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Damning Justice Department report finds leadership failures led to botched Uvalde police response

A lengthy Justice Department report issued today found that the disastrous police response to the 2022 mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, was a result of a lack of leadership and failure to follow well-established principles for responding to active shooters.

The over 600-page review confirms what previous investigations by media outlets and Texas state agencies have reported: that the inexcusable delay in confronting the shooter for over an hour left children and teachers trapped and defenseless inside classrooms.

“The victims and survivors of the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School on May 24, 2022, deserved better,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said at a Justice Department press conference today.

The most significant failure identified by the Justice Department’s critical incident review of the mass shooting was that “responding officers should have immediately recognized the incident as an active shooter situation, using the resources and equipment that were sufficient to push forward immediately and continuously toward the threat until entry was made into classrooms.”

Instead, because of erroneous information and poor communication, police treated the shooter as a barricaded suspect. That meant officers spent time waiting for additional equipment and trying to negotiate with the gunman. In one instance, they spent 15 minutes waiting for a set of keys to unlock a door that was likely unlocked all along. And it meant that survivors were trapped in rooms with the shooter for more than an hour after the first officers arrived on the scene. 

The review found there was no incident command structure among the enormous number of police officers gathered at the school, leading to indecision and chaos both during and in the aftermath of the shooting.

At the Justice Department press conference, Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta described how the lack of leadership meant there was no plan to triage the numerous victims after the shooter was killed.  

“Victims were moved away without appropriate precautions,” Gupta said. “Children with bullet wounds were put on school buses without medical attention.”

The report found that city and state officials spread inaccurate information at news conferences, not just about the police response but also the status of victims, which further added to the distress of the community.

As questions about the shooting mounted, the City of Uvalde and Texas law enforcement agencies began to aggressively fight requests from media outlets for public records on the police response. The reason why they wanted the details to remain secret soon became clear.

The Texas Tribune recently reported in excruciating detail how the children and teachers at Uvalde actually followed their lockdown protocols by hunkering down and staying quiet—even among their dead and dying friends and teachers—which led officers to incorrectly assume the rooms had already been evacuated. “I’m watching that door. No screams. No nothing. No nothing,” one officer later told investigators. “You know. Things you would think you would hear if there had been kids in there.”

The Justice Department report notes, “More than one survivor recalled hearing someone state, ‘Say ‘help’ if you need help,’ and when a child tried to say ‘help,’ the subject reentered room 112 from room 111 and shot the victim.”

Meanwhile, survivors inside the classrooms were calling 911, texting family members, and wondering why the police hadn’t come yet. The police were busy doing things like holding back a fellow officer whose wife had been shot in one of the classrooms.

One mother who snuck past police into the school and retrieved her two children alleged that Uvalde police threatened her with arrest for obstruction of justice if she continued to talk to the media about what happened.

“This community deserved more than misinformation from officials after the attack,” Garland said at the press conference today.

It’s worth remembering that, before the most basic details of the botched police response began to trickle out, Texas politicians defaulted to their usual deference.

“The reality is, as horrible as what happened, it could have been worse,” Republican Texas Gov. Gregg Abbot originally said. “The reason it was not worse is that law enforcement officials did what they do. They showed amazing courage by running toward gunfire for the singular purpose of trying to save lives. And it is a fact that because of their quick response, getting on the scene of being able to respond to the gunman and eliminating the gunman, they were able to save lives.”

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