5 takeaways from the DOJ’s scathing Uvalde report

On Thursday, the Department of Justice (DOJ) released its long-awaited report on the devastating 2022 shooting at a Uvalde, Texas, elementary school, painting a sharply critical picture of the police response to the tragedy.

In the scathing report, the DOJ sought to answer why nearly 400 law enforcement officers spent more than an hour waiting outside Uvalde’s Robb Elementary School while a gunman killed 19 children and two teachers inside.

To assemble the findings, the DOJ’s investigative team spent weeks in Uvalde, conducted more than 260 interviews and examined more than 14,000 piece of evidence.

Here are five key takeaways from their analysis of the shooting on May 24, 2022.

Failures of safety and training set the table for the disaster 

In a world where school shootings are commonplace, the report authors criticized the failure of Uvalde school district police officers — and the teachers they protected — to have a coherent, well-drilled plan for an attack by an active shooter.

At the time of the shooting — four years after the district police department had been established — no such unified policy existed, the DOJ found. And even months afterward, “there were still no policies and procedures.”

“None of the officers interviewed as part of this review had ever seen a policy or procedure manual for the police department,” the report stated.

The DOJ also pointed to several failures of preparation and oversight. In one stark example cited in the report, investigators found that Robb Elementary’s exterior doors were supposed to lock from the inside when class was in session — but generally were left unsecured.

Teachers and students often propped doors open with rocks or magnetic strips; other doors failed to lock due to buildup of paint or malfunctioning latches, according to the report.

This was a serious error, the authors said. They noted that if proper procedures had been followed, when the shooter tried to enter the closed northwest door of Robb Elementary’s west building, he would have found it locked.

Instead, it opened — and he made his fateful trip of just a few feet to classrooms 111 and 112, where, unbeknownst to the officers already gathering, class was in session.

Converging officers later entered freely through all the school’s other doors, which were also unlocked.

And those officers had undergone no cross-agency drills on what to do during an active shooter situation, the report found — tactics that ranged from establishing public messaging to conducting joint field drills.

Uvalde leadership had itself previously noted local law enforcement’s lack of adequate experience or training in responding to large-scale emergencies could be a problem.

Five months before the shooting, a tabletop simulation of a disastrous wildfire — which drew together 31 public and private agencies in a massive disaster drill — produced disappointing results, leading county leadership to conclude in its report that “Uvalde County does not have the resources to respond and manage a large scale [mass casualty incident].”

The proposed solution, to begin rollout in April and May 2022, was that the district needed far more joint drilling, messaging and training.

But by the time of the shooting in late May, “as is now known, the local agencies never completed these actions,” the DOJ concluded.

Law enforcement read the situation wrong — with fatal results

All the bad calls law enforcement made in the shooting response stemmed from a single major one, the DOJ found: the determination of whether the incident constituted an “active shooter” scenario.

Officers must make that judgement immediately during any mass shooting, distinguishing between such a scenario — in which the subject is moving and killing victims — or a more stable “barricaded” scenario, in which the subject is holed up, potentially with hostages who could be killed in a direct assault.

“An active shooter with access to victims should never be considered and treated as a barricaded subject,” the DOJ authors found.

But this, they said, is precisely what happened in Uvalde.

At first, several officers did try to storm the school as active shooter response doctrine dictates.

“Once inside the building, five of the first officers on scene continued to press down the hallway and toward a barrage of gunfire erupting inside of rooms 111/112,” the DOJ authors wrote.

But after officers were nicked by shrapnel kicked up by the bullets fired from inside the classroom, the DOJ found that they made a critical error — one perpetuated by the hundreds of officers who would ultimately reinforce them.

They concluded that the subject was barricaded inside and firing from an empty room — and busied themselves with evacuating the rest of the school, the authors said.

This was a tragic misstep, as the report outlined, because — as panicked 911 calls from those classrooms would later clarify — class had been in session in those rooms.

This meant that while officers secured the rest of the school, children and teachers alike were trapped inside those rooms with the shooter.

The report found that law enforcement continued to maintain the assumption that they were dealing with a barricaded shooter scenario even after officers heard four shots ring out from classrooms 111 and 112 — an event that took place after about 48 minutes into the siege, as the shooter fired at additional victims.

“Had the law enforcement agencies followed generally accepted practices in an active shooter situation and go in right after the shooter to stop him, lives would have been saved, and people would have survived,” one DOJ co-author told reporters.

Officers delayed outside classrooms while children died inside

Once the first responders reported back — erroneously — that they faced a barricaded shooter scenario, a snowballing sequence of further errors followed, the DOJ found.

After officers heard those four shots from rooms 111 and 112, they began to move “into formation” outside the room but waited, “presuming the classroom doors were locked,” the report said.

Instead of forcing entry, officers began to test sets of  keys on the doors of an adjoining janitor’s closet — trying to find one that worked, investigators found. The first set of keys failed, so they found a second one — and by the time they got that working, 15 minutes had passed since the additional shots.

