'If there’s kids in there, we need to go in': Uvalde officers were ready with guns but not clear orders
The officers in the hallway of Robb Elementary wanted to get inside classrooms 111 and 112 — immediately. One officer’s daughter was inside. Another officer had gotten a call from his wife, a teacher, who told him she was bleeding to death.
Two closed doors and a wall stood between them and an 18-year-old with an AR-15 who had opened fire on children and teachers inside the connected classrooms. A Halligan bar — an ax-like forcible-entry tool used by firefighters to get through locked doors — was available. Ballistic shields were arriving on the scene. So was plenty of firepower, including at least two rifles. Some officers were itching to move.
One such officer, a special agent at the Texas Department of Public Safety, had arrived around 20 minutes after the shooting started. He immediately asked: Are there still kids in the classrooms?
“If there is, then they just need to go in,” the agent said.
Another officer answered, “It is unknown at this time.”
The agent shot back, “Y’all don’t know if there’s kids in there?” He added, “If there’s kids in there we need to go in there.”
“Whoever is in charge will determine that,” came the reply.
The inaction appeared too much for the special agent. He noted that there were still children in other classrooms within the school who needed to be evacuated.
“Well, there’s kids over here,” he said. “So I’m getting kids out.”
The exchange happened early in the excruciating 77 minutes on May 24 that started when Salvador Ramos, who had just shot his grandmother in the face, walked through an unlocked door of Robb Elementary, encountering no interference as he wielded an AR-15 he had bought eight days earlier. At the end of those 77 minutes, 19 students, including the daughter of one of the officers stationed in the hallway, and two teachers were dead or dying. Others sustained serious physical injuries; the emotional and psychological ones will last for life. It was the deadliest school shooting in Texas history.
But during most of those 77 minutes, despite the urgent pleas from officers and parents amassed outside, officers stayed put outside rooms 111 and 112, stationed on either end of a wide hallway with sky blue and green walls and bulletin boards displaying children’s artwork. Ramos fired at least four sets of rounds — including the initial spray of fire that likely killed many of his victims instantaneously.
After the special agent’s comment, nearly another hour passed before a tactical team from the Border Patrol breached the classroom doors and killed the gunman.
In the weeks since the tragedy in Uvalde, questions have swirled around the actions of police and whether some lives could have been saved if officers confronted the barricaded gunman sooner. Authorities have shared conflicting information about who was in charge, who confronted the shooter and when. A debate over whether the locked classroom doors could be breached gave way to the discovery that they may never have been locked at all.
Revelations have trickled out in the press: The New York Times has described officers’ doubts about the decision to wait; breakdowns in communications and tactics; and the fact that officers held off from the confrontation even though they knew people were injured, and possibly dying, inside. The San Antonio Express-News reported that there is no evidence that officers tried the doors on rooms 111 and 112 — contradicting a key assertion by the Uvalde schools police chief, Pete Arredondo, who told The Texas Tribune that officers tried the doors, found them locked and had to wait for a master key to unlock them. On Monday evening, the Austin American-Statesman and KVUE-TV revealed that the officers, in effect, had more than enough firepower, equipment and motivation to breach the classrooms.
Meanwhile, at least three investigations — by the U.S. Department of Justice, the Texas Legislature, and the local district attorney, Christina Mitchell Busbee — are reviewing records and interviewing witnesses to evaluate the law enforcement response. Public understanding of the response to the tragedy has been marred by refusals by state and local agencies to release public records, efforts by local officials to bar journalists from public meetings, and the closed-door nature of the hearings held by state lawmakers. The secrecy has already prompted Texas Monthly to ask, “Will We Ever Know the Truth About Uvalde?”
For this article, the Tribune reviewed a timeline of events compiled by law enforcement, plus surveillance footage and transcripts of radio traffic and phone calls from the day of the shooting. The details were confirmed by a senior official at the Department of Public Safety. The investigation is still in the early stages, and the understanding of what happened could still change as video records are synched and enhanced. But current records and footage show a well-equipped group of local officers entered the school almost immediately that day and then pulled back once the shooter began firing from inside the classroom. Then they waited for more than an hour to reengage.
