Texas shooting: Police inaction at center of investigation

Stefanie Dazio, Associated Press

Posted Saturday, May 28, 2022 8:58 a.m. EDT

Last updated Saturday, May 28, 2022 at 4:15 p.m. EDT

The actions – or more specifically, the inaction – of a school district police chief and other law enforcement officers have become the focus of the investigation into this week’s shocking school shooting. in Uvalde, Texas.

Delay in confronting the shooter – who was inside the school for more than an hour – could result in disciplinary action, legal action and even criminal charges against police.

The attack that killed 19 children and two teachers in a fourth-grade classroom was the nation’s deadliest school shooting in nearly a decade, and for three days police offered a confusing and sometimes contradictory timeline that sparked public anger and frustration.

On Friday, authorities acknowledged students and teachers repeatedly pleaded with 911 operators for help while the police chief told more than a dozen officers to wait in a hallway at the Robb Elementary School. Officials said they believed the suspect was barricaded in adjacent classrooms and there was no longer an active attack.

The chief’s decision – and the officers’ apparent willingness to follow his guidelines against established protocols for active shooters – raised questions about whether more lives had been lost because officers had not acted more quickly to arrest the shooter, and who should be held responsible.

“In these cases, I think the court of public opinion is far worse than any police department tribunal or administrative trial,” said Joe Giacalone, a retired New York police sergeant. . “It has been so terribly handled on so many levels that there will be a sacrificial lamb here or there.”

As the shooter fired at students, law enforcement officers from other agencies urged the school’s police chief to let them move in because children were in danger, two school officials said. law enforcement.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they had not been authorized to speak publicly about the investigation.

One of the officials said audio recordings from scene capture officers from other agencies told the school’s police chief that the shooter was still active and that the priority was to arrest him. But why the head of the school ignored their warnings was unclear.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott, who at a press conference earlier in the week praised police for saving lives, said he was misled about the initial response and promised that there would be investigations into “exactly who knew what, when, who was in charge” and what they did.

“The bottom line would be: why didn’t they choose the strategy that would have been best to get in there and take out the killer and save the kids?” said Abbott.

Criminal charges are rarely brought against law enforcement in school shootings. A notable exception was the former school resource officer accused of going into hiding during the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, which left 17 people dead. New York City defense attorney Paul Martin and Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum in Washington, both said Saturday they don’t know of any other officers who have been criminally charged for not having acted in a mass shooting.

Martin, who has represented police officers charged with murder, assault and other crimes, said he thinks what happened at Uvalde differs from Parkland because the officers who waited to confront the attacker were following orders. Martin said he doesn’t think they can be charged based on the decisions of their command.

As for the school district police chief who decided to wait, Martin said it would be a “very high bar” to charge him criminally because officers have the leeway to make tactical decisions.

“Families can sue the police department for failing to act. … They can clearly be held civilly liable,” he said. “I think it’s very doubtful that they can be charged criminally.”

In terms of civil liability, the legal doctrine called “qualified immunity,” which protects police officers from lawsuits unless their actions violate clearly established laws, could also be at stake in future litigation. Potential administrative penalties — imposed by the department itself — could range from suspension or salary docking to forced resignation or retirement, or outright dismissal.

The families of most of those killed or injured at Parkland have reached a $127.5 million settlement with the US Department of Justice over the FBI’s failure to arrest the shooter, even though he had received information about his intention to attack. Former Broward County Deputy Scot Peterson is due to stand trial in September for child neglect causing grievous bodily harm, culpable negligence and perjury. He said he did his best at the time.

A federal judge dismissed all but one of the lawsuits against the school district and the sheriff’s office after the 1999 Columbine High School massacre, ruling the gunmen were responsible. A teacher’s daughter who bled to death won a $1.5 million settlement in her lawsuit against the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office in 2002. Police were heavily criticized at the time for not start school earlier.

“What Columbine taught us is that when you have an active shooter situation, waiting for additional resources will result in people being killed,” Wexler said. “Here we are, 20 years after Columbine and it’s the same issue that continues to challenge law enforcement.”

He said each department should make it clear in its policies that a gunman should be confronted immediately in these situations.

Uvalde School District Police Chief Pete Arredondo decided the group of officers should wait to confront the assailant, believing the active attack was over, according to Steven McCraw, the chief of the Department of Texas Public Safety.

The crisis ended shortly after officers used a janitor’s keys to open the classroom door, entered the room and shot and killed Ramos.

Arredondo could not be reached for comment on Friday, and Uvalde officers were stationed outside his home, but they would not say why.

Maria Haberfeld, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said police department policies, procedures and training will be reviewed to see if officers on the ground at Uvalde followed them.

If they did, and criminal charges are still laid, she said it would send a chilling message to police nationwide. “If you follow your procedures, you are always charged. So what’s the point of having procedures? ” she says.

But Jorge Colina, a former Miami police chief, wants to know more about what was going through the minds of the officers inside the school as the chief told them to wait in the hallway.

“Has anyone challenged the decision there?” he said. “Has anyone at least raised an objection?”

Associated Press writers Jim Vertuno in Uvalde, Texas; Jake Bleiberg in Dallas; Terry Spencer in Fort Lauderdale, Florida; Mike Balsamo in Washington, D.C.; and Jennifer McDermott in Providence, Rhode Island, contributed to this report.

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