AUSTIN, Texas — Law enforcement authorities had enough officers on the scene of the Uvalde school massacre to stop the gunman three minutes after he entered the building, the Texas public safety chief testified Tuesday, condemning the police response as an “abject failure.”
Police officers with rifles instead stood and waited in a hallway for over an hour before they finally stormed the classroom and killed the gunman, putting an end to the May 24 attack that left 19 children and two teachers dead.
"One hour, 14 minutes and eight seconds," DPS director Col. Steve McCraw told a state Senate hearing Tuesday.
“The officers had weapons, the children had none. The officers had body armor, the children had none. The officers had training, the subject had none."
McCraw said the officers never checked a classroom door to see if it was locked. The classroom door, it turned out, could not be locked from the inside.
“I have great reasons to believe it was never secured,” McCraw said of the door. ”How about trying the door and seeing if it’s locked?”
McCraw also said a police officer who responded to the scene knew his wife, murdered teacher Eva Mireles, had been shot, but when he tried to get to her, he had his gun taken away.
"We got an officer whose wife called him and said she'd been shot and she's dying," McCraw said. "He tried to move forward into the hallway. He was detained, and they took his gun away from him and escorted him off the scene."
Another officer, whose daughter was inside, also tried to go in.
"The only thing stopping a hallway of dedicated officers from entering room 111 and 112 was the on-scene commander who decided to place the lives of officers before the lives of children," he said.
The public safety chief began outlining for the committee a series of missed opportunities.
The public safety chief presented a timeline that said three officers with two rifles entered the building less than three minutes after the gunman, an 18-year-old with an AR-15-style semi-automatic rifle. Several more officers entered minutes after that.
“Every shot is a death, why is this person shooting? He’s killing somebody – but, yet, they don’t, this incident commander, finds every reason to do nothing," State Sen. Paul Bettencourt said.
The decision by police to hold back went against much of what law enforcement has learned in the past two decades since the Columbine High School shooting in Colorado that left 13 dead in 1999, McCraw said
“You don’t wait for a SWAT team. You have one officer, that’s enough,” he said. He also said officers did not need to wait for shields to enter the classroom. The first shield arrived less than 20 minutes after the shooter entered, according to McCraw.
Also, eight minutes after the shooter entered, an officer reported that police had a “hooligan” crowbar that they could use to break down the classroom door, McCraw said.
The public safety chief outlined for the committee a series of missed opportunities, communication breakdowns and other mistakes, among them:
- Arredondo did not have a radio with him.
- Police and sheriff’s radios did not work within the school; only the radios of Border Patrol agents on the scene worked inside the school, and even they did not work perfectly.
- Some diagrams of the school that police were using to coordinate their response were wrong.
As for the amount of time that elapsed before officers entered the classroom, McCraw said: “In an active shooter environment, that’s intolerable.”
“This set our profession back a decade. That’s what it did,” he said of the police response in Uvalde.
“Obviously, not enough training was done in this situation, plain and simple. Because terrible decisions were made by the on-site commander,” McCraw said. He said investigators have been unable to “re-interview” Arredondo.
State police initially said the gunman entered the school through an exterior door that had been propped open by a teacher, but McCraw said that the teacher had closed the door, and it could be locked only from the outside.
“There’s no way for her to know the door is locked” McCraw said. “He walked straight through.”
McCraw also said that teachers, not law enforcement, should be praised for their actions during the massacre.
McCraw says the teachers worked quickly to lock the school down and save lives.
In addition, McCraw asked that Texans alert law enforcement of suspicious activity. He said the Salvador Ramos was, "moving toward a pathway to violence" in the months that led up to the massacre at the school.
Police haven’t found anything that would be a red flag in the shooter’s school disciplinary files but learned through interviews that he engaged in animal cruelty. “He walked around with a bag of dead cats,” McCraw said.
In the days and weeks after the shooting, authorities gave conflicting and incorrect accounts of what happened, sometimes withdrawing statements hours after making them. But McCraw assured lawmakers: “Everything I’ve testified today is corroborated.”
McCraw said if he could make just one recommendation, it would be for more training. He also said a “go-bag” should be put in every state patrol car in Texas, including a shield and door-breaching tools.
“I want every trooper to know how to breach and have the tools to do it,” he said.
Testimony from later Tuesday afternoon focused largely on the shooter, 18-year-old Salvador Ramos. Acquaintances told investigators that Ramos had shown some disturbing behaviors in the past, like carrying around a bag of dead cats.
But, no one reported Ramos as a concern.
"At least half a dozen people had already identified in their minds that he was a likely school shooter," said Texas Sen. Paul Bettencourt.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.