As timeline emerges, law enforcement criticized for response to school massacre

Washington Post photo by Joshua Lott
People take flowers to place outside Robb Elementary School on May 25 in Uvalde, Texas.

A gunman roamed outside a Texas elementary school for about 12 minutes, entered without challenge and spent an hour inside before he was killed by law enforcement, authorities said Thursday, revising key details in their account of the massacre as the police response to it was criticized by some parents.

The new details of how 18-year-old Salvador Ramos was able to kill 19 children and two teachers at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas, on Tuesday, together with cellphone videos and witness accounts of police outside tackling or handcuffing desperate parents who tried to rush into the building, called into question earlier claims by Gov. Greg Abbott, R, that a “quick response” by law enforcement had saved lives.

Police who arrived at the school retreated when Ramos shot at them, state authorities said Thursday. An hour elapsed before a tactical unit led by federal Border Patrol agents went into a classroom and killed the gunman. The initial response appears to have veered from guidance, widely implemented since the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado, that says officers should pursue shooters inside buildings without waiting for specialized backup.

Texas authorities on Thursday also retracted a previous claim that an officer had approached and possibly fired at the gunman outside the school, saying that in fact the shooter “walked in undisrupted.” About 10 minutes before Ramos went into the building, authorities said, he opened fire on witnesses by a nearby funeral home, and a 911 caller reported a man carrying a gun.

The amended account of the shootings was offered by Victor Escalon Jr., regional director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, who said three times that he would “clear up” previous statements. Escalon spoke at a chaotic news conference Thursday afternoon after the appearance in news reports and on social media of the cellphone videos, some of which showed tearful parents pleading with officers in tactical gear – some carrying rifles or Tasers – to go inside the school and tackle the gunman, or allow them to do so themselves.

Javier Cazares, whose 9-year-old daughter, Jacklyn, was inside the school, said in an interview that he and other men demanded action from police as they huddled by a door to the school. “There were five or six of [us] fathers, hearing the gunshots, and [police officers] were telling us to move back,” Cazares said. “We didn’t care about us. We wanted to storm the building.”

Cazares later learned Jacklyn had been shot and killed.

Abbott, whose uncompromising pro-gun stances have been sharply criticized by Democrats since the massacre, hailed the swiftness of the police response on Wednesday and praised their tactics.

It is a fact that because of their quick response getting on the scene, being able to respond to the gunman and eliminate the gunman, they were able to save lives, Abbott said at a news conference.

Escalon defended the police response at Thursday’s news conference, beginning with emotional remarks about the toll taken on law enforcement. “It’s hard to take. It is traumatic. We’re all hurting inside,” he said.

But after two days in which officials had offered partial and contradictory details of how the shooting unfolded, Escalon’s account also was confusing and unclear at points.

He said the gunman, who shot his grandmother and fled in a pickup, crashed the vehicle at 11:28 a.m. Photographs from the scene show the gray Ford pickup stopped next to broken railings at a ditch-like concrete area beside the western perimeter of the school grounds.

At 11:30 a.m., police received the first 911 call reporting that a man who had crashed a vehicle was carrying a gun, according to Escalon.

Escalon said witnesses described the gunman exiting the passenger side of his truck, carrying a rifle and a bag. He opened fire on two people who had walked out of a funeral home across the street, according to Escalon’s telling of the witness accounts. The gunman then walked toward the school, climbed a fence and shot at the school from a parking lot.

He appears to have entered the school through a door that was unlocked, Escalon said.

Texas State Trooper Juan Maldonado, who lives in Uvalde, said he and others entered the school building where the shooting took place and broke windows to rescue children from classrooms. “We went in the building, we broke windows, we got kids out,” Maldonado said. He declined to say who was with him or when precisely this took place. He said one of the teachers killed was “like his sister.”

Officials had previously stated that the gunman was confronted by a school police officer who fired at him. Later, they said the officer had confronted him but did not open fire. Escalon said Thursday that both versions were inaccurate:

No officer confronted the gunman before he entered the west side of the school at 11:40 a.m., Escalon said, adding “there was not an officer readily available.”

A Uvalde school district security plan says the fencing around Robb was “designed to limit and/or restrict access to individuals without a need to be on the campus” and that the district operates a “locked classroom door policy” at all times.

Officers from the Uvalde Police Department and the school district police department arrived four minutes after the gunman entered the school, according to Escalon, who offered unclear statements about how close those officers got to Ramos. Having first said the officers were “inside making entry” and took cover after coming under fire, he then said: “They don’t make entry initially because of the gunfire.”

Since Columbine in 1999, many police departments have trained officers to go after an attacker as soon as possible, to minimize the number of teachers and children shot. Before then, guidance often emphasized waiting for specially trained officers, such as a SWAT team. The speed and willingness of officers to pursue shooters into buildings has been called into question following other attacks in recent years, including the massacre at a high school in Parkland, Fla., in 2018.

Uvalde Police Department’s policy on responding to an active shooter is not publicly available, but a sample policy manual offered to local departments by the Texas Police Chiefs Association states: “The first two to five responding officers should form a single team and enter the structure.” The sample manual contains best practices and has been used by more than 100 agencies, according to the association.

In any active-shooter situation, the protocol is to address the threat. You go at the threat, you go at where the gunfire is at because you’re trying to stop the threat, Texas DPS spokesman Lt. Chris Olivarez said in an interview Thursday.

