The police didn’t act rapidly in Uvalde. Specialists say their inaction allowed the bloodbath to proceed, resulting in catastrophic outcomes
While 18-year-old Salvador Ramos was in adjacent classrooms, a group of 19 police officers stood outside the classroom at the school for about 50 minutes while waiting for room keys and tactical gear, CNN reported. Meanwhile, kids in the classroom were repeatedly calling 911 asking for help, Texas officials said.
Col. Steven McCraw of the Texas Department of Public Safety acknowledged flaws in the police response to Tuesday’s mass shooting. The on-site commander, who is also the police chief for the Uvalde School District, “believed it had evolved from an active shooter to a barricaded subject,” McCraw said.
“It was the wrong decision. Point. There’s no excuse for that,” McCraw said of the supervisor’s call not to confront the shooter.
When shooting actively, every second counts
Thor Eells, chief executive of the National Tactical Officers Association (NTAO), said the commander’s resolve was “100% flawed”. A barricade prompts officers to slow their response, analyze whether the subject is alone and negotiate, he said.
“If you’re in a classroom of innocent victims and I know shots have been fired, I need to speak to you. Even if you stop shooting, I’ll break into the room so we can start managing lives – to save aid for potential victims,” Eells said.
The belated police response in Uvalde contradicts the established, commonly taught active shooter protocol that was put in place after the 1999 Columbine school shooting, Eells said.
“Even under fire, officers are trained to face this threat because every second counts,” said Jonathan Wackrow, a law enforcement analyst at CNN. “What we saw here was that delays took the lives of children, period.”
As the Columbine shooting unfolded, Colorado police waited for SWAT teams to arrive about an hour after gunfire erupted at the school, in which two young men killed 13 people.
Before Columbine, law enforcement was commonly trained in tactical principles known as ICE, which stand for isolate (the suspect), contain (the suspect), and evacuate (the crime scene). After interfering with ICE protocol, police called in a specialized unit of tactical SWAT teams, Eells said, who would respond and liaise with the suspect or suspects.
The Columbine shooting forced law enforcement to rearrange their focus to respond to active shooter situations. After Columbine, police began acting on behalf of those in danger instead of protecting themselves, Eells said. First responders also began undergoing tactical training to prepare for active firefights, taking some of the responsibility off of SWAT teams, he added.
There are no national guidelines to standardize law enforcement training and response to active shooter situations. The NTAO was the first company to develop a curriculum and training courses for active shooters, which have since been adopted or modified by other training organizations across the country, Eells said.
The curriculum includes safety priorities to guide decision making while officers respond to active shootings based on a person’s proximity to injury or death. According to Eells, they have been instructed in all 50 states.
All training courses prioritize dealing with the topic first. The list of security priorities sees hostages and innocent civilians as the top priority, followed by law enforcement and then suspects, Eells said.
As their tactics evolved, law enforcement realized that waiting even a few seconds to respond during an active shooter scenario could be potentially disastrous, Eells said. This prompted police training organizations to develop a strategy for faster response. Now officers are being taught to do whatever they can to stop the gunman as quickly as possible and even bypass the injured man, Eells added.
“Unfortunately, this is an ongoing and continuous learning process,” he said. “There is a very good chance that Uvalde will draw some crucial lessons that will then inform our recommendations on how to change your response.”
The case shows how quick response saves lives
Eells pointed to a 2013 shooting at a Colorado high school that shows how a quick police response can have wildly different outcomes. The shooting happened over the span of two minutes, during which a male high school student lit a Molotov cocktail and fired his pump-action shotgun at the school, fatally shooting a 17-year-old girl.
But the attack might have resulted in many more casualties were it not for the quick response of a deputy sheriff who worked as a school resource officer at the school, CNN previously reported. When the deputy sheriff found out about the threat, he ran to the gunman, introduced himself as the deputy sheriff for the county, and told people to get out. While containing the scene, the shooter took his own life.
Ramos was not confronted by police before entering the school, DPS regional director Victor Escalon said Thursday.
While active marksman protocols are widely recognized among the nation’s 18,000 law enforcement agencies, the underlying problem, according to Maria Haberfeld, professor of police science at John Jay College, is the decentralization of policing standards at the local, state, and federal levels.
“The way the Uvalde officers reacted was consistent with the fact that they probably didn’t have the proper training,” Haberfeld said. Local police departments typically rely more heavily on specialized tactical units, she said.
All law enforcement officers in Texas are trained to follow guidelines for dealing with active shooters. In March, the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District hosted active rifleman training for law enforcement officers from the Uvalde area, according to its Facebook page.
The manual states: “The officer’s first priority is to intervene and confront the attacker. This may include avoiding the injured and not responding to children’s calls for help.”
The safety priority list, Eells said, would have served as a guide for officials at that moment. The decision to wait in the hallway rather than force down the classroom door kept innocent civilians at risk and benefited the gunman, he said.
“The whole time they were standing in the hallway,” Eells added, “even while they were evacuating children, they should have been dealing with the suspect at the same time.”