“They had the tools,” said Terry Nichols, a former Seguin police chief and active-shooter expert. “Tactically, there’s lots of different ways you could tackle this. … But it takes someone in charge, in front, making and executing decisions, and that simply did not happen.”
Here are some key findings from these records and materials:
- No security footage from inside the school showed police officers attempting to open the doors to classrooms 111 and 112, which were connected by an adjoining door. Arredondo told the Tribune that he tried to open one door and another group of officers tried to open another, but that the door was reinforced and impenetrable. Those attempts were not caught in the footage reviewed by the Tribune. Some law enforcement officials are skeptical that the doors were ever locked.
- Within the first minutes of the law enforcement response, an officer said the Halligan (a firefighting tool that is also sometimes spelled hooligan) was on site. It wasn’t brought into the school until an hour after the first officers entered the building. Authorities didn’t use it and instead waited for keys.
- Officers had access to four ballistic shields inside the school during the standoff with the gunman, according to a law enforcement transcript. The first arrived 58 minutes before officers stormed the classrooms. The last arrived 30 minutes before.
- Multiple Department of Public Safety officers — up to eight, at one point — entered the building at various times while the shooter was holed up. Many quickly left to pursue other duties, including evacuating children, after seeing the number of officers already there. At least one of the officers expressed confusion and frustration about why the officers weren’t breaching the classroom, but was told that no order to do so had been given.
- At least some officers on the scene seemed to believe that Arredondo was in charge inside the school, and at times Arredondo seemed to be issuing orders such as directing officers to evacuate students from other classrooms. That contradicts Arredondo’s assertion that he did not believe he was running the law enforcement response. Arredondo’s lawyer, George E. Hyde, said the chief will not elaborate on his interview with the Tribune, given the ongoing investigation.
What the camera saw
Most of the video from inside the school is captured by a wide-angle camera positioned inside the school building’s northwest entrance, the same one the gunman used. The camera looks straight south from its north ceiling perch and offers a slight view of the entrances to classrooms 111 and 112 to the left.
The Tribune also reviewed transcripts of radio traffic and body camera footage.
They show that the gunman arrived on campus at 11:28 a.m. He appears to have been planning a shooting for a while. In October, according to the law enforcement timeline, he withdrew from Uvalde High School. A month later, when he was still 17, he purchased some gun accessories online, including rifle slings and a military carrier vest. He began buying his ammunition in April and purchased his gun on his 18th birthday in May. On May 14, he posted an ominous message on Instagram: “10 more days.”
At 11:33 a.m. on May 24, he walked into Robb Elementary’s northwest entrance and headed south toward the two classrooms on the left side, randomly firing shots from his rifle in the hallway. He had crashed his car and fired some shots outside, so the school was already on lockdown at that point and the hallways were nearly empty. No one was hit, but a boy could be seen peeking around the corner at the northeast end of the hallway, apparently trying to return to class from a nearby bathroom. The boy heard the gunfire and ran away. (DPS confirmed that he escaped without physical injury.)
Within a minute, the shooter entered classroom 111 — he didn’t appear to encounter a locked door in the footage — and began shooting. He briefly walked out the classroom door and then went back in, shooting some more. For the next three minutes, he fired frequently inside a classroom filled with children.
During that burst of gunfire, the first three officers entered the school: two from the Uvalde Police Department and one from the school district’s force. All were carrying handguns.
Moments later, Arredondo and seven more officers arrived. The shooter opened fire at the first three officers closest to the two classrooms, grazing two and forcing all the officers to bolt to either end of the hallway. Those officers, including Arredondo, remained in these positions for the rest of the standoff, never firing a shot.
Officers believed that the shooter was contained, and Arredondo called the Uvalde Police Department’s dispatch on his cellphone. (The school police unit was created four years ago and does not report to the city police.) Seven minutes had passed since the shooter first entered the building.
“Hey, hey, it’s Arredondo. It’s Arredondo. Can you hear me?” said the 50-year-old veteran of law enforcement, who leads a department of six. “No, I have to tell you where we’re at. It’s an emergency right now. I’m inside the building.”
