Every examination of the shooting and the police reaction in the town of Uvalde, Texas, only seems to make things worse. Not only has the story of the events been shifting since the first day, every one of those shifts seems to be toward greater levels of both staggering incompetence and something that’s very difficult to distinguish from plain old cowardice.
On Friday, The New York Times explained more of how the first moments of the tragic shooting unfolded. And, surprise ... It’s worse.
Worse as in the chief of the school district police arrived on the scene just two minutes after the shooting began, and—lacking a police radio—the chief got on a cellphone and left a message for the remainder of the Uvalde police over a landline. That message: “The gunman has an AR-15, he told them, but he is contained; we need more firepower and we need the building surrounded.”
That single message, delivered over the phone by the just-arrived chief of the school district police, would become the operating order of the day. No one countered it. No one overruled it, even as more shots—and pleading phone calls—came from the room where the gunman was “contained.” And that chief, who commanded a six-person team with no experience handling such a situation, would remain the officer in charge throughout the next hours.
When a tactical team of border control officers eventually breached the door, they did so not because Uvalde police had reevaluated. They went in against the orders of that chief, who was ordering them to stop right up until the last second.
Despite lacking a police radio, and apparently having no experience at all with either hostage or active shooter situations, that phone call made Chief Pete Arredondo the incident commander. His regular command was not the actual Uvalde Police, but just the six-person school district police.
It’s now known that police from at least 14 different jurisdictions and agencies arrived on the scene in the following hour, crowding into the hallway outside the room where the shooter was executing children. That absolutely included the Uvalde Police, who were allegedly trained to handle exactly the kind of active shooter situation underway. No one ever seems to have suggested that an officer with more knowledge take charge.
Arredondo’s order held. Even though the police in the hallway, and both parents and police gathered outside, could still hear “sporadic gunfire” from inside the room, no one tried to go in. No one tried to go in even though there were getting calls like this from 10-year-old Khloie Torres, who whispered into her phone from inside the room.
“There is a lot of bodies. I don’t want to die, my teacher is dead, my teacher is dead, please send help, send help for my teacher, she is shot but still alive.”
It’s unclear which teacher Torres was referencing, but it’s also come out in the last two days that teacher Eva Mireles, one of the two teachers who died in that room, called her husband, Ruben Ruiz. Ruiz is one of those six officers in the school district police. An officer under Arredondo’s command. Ruiz continued to follow the command that no one should go into the room, even when his wife was dying on the other side of a plain wooden door.
Khloie Torres pleaded on the phone—quietly, quietly—for over 15 minutes. At the 11-minute mark, gunfire can be heard on that the recording of her call. She called back twice more.
Police were there in great numbers. They were aware that there were still people at risk on the other side of that door—children and teachers, some of them already wounded. They knew the shooter was still engaged in executing those people inside the room. But they didn’t go in.
They had on hand every member of a team that had gone through training in how to handle an active shooter situation less than two months earlier.
The police department is by far the largest expense in the town of Uvalde, Texas, consuming over 40% of the town’s budget. For a town of just 13,000 residents, it somehow justifies the expense of a SWAT team. This wasn’t a matter of Barney Fife fumbling in his pocket for a single bullet. These were supposedly well-trained and definitely well-equipped officers on the scene—standing outside a door, and very definitely listening as people were being executed.
When that door was finally opened, it didn’t take some kind of battering ram. It took a janitor’s key.
The group that finally went in wasn’t a SWAT unit. They weren’t from Uvalde. They were an “ad hoc” group containing members of two federal agencies, along with a sheriff’s deputy, who simply couldn’t stand it anymore. “They were done waiting for permission,” said one member of the group.
But as they started to go in, they got a direct order from the police on the scene. That order was “Do not breach.” By that time, there were over 140 police on hand. And the order was still not to go in.
They ignored the order, entered the room, and killed the gunman.
Elie Mystal is on Daily Kos' The Brief podcast