Uvalde video raises more calls for police accountability

Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District / Austin American-Statesman via AP
In this photo from surveillance video provided by the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District via the Austin American-Statesman, authorities stage in a hallway as they respond to the shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, May 24, 2022. 

UVALDE, Texas (AP) — As video taken inside Robb Elementary School puts in full view the bewildering inaction by law enforcement during the May slaughter of 19 children and two teachers, some in Uvalde are shouting: Will police face consequences?

Only one officer from the scene of the deadliest school shooting in Texas history is known to be on leave. Authorities have still not released names of officers who for more than an hour milled in and out of a hallway near the adjoining fourth-grade classrooms where the gunman was firing. And nearly two months after the massacre, there’s still disagreement about who was in charge.

A nearly 80-minute hallway surveillance video published by the Austin American-Statesman publicly showed for the first time — with disturbing and painful clarity — a hesitant and haphazard tactical response by fully armed officers that the head of Texas’ state police has condemned as a failure and some Uvalde residents have blasted as cowardly.

But it is unclear whether the actions — or inaction — by officers in the school on May 24 will result in more than criticism, even as demands for accountability and anger mount. City and state leaders have urged people to let investigations play out.

There are signs impatience is growing: Hours after the video was published, residents shouted from their seats at a City Council meeting Tuesday, demanding to know whether officers who were at the shooting were still on the force or getting paid. Council members did not respond.

What about the cops? one person yelled.

Police are afforded formidable legal protections, set up with the idea that their jobs often require life-and-death judgement calls under great pressure. Even with the officers’ hesitation captured on video, policing experts say it’s difficult to predict how likely they are to face discipline or legal fallout.

It’s going to come down to what would a reasonable police officer have perceived in that moment, said Bowling Green State University criminologist Philip Stinson.

The footage from a hallway camera inside the school shows the gunman entering the building with an AR-15-style rifle and includes 911 tape of a teacher screaming, “Get down! Get in your rooms! Get in your rooms!”

Two officers approach the classrooms minutes after the gunman enters, then run back amid the sounds of gunfire. From there, minutes tick by and more gunshots from the classrooms are heard as additional officers from multiple agencies arrive. More than an hour passes before a team finally advances down the hallway, breaches the classrooms and ends the massacre.

More than a dozen officers — some armed with rifles and bulletproof shields — are visible during some points of the video. During the long wait to confront the gunman, one man in body armor and and a vest that says “sheriff” squeezes a few pulls of hand sanitizer from a dispenser mounted on the wall.

It is a starkly different scene than the one described by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott the day after shooting, when he praised a swift response and officers who “showed amazing courage by running toward gunfire.” Abbott later said he was given wrong information but did not identify from whom.

That’s just one example of inaccurate and conflicting statements given by authorities in the seven weeks since the shooting. Asked Wednesday if any officers should face discipline for their inaction, Abbott spokeswoman Renae Eze said the governor “believes it would be premature to decide any action” until investigations are complete.

After the 2018 shooting at Parkland High School in Florida that killed 17 people, a deputy who knew the gunman was loose but refused to go inside was arrested on criminal charges. Legal experts have called that an extremely rare case of someone essentially being charged for not going into harm’s way and have expressed skepticism about the case, which is set for trial in February.

Former U.S. Attorney Joe Brown, who spent two decades as a Republican district attorney in North Texas, said there is “no criminal statute for dereliction of duty” and holding police criminally liable under such circumstances “carries a tremendous social cost.” But he said officers who fail to meet their “moral duty to intervene” could still face ridicule or firing.

Uvalde Mayor Don McLaughlin said it was too early to decide whether any officers should be taken off the force. “I don’t know they need to step down,” he said. “But everything needs to be reviewed.”

So far, officials have only publicly confirmed one officer on leave: Pete Arredondo, the Uvalde school district police chief who also stepped down from his newly won City Council seat last month. He has disputed state police’s characterization that he was in charge of the scene.

A Texas Department of Public Safety spokesman said no troopers who were there have been suspended. Officials with the Uvalde police and sheriff’s office did not answer questions about whether any of their officers have been suspended or placed on leave.

Greg Shaffer, a Dallas-based security consultant and retired member of the FBI’s hostage rescue team, said at the very least, the officers in the video should switch to a different line of work.

I think everyone in that hallway should reconsider their career choice, he said. “If you don’t have the courage and the mindset to run toward gunfire, as a police officer, then you’re in the wrong profession.”