The Texas public safety chief issued a blistering appraisal on Tuesday of the police response to the Uvalde shootings, calling it “an abject failure and antithetical to everything” known about how to respond to such crises.
Steve McCraw was speaking to a panel of state senators investigating the attack last month at Robb elementary school by an intruder who killed 19 students and two teachers.
McCraw singled out the local police chief, Pedro “Pete” Arredondo, the on-scene commander that day, saying Arredondo was the only thing that held back other officers from stopping the intruder sooner and potentially limiting the carnage.
Arredondo “decided to place the lives of officers over the lives of children”, McCraw said.
“The officers had weapons – the children had none. The officers had body armor – the children had none. The officers had training – the subject had none.”
An attorney for Arredondo did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Arredondo himself was called to testify at a separate committee on Tuesday, of local Texas state representatives who are also examining the police response in Uvalde. That hearing is closed to the public. Arredondo reportedly arrived through a back entrance, avoiding journalists and members of the public.
Arredondo has previously said he didn’t consider himself to be in charge of the response at Robb elementary, and assumed someone else was.
Since the 1999 shootings at Columbine high school in Colorado – where 12 students and one teacher died – police have been trained to confront and neutralize so-called active shooters. The first officers to arrive are supposed to be the first to respond, without waiting for reinforcements.
At Robb, Arredondo and eight other police officers – including two armed with rifles – had arrived at the school within seven minutes of the first 911 call. However, Arredondo held them back, saying they didn’t have the firepower to fight the 18-year-old intruder, who had a rifle and had barricaded himself in a classroom.
McCraw said nine officers was “a sufficient number … to isolate, distract and neutralize” the gunman.
According to a timeline and transcript prepared by the state senate committee, four minutes after arriving, Arredondo called Uvalde’s municipal police department to request a tactical team, claiming incorrectly that the officers had only pistols and were therefore outgunned.
Twelve minutes later, at least a dozen more officers from various agencies had arrived to reinforce the initial responders, as well as the first of three ballistic shields. Still, Arredondo did not order the officers to advance on the classroom, even after a member of the state department of public safety on the scene said twice that “if there’s kids in there, we need to go in there”.
The transcript also quotes an officer saying “Chief is in there [and] Chief is in charge” about 10 minutes after Arredondo requested backup. Another officer later says “whoever is in charge will determine” the police response.
Eventually, 70 minutes after the officers gathered in the nearby hallway, Arredondo ordered them to storm the classroom, where they killed the intruder, who had fatally shot 21 students and teachers while wounding 17 others.
McCraw praised authorities for safely evacuating other students and teachers from Robb, and for their compassion toward the families as they attempted to identify the dead.
He had a much harsher interpretation of the crucial minutes when, he said, Arredondo was in a position to limit the devastation at Robb.
“There’s compelling evidence that the law enforcement response to the attack at Robb elementary was an abject failure and antithetical to everything we’ve learned over the last two decades,” McCraw said.
“The on-scene commander waited. Post-Columbine doctrine is clear and unambiguous: stop the killing [and] stop the dying. You can’t do the latter unless you do the former.”
At a school board meeting on Monday parents demanded Arredondo resign or be fired. Arredondo is also a member of Uvalde’s city council, where he has faced similar calls to step down.
Later in the day, the Uvalde city council voted unanimously against giving Arredondo, who is a council member, a leave of absence from appearing at public meetings. The move left Arredondo facing the possibility of dismissal from the council if he missed more meetings than the two he had already missed, including Tuesday night’s session.
Relatives of the victims had pleaded with city leaders to instead fire Arredondo.
“Please, please, we’re begging you, get this man out of our lives,” said Berlinda Arreola, the grandmother of Amerie Jo Garza, one of the children killed.
Arredondo left his testimony before state house members without making a public statement. At an evening news briefing, Uvalde’s mayor, Don McLaughlin, pushed back some on the narrative from McCraw, suggesting his interest was in protecting the actions of state public safety department officers at Robb.
McLaughlin added that officials planned to demolish Robb.