Since the massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, in 1999, an evolving and increasingly detailed body of training on mass shootings instructs police to confront shooters as soon as possible — even at the risk of officers’ lives.
By the time Arredondo called dispatch, at least 11 officers had entered the school and at least two are seen in the video carrying rifles. But Arredondo told the dispatcher that he didn’t have the firepower to confront the lone gunman, according to a transcript reviewed by The Texas Tribune.
“OK, we have him in the room,” he said, speaking on his cellphone. “He’s got an AR-15. He’s shot a lot. He’s in the room. He hasn’t come out yet. We’re surrounded, but I don’t have a radio.”
After the dispatcher confirmed the location of a SWAT team, Arredondo continued.
“Yes and they need to be outside of this building prepared,” he said. “Because we don’t have enough firepower right now. It’s all pistol and he has an AR-15. If you can get the SWAT team set up, by the funeral home, OK, we need — yes, I need some more firepower in here because we all have pistols and this guy’s got a rifle. So I don’t have a radio. I don’t have a radio. If somebody can come in —”
The dispatcher asked Arredondo to stay on the line as long as he could. Arredondo agreed but said he’d drop his phone when the gunman “comes out that door.” Then the dispatcher shared the location of the shooter over a police radio and requested that a SWAT team be amassed by a funeral home across the street.
“So, so I need you to bring a radio for me, and give me my radio for me,” Arredondo said. “I need to get one rifle. Hold on. I’m trying to set him. I’m trying to set him up.”
Then the call ended. Shooting started again inside the school within a minute of the start of the call. But police wouldn’t breach the classroom where the gunman was barricaded for another hour and 10 minutes.
An agonizing wait
One minute after Arredondo’s phone call, officers on the scene reported that the suspect was barricaded in a classroom. A dispatcher asked whether the door was locked, and an officer replied that they didn’t know but that they had a Halligan available. No such tool was ever used. No one even brought one into the school for another 54 minutes.
A standoff had begun. The gunman fired shots at least three more times — at 11:40 a.m., 11:44 a.m., and 12:21 p.m. — but officers held their positions. That was true even as more police filed in and four ballistic shields were carried into the building over the next 40 minutes.
The officers who entered the school at that time included DPS troopers who walked into the hallway before noon and then left after seeing how many officers were already there.
The special agent from DPS who urged officers to go into the classroom stayed for six minutes before leaving to clear other rooms, rescuing a student found hiding in a bathroom. More troopers arrived just minutes or seconds before the tactical team from the Border Patrol stormed the classroom, but did not participate in the breach.
Another officer who entered the hallway was Ruben Ruiz of the Uvalde city police. His wife, teacher Eva Mireles, had called him on his cellphone and told him she was bleeding heavily.
“She says she is shot,” he told the officers on the scene.
The video from inside the hallway doesn’t capture what Ruiz did inside the school. But a DPS official told the Tribune that Ruiz was soon escorted away by other officers on the scene.
By 12:01 p.m., the DPS special agent had returned to the hallway and offered his urgent assessment: The situation required officers to go into the classrooms.
“It sounds like a hostage rescue situation,” the DPS officer said. “Sounds like a UC [undercover] rescue. They should probably go in.”
A police officer — it’s not clear whether from the city or school district — then said, “Don’t you think we should have a supervisor approve that?”
“He’s not my supervisor,” the DPS agent countered before leaving the hallway to clear other rooms of children.
The painful wait continued. SWAT officers from the city police arrived on the scene at around 12:10 p.m., a little more than a half-hour after the shooter first entered the school. One minute later, Arredondo asked for a master key that would allow him to unlock classroom doors, according to the transcripts. It took about six minutes for a set of keys to arrive, and the chief began testing them on a different classroom door. Soon after, more gunshots could be heard from inside the classrooms full of students.
Arredondo tried to speak with the shooter but didn’t get a response. Uvalde’s mayor, Don McLaughlin, told The Washington Post that a would-be negotiator, working from a nearby funeral home to which the mayor had rushed, also tried to reach the shooter, to no avail.