Katherine Schweit, a retired senior FBI official who started the bureau’s active-shooter program, said officers were taught to immediately neutralize a shooter.

Under all circumstances, that is their first priority, said Schweit, who cautioned that it was still early and that all of the facts were not known yet about the response to the Uvalde shooting. “Even if somebody locks themselves behind a door, we want to go in and get that guy,” she said. And even if a shooter is no longer firing, she said, “anybody with a gun who’s killed people is an active threat until they’re neutralized.”

According to witnesses and video, there was a substantive police presence outside the school as frantic parents and onlookers gathered.

Derek Sotelo, who runs a nearby auto shop, said he watched from the funeral home as officers arrived and began clustering around a school entrance that faces a parking lot. “There were a lot of cops surrounding that door,” Sotelo said, adding that he did not know if any of the officers entered.

At a news conference on Wednesday, Texas DPS chief Steven McCraw said that after the gunman opened fire, officers “engage[d] the active shooter and continue[d] to keep him pinned down in that location” until a tactical team could get inside.

But Escalon on Thursday appeared to play down the notion of ongoing exchanges of fire between the time the gunman entered the fourth-grade classroom and when police confronted him about an hour later. “The majority of the gunfire was in the beginning” of the incident, he said.

Previously, police spokesmen had said the gunman “barricaded himself inside” the classroom for a period of time, rendering officers unable to get to him.

Police and public officials have cautioned that their investigation is ongoing and what is known about the shooting may change in coming days and weeks. In the meantime, social media postings and witness interviews have helped reconstruct portions of what happened.

The school announced on Facebook at 11:43 a.m. that it was locked down due to gunshots in the area. “The students and staff are safe in the building,” it said.

At that point, the shooter had been inside the school for three minutes, according to the timeline Escalon gave Thursday. One minute after that – at the exact time that Escalon said officers attempted to enter the building and then retreated after being fired at – a resident said in his own Facebook post that there was a shootout in front of the school.

Some children managed to flee the school at noon, according to video reviewed by The Washington Post. At 12:06, the school published another alert on the lockdown, again stating: “The students and staff are safe in the buildings.” Eleven minutes after that, however, it updated with a starker message: There was “an active shooter at Robb Elementary. Law enforcement is on site.”

Rep. Tony Gonzales, R-Texas, whose district includes Uvalde, said he was told in a briefing that gunfire appeared to halt for a half-hour period after the gunman was barricaded or trapped in the classroom.

That’s where there’s kind of a lull in the action, Gonzales told CNN. “All of it, I understand, lasted about an hour, but this is where there’s kind of a 30-minute lull. They feel as if they’ve got him barricaded in. The rest of the students in the school are now leaving.”

Citing preliminary information, Escalon on Thursday said that “during the negotiation there wasn’t much gunfire, other than trying to keep the officers at bay.” Authorities had not previously mentioned any negotiations between law enforcement and the gunman, and Escalon did not elaborate.

Eventually, a tactical team of federal and local officers was put together. Agents from an elite Border Patrol tactical unit led a phalanx into the classroom protected by a ballistic shield. They fired at the gunman, according to two federal law enforcement officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to provide preliminary details. The gunman fired at the officers as they entered, one official said. During the exchange of fire, the official said, one agent was shot in the foot and grazed in the head.

Authorities have not said precisely what time the gunman was shot, but Escalon on Thursday said it was approximately one hour after the first responding officers arrived. Uvalde police announced on social media at 1:06 p.m. that the gunman was under the control of law enforcement.

Police elsewhere have faced similar scrutiny over their responses to mass shootings. More than a week after 17 people were killed at Parkland in February 2018, officials acknowledged that the Broward County sheriff’s deputy working as a school resource officer remained outside throughout the massacre and failed to confront the attacker.

Scot Peterson, the former deputy, was charged with child neglect and negligence in 2019. He has said he did not know where the shots were coming from. An arrest affidavit said that he had active-shooter training two years before the Parkland massacre, during which officers were told about the need to respond urgently, because “every time you hear a gunshot in an active-shooter incident, you have to believe that is another victim being killed.”

A state commission investigating the shooting later faulted multiple other officers for not acting quickly enough, saying that several had failed to try to confront the attacker. Several deputies from the Broward County Sheriff’s Office were seen or described taking the time to put on ballistic vests, “sometimes in excess of one minute and in response to hearing gunshots,” the commission said. A half-dozen deputies arrived near the building where the shooting took place, most of them heard gunshots and they “did not immediately move toward the gunshots to confront the shooter,” the report concluded. One sergeant “remained behind his car in a position of personal safety,” the report said.

After the June 2016 massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, police were criticized for waiting for hours to breach the club’s walls and attack the gunman after they had pursued him earlier inside the building. Police had fired at the shooter before settling into a standoff with him while he remained inside a bathroom with club patrons.

The then-Orlando police chief defended the agency’s response, saying that the gunman had stopped firing while barricaded inside the bathroom, transforming the scene from an active-shooter into a hostage standoff.

The Washington Post’s Tim Craig in Uvalde, Texas, and Silvia Foster-Frau, Alice Li, Nick Miroff, John Woodrow Cox and Meryl Kornfield in Washington contributed to this report.