Even then, rather than enter, the officers kept waiting “to determine whether a sniper and a drone could obtain sight of and eliminate the subject through the window,” the DOJ report authors wrote.

“Those efforts were unsuccessful.”

It took another 12 minutes for officers to open the door, according to the report. Members of a Border Patrol special operations unit then burst in and killed the shooter when he “emerged shooting from a closet.”

By this point, the DOJ authors found, 40 minutes had been wasted in the search for keys to open interior doors — a major cause of “the significant delay” that kept officers from “entering to eliminate the threat and stop the killing and dying inside classrooms 111 and 112.

“Every day, police officers run towards danger to keep people safe,” report co-author Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta told reporters Thursday.

“And yet in Uvalde on May 24 2022, that did not happen until far too late,” she added

‘Epic’ lapse of command left officers rudderless

One particular source of these “cascading” mistakes identified by the report authors was Chief Pete Arredondo, who as head of the school district’s police department was the acting commander on scene.

As more and more police arrived on scene, the DOJ authors found, no one had set up a clear command post or clear command structure — making it very difficult for the officers outside the school to know what was going on, and for the officers inside to get clear instructions.

But even amid these broader lapses of command and communication, the report highlighted several of Arredondo’s mistakes.

For example, just 7 minutes after the shooter entered the school, the DOJ found that Arredondo had “tossed his radios” in order to keep his hands free, and because “there were reception and transmission issues inside the building.”

Instead, the authors recounted, the police chief sought to direct operations by either verbal command or cell phones — hampering his ability to find out the critical information that, for example, there were still children inside classrooms 111 and 112.

Operating from his incorrect idea that the subject was barricaded inside, Arredondo devoted himself to evacuation, telling deputies that he “need[ed] a lot of firepower” and wanted “the building surrounded,” the DOJ found.

The department concluded that Arredondo’s failings stemmed from his attempt to pursue a dual role as both an officer on scene — commanding officers as they advanced through the school — and to provide top-down command for the operation.

“In his position as UCISD PD Chief, Chief Arredondo — who responded in the capacity of an initial responder to an active shooter — should have observed the failure to establish an incident command structure,” the authors wrote.

The DOJ authors also pointed to failures by another officer on scene — Mariano Pargas, the acting chief of the Uvalde Police Department.

They detailed his errors as being more passive than Arredondo’s, saying Pargas “provide[d] no direction, command, or control to personnel” despite being “in the best position” to provide it, and to “start coordinating with approaching personnel.”

In comments to reporters, one of the report authors offered scathing criticism of both officers’ conduct — particularly in comparison to the law enforcement responses to other mass shootings, such as the 2015 Pulse Nightclub massacre in Tampa, Florida.

“There was an epic or complete lack of leadership or unity of command,” said Hugh Clements of the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services.

Failures of communication hamstrung the police response — and sowed lasting public distrust

Arredondo’s decision to throw away his radios both contributed to — and was indicative of — a broader failure in communication that cost additional lives, the DOJ authors found.

As news of the ongoing killing spread, hundreds of people converged on the school: police, paramedics and worried parents.

In the absence of central command or clear channels of communication, these additional voices only added to the confusion — creating a “fog of war” in which it became very difficult for anyone to get a clear picture of what was going on, the report said.

In this confused atmosphere, the DOJ found that key details that could have shaken loose the mistaken idea that law enforcement faced a barricaded suspect didn’t make it to commanders such as Arredondo.

Parents and family members who arrived at the school also found it difficult or impossible to verify whether their loved ones were safe, according to the report.

This task was made yet harder by contradictory and erroneous information spread on social media, the DOJ said, with the city and school district police accounts pushing out conflicting reports.

The report noted that because of this, hundreds of parents spent hours in panic trying to find out — from police, school officials or local hospitals — whether their children were safe or where they were.

In the days following the shooting, investigators found that other communication failures did lasting damage to public trust.

Over the next four days, state and various factions of the local police all continued to give their own, contradictory statements, the report recounted.

In these communiques, it said, spokespeople from the Texas Department of Public Safety spent significant time “praising the brave actions of law enforcement, first responders who arrived on Scene” and their ostensible selfless willingness to risk their own lives.

As the DOJ noted, these “heroic” talking points — which state officials including Gov. Greg Abbott (R) and the head of the Texas Department of Public Safety built on — had to be walked back as the magnitude of the failure became clear.

But by then the damage was done, having “dealt a serious blow to public confidence in local and state law enforcement,” the DOJ concluded.

“It is impossible to measure the damage done by the inaccurate messaging during this incident, but the actions of the first responding officers along with the false messaging about the response prompted outcry against the local law enforcement agencies,” the department reported.

This series of messages “appeared to feed a perception held by some that law enforcement will ‘circle the wagons’ to protect its own versus doing the right thing by the community members they serve,” it concluded.

This early impression appears to have been hard for locals to shake. In a December interview with The Associated Press, Velma Lisa Duran — the sister of one of the murdered teachers — told reporters she was no longer confident in the justice system for those who had failed Uvalde.

Instead, Duran said, “I take confidence in God’s wrath.”

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