At 12:38 p.m., Arredondo tried to talk to the shooter. Hearing no reply, he indicated that the SWAT team could breach the classrooms if it was ready.
By then, a long-awaited working key had been found. Officers inserted it into the door of room 111, and a tactical unit from the Border Patrol stormed in. All that’s audible from the video is a flurry of gunshots. The team then exited the room and indicated that the gunman was dead — 77 minutes after the carnage started.
An aftermath of doubts and questions
With the shooter killed, the excruciating aftermath began. The fisheye camera in the hallway captured a single first responder standing in the center of the hallway, his surgical-gloved hands motioning to others standing behind him to remain there until all the officers exited. Once he got that signal, he directed the team to move quickly inside rooms 111 and 112. Gurneys and ambulance backboards suddenly popped into view.
The first to reach the victims inside pulled motionless, bloodied children onto the hallway’s linoleum flooring as they tried to assess their vital signs. None of the children appeared to make a sound. One child whose still body was placed on the floor had to be gently pushed to make room for others streaming in and and out, his blood leaving a wide swath of crimson across the hallway floor.
Almost immediately, the questions about whether police did the right thing began. State officials offered contradicting information in the immediate aftermath. DPS Director Steve McCraw told reporters days later that it was the “wrong decision” not to breach the classroom sooner. He is scheduled to testify before a Senate committee on Tuesday morning.
Law enforcement experts say Arredondo was the rightful incident commander, though they were baffled why he abandoned his radios, declined to take charge and lacked access to classrooms. J. Pete Blair, executive director of the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training Center at Texas State University, dismissed the idea that the state police, being a far larger police agency, should have wrested command from Arredondo when they arrived on scene.
“The person who should be in charge is the person who has the best picture of what’s happening and also the skill set to manage what needs to happen,” Blair said. He added, “Command exchanges are voluntary. They’re not forced. [Someone] can’t come in and say, ‘I’m taking it away from you.’”
Scrutiny has fallen most intensely on Arredondo. He defended his actions in an interview this month with the Tribune, but many of his claims are not supported by the records.
He said he didn’t consider himself the incident commander that day and never issued orders to anyone during the shooting. Yet at 11:50 a.m., according to body-camera transcripts, an officer says, “The chief is in charge.”
Arredondo said he intentionally left behind his radios, which he said were cumbersome and had a habit of not working well from inside the school, but he did ask for someone to bring them to him when he called police dispatch. He also requested a SWAT team, snipers and a door-breaching tool. (It’s not clear if he’d heard that a Halligan was available.) By noon, officers had rifles, a Halligan and at least one ballistic shield — yet made no attempt to enter the classrooms for 50 minutes.
In a statement on Thursday, Arredondo’s lawyer, Hyde, told the Tribune: “The chief has requested that no further comment be made until all the information is collected and evaluated to minimize misinformation, which serves no one. I must honor that request. Further, the D.A. must present the police shooting in this matter to a grand jury, so there is also a criminal investigation underway, which he must respect.”
The district attorney did not respond to a request for comment.
“At this point it’s clear that a multitude of errors in judgment combined to turn a bad situation into a catastrophe,” said Katherine Schweit, a former FBI agent who co-authored the agency’s foremost research on mass shootings. “The law enforcement rarely thinks their response is textbook, [but] I can’t think of another incident in the United States where it appears so many missed opportunities occurred to get it right.”
But law enforcement officers have particularly homed in on Arredondo’s search for keys. It may never be known whether that insistence on obtaining a key was necessary as lives hung in the balance.
The classroom doors are supposed to lock automatically, but from the start, the shooter could be seen walking unobstructed into the room and then darting easily in and out at least three times. The footage caused some authorities who watched it to question whether the doors were ever locked.
Through his lawyer, Arredondo told the Tribune in a June 9 email that the doors were checked: “My memory is that the team on the north side of the hallway tried room on their side, which would be room 112 and I tried to open room 111 within minutes of arriving on the scene. We both took the sprayed gunfire through the walls.”
But authorities have seen no video so far that confirms that.
Zach Despart contributed reporting.
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