school shooting victims react to DOJ report


The Justice Department’s examination is not the first to highlight the failures of responding agencies — a report released by Texas lawmakers in July 2022 determined that officers who arrived on the scene “failed to adhere to their active shooter training, and they failed to prioritize saving the lives of innocent victims over their own safety.”

Video recorded during the shooting showed a delayed response by law enforcement on the scene. Authorities in Texas spent three days providing often conflicting and incomplete information about the 90 minutes that elapsed between the time the gunman entered the school and the moment when U.S. Border Patrol agents unlocked the classroom door and killed the shooter. Law enforcement officers from local, state and federal entities responded to the Uvalde shooting.

The Office of Community Oriented Policing, known as the COPS Office, carried out the Justice Department review. Similar reviews were conducted after mass shootings in San Bernardino, California, in 2015 and the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando in 2016. 

Nearly 20 officers were standing in the hallway outside the classrooms during the attack on Robb Elementary School for over 45 minutes before agents used a master key to open a door and confront the gunman, Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steven McCraw said at a news conference in May 2022.

The on-site commander “was convinced at the time that there was no more threat to the children and that the subject was barricaded and that they had time to organize” to get into the classroom, McCraw said.

“Of course it was not the right decision. It was the wrong decision,” McCraw told reporters.

Jeff Pegues and Rob Legare contributed to this report.

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