Uvalde News: Biden mourns survivors during Texas visit


Ovaldi, Texas – From the first minutes after a gunman began shooting, officers descended on Robb Elementary School. The local police of the town of Ovaldi. County Vice Mayors. Agents of the Federal Border Patrol.

But none of the mounting agencies got control of dozens of officers at the scene on Tuesday in what became the worst school shooting since the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre a decade ago.

It was the responsibility of a small police department chief created just four years ago to help provide security at Uvalde’s eight schools. Its president, Pedro Arredondo, ordered the assembled officers to stop storming the two adjacent classrooms as the gunman had already fired more than 100 rounds at the walls and door and terrified fourth graders trapped inside, state police said.

As Ovaldi headed toward a weekend filled with sombre gatherings and free public barbecues, questions arose about Chief Arredondo, the role of the police and whether any of the 21 lives lost could be saved.

At a vigil on Saturday evening, hundreds of mourners met in a parking lot behind Sacred Heart Catholic Church and the pastor urged them not to get angry. On Sunday, sentiment will rise again with a scheduled visit from President Biden.

The degree to which some law enforcement officers at the site disagreed with the decision to step back became more apparent Saturday, as more became known about their frustration in the protracted chaos of Tuesday’s shooting.

Specially trained Border Patrol agents, who arrived more than 40 minutes after the shooting began, shouted for permission to enter and confront the gunman. “what is your problem?” They asked, according to an official familiar with the response.

Inside the classroom, children whose classmates lay dead around them quietly called 911 over and over, sometimes pleading with dispatchers to send the police to rescue them.

Roland Gutierrez, who represents the district in the state Senate, said the family of one of the children killed told him that their daughter was shot in the back and bled to death. “It is possible that she would have been saved, had they finished their jobs,” Mr. Gutierrez said.

In the end, the police officers assembled outside were given permission to enter the class. A team of tactical officers from border guards and local police agencies broke through the door and killed the 18-year-old gunman, Salvador Ramos, after killing 19 children and two teachers inside.

attributed to him…Pete Luna / Ovaldi Leader News

The decision to wait for these agents at the time, and to many police experts afterward, appeared to be at odds with practices that had been prevalent in departments across the country for the two decades since the deadly shooting at Columbine High School in 1999.

“The change from Columbine hasn’t necessarily been accepted by agencies across the country, and that’s what I’ve seen in this situation,” said Chuck Wexler, president of the Executive Police Research Forum, a Washington-based think tank. “There are still administrations in this country where there is ambiguity about this policy.”

Others, including some who have given active shooting training, have advised that a lunge may not always be the best approach. “When the story is finally told, he did exactly what they were trained for and based on pragmatic experience in the fog of war,” said John Michael Keys, whose group conducts active shooting training for police officers and school districts in Texas. For Chief Arredondo.

Two Ovaldi Police Department officers were shot through the locked door to the classroom in the first minutes of the attack, and fell back into the hallway with grazing injuries.

Officers, at the direction of Commander Arredondo, were told that the situation had evolved from someone with an active shooter — who might call for the gunman to be attacked immediately, even before the other children were rescued — to someone with a fortified subject, requiring a slower approach, officials said.

This appears to be an incorrect assessment, according to State Police Chief Stephen McCraw: Intermittent gunfire could be heard inside the rooms, including the constant 911 calls by children.

attributed to him…Evan-Pierre Aguirre for The New York Times

Part of the investigation into the shootings and the police response included whether Chief Arredondo was aware of the 911 calls that were coming, indicating a possible breakdown in communications during the chaotic and deadly event, according to an official familiar with the ongoing investigation. Led by the Texas Rangers.

The investigators were also looking into whether there was an attempt, during the confrontation, to take the matter of the accident away from Chief Arredondo.

Jill Kirlikowski, a former Seattle police chief who later served as chief of US Customs and Border Protection, said he was surprised to hear that the commander of the school district’s police force, which includes only six officers, was the incident commander during the shooting. .

While the school grounds may be the district’s jurisdiction, Mr. Kirlikovsky said, he had expected the district to immediately defer control to the city’s police department, which would have more experience with major incidents. He said city police may then transfer control to an agency such as the Texas Department of Public Safety, once it is established at the scene.

But, Mr. Kirlikovsky said, he could also see a situation where the larger agency might need to come in and pressure the first commander to relinquish control.

In no way will Border Patrol agents seek to take the lead themselves, Brandon Judd, president of the Border Patrol Council, the client union, said.

“Every training that is given, you have an incident leader, and the incident leader has the authority to make all the decisions,” Mr. Judd said on Saturday. This is what they have been trained to do, he said. He said that when clients arrive long after the situation has started, it is very important that they follow the chain of command.

The official familiar with the federal agency’s response said the border guards who arrived at the scene of the chaos on Tuesday were surprised by the absence of specially trained and equipped officers from the local police department able to raid classrooms.

The Uvald Police Department, which has hired about 40 sworn officers in recent years, uses some of its members as a kind of SWAT team, often to confiscate drugs, according to the department’s annual reports. It was not clear why the Border Police team, which was a 40-minute drive away, was asked to lead the attack.

Mr. Gutierrez, the state senator, said the failures to respond may have outpaced decisions made by a small police department.

“How can you blame all of this on a six-man school district police chief?” Mr. Gutierrez said. “Everyone fails here.”

Among the first 911 calls to a gunman at large on Tuesday were not from school but from a nearby home. The gunman, who lived with his grandmother a few streets away, shot her in the face—a bullet hit her right eye—and fled to the school with his guns, two AR-15 rifles.

Maria and Gilberto Gallegos, two retired neighbors who were outside at the time, heard two blasts of cannon directly across the street. Suddenly, the gunman walked out the front door with a backpack and duffel bag and jumped into his grandmother’s pickup truck.

“He didn’t know how to drive,” said Gilbert Gallegos, the couple’s son, who relayed their account. “He was just speeding up, squeezing the gas. Finally, peel, and tires are throwing gravel everywhere.”

attributed to him…Evan-Pierre Aguirre for The New York Times

At that moment, he said, his grandmother, Celia Martinez Gonzalez, came out of her house, her gait steady but her face gushing with blood.

“She said in Spanish to my parents, ‘Look what happened,’” Gilbert Gallegos said. “Mrs. Gallegos called 911 — first at 11:33 a.m. and then two minutes later. The police arrived shortly after, followed by an ambulance.

He said that even before they arrived, his parents could hear gunfire in the Robb Elementary School district.

President Arredondo did not respond to multiple requests for comment on his administration’s response to the shooting. Nor did Daniel Rodriguez, chief of the Uvald Police Department, or several members of the department and school district leadership.

In many cities across the country, including New York, city police oversee officers who patrol schools; School districts throughout Texas have dedicated police departments that operate independently.

The Uvald Unified School District Police Department was formed just four years ago. Mickey Gerdis, who served as board chair at the time, said the city’s police department had introduced the school’s officers before that. But the district and department could not overcome scheduling conflicts and discussions over costs.

Mr. Gerdes said part of the decision to change was in response to a rise in school shootings and a desire to increase security in schools. (The school police officer assigned to Robb Elementary School was not on campus when Tuesday’s attack began.)

Chief Arredondo, a veteran officer in several departments who won city council elections two weeks before the shooting, He began leading the department in early 2020, a month before the outbreak of the pandemic.

He had worked as a senior official for the Uvald Police Department and for the sheriff’s department in Webb County, along the border. Before returning to Ovaldi, Commander Arredondo commanded the school district police department in the border city of Laredo, said Sergio Mora, where he had a reputation as “a tough, no-nonsense law enforcement man” of his time in the county mayor’s office. He is a political consultant in Laredo.

During Chief Arredondo’s last two years, he has expanded the junior ranks in the ministry, adding two officers in the last year.

Also during those two years, the school district held at least two training sessions on how to deal with a gunman who opened fire at a school.

Mr Gerdes, the former head of the school board, said he had known Leader Arredondo for more than two decades. He said he feared that criticism of his handling of Tuesday’s shooting reflected a desire for scapegoating. “He’s a good man,” said Mr. Gerdes. “He is a respectable man.”

But revelations about how late the police officers were to enter the classroom sparked outrage around Ovaldi and demands for an explanation.

Jay Martin, 48, who lives near the school, said he ran to the scene with a friend after they first heard the shooting.

On Saturday, he said his daughter, now 12, was a student of Eva Meirelles, one of the teachers killed, while standing at a memorial to the victims in a central square.

“Why did they take so much time? It’s part of being a police officer, of putting your life on the line for someone else.”

Now he added, “There are a lot of angry people.”

Frances RoblesAnd the Serge F. Kovalsky And the Karen Zreik Contribute to the preparation of reports. Jack Big Contribute to research.