Ruben Ruiz, a school district police officer in Uvalde, Texas, was standing in a hallway outside the classroom where his wife taught fourth-graders a couple of days before summer break. His wife, Eva Mireles, had just called his cellphone, begging for help after an intruder had shot her and her students.
Ruiz was among 18 officers who had rushed over to his wife’s school, Robb elementary, in response to reports of an active shooter. He was ready to charge in with a few of his fellow law enforcement officers, battle the 18-year-old rifleman who had invaded the campus, and hopefully save his wife and her students.
But Ruiz’s fellow officers didn’t back him up when he began advancing toward Mireles’s classroom door. They stopped him, stripped him of his service gun and made him leave the campus.
“She had been shot and was dying,” Texas’s public safety chief, Steve McCraw, said of Mireles while speaking earlier this week to a panel of state lawmakers investigating the attack at Robb elementary on 24 May. “And what happened to [Ruiz] is he … was detained and they took his gun away from him and escorted him off the scene.”
Ultimately, Mireles, a co-worker and 19 of their students – 10- and 11-year-olds – were murdered by the intruder at Robb elementary. Another 17 people at the campus were wounded before, 77 minutes after the first call to emergency operators reported the intrusion, police stormed Mireles’s classroom and killed the murderer.
McCraw’s public testimony to Texas state senators about Ruiz and Mireles was only the latest in a growing mound of evidence illustrating the extreme reluctance the Uvalde school district police force’s chief showed before letting officers put a stop to the carnage at Robb elementary.
News about the 21 children and teachers killed at the elementary school in a small town of 16,000 mostly Latino residents near the Mexican border was traumatic enough for a nation where deadly mass shootings occur with alarming regularity.
Yet revelations in recent days about the exact number of well-equipped officers who essentially stood in place for more than an hour while an intruder murdered his victims have made the tragedy ever tougher to comprehend.
Hopes for accountability that feels somewhat satisfying – let alone like justice – are waning. It took a month before the school district put its police force chief, Pedro “Pete” Arredondo, on administrative leave, keeping him on the payroll but without him really working his position.
Residents who had recently elected Arredondo to a city council seat were hoping to subject him to a recall election because it would have required fewer than 50 signatures. Yet laws prevent them from taking such a step until February next year.
And legal precedent affords little hope that parents could sue authorities in Texas to collect civil damages for their failure to limit the carnage at Robb elementary despite a prime opportunity to do so, according to experts. It all made for a week that seemed to prove that, even with the unthinkable, it can always get worse.
Arredondo’s continued leadership of the Uvalde school district police force seemed to become untenable after a Texas senate committee investigating the massacre at Robb heard McCraw’s testimony and published evidence to support it.
A timeline that the committee pieced together in part by officers’ body-worn camera footage and radio transmissions showed that there were 11 officers positioned outside two classrooms under attack within seven minutes of the first 911 call about the intrusion. At least two of the officers had rifles, providing a force that was adequate to mount an assault against the intruder in an attempt to rescue those he was terrorizing, McCraw said.
Police who respond first to so-called active shooters have been trained for at least two decades to confront the attackers as immediately as practical rather than wait for reinforcements, a painful lesson learned through countless mass killings across America over the years.
But at that point, Arredondo had officers wait while he called the municipal police force for reinforcements.
“We don’t have enough firepower right now – it’s all pistol, and he has an AR-15,” Arredondo said, according to a committee transcript of that call.
Since then, in one of the few media interviews he has granted, Arredondo told the Texas Tribune website that a factor costing him time was that the door to the classroom where the intruder was had potentially been locked, and he couldn’t immediately find its key.
But, within a minute of his call for reinforcements, emergency dispatchers had asked officers by radio whether the door was locked. An officer accompanying Arredondo said he wasn’t sure, but those at the scene had with them a so-called hooligan tool that can pry locked doors open. On Tuesday, McCraw said the door had not in fact been locked.
Seven minutes after that exchange, Ruiz – the husband of the teacher in charge of the classroom under attack – told fellow officers that his wife “says she is shot” inside. But, instead of going in, officers removed him from the scene and stayed put, with one suggesting that they needed the incoming backup to help with crowd control outside the building.
Cellphone videos from the parking lot around that time showed officers holding back onlookers urging the cops to charge into the school, other parts of which were being evacuated.
Soon, a member of the state public safety department who went to the scene began asking whether there were children still in the classroom. Another officer replied, “It is unknown at this time.”
The public safety department officer then twice said, “If there’s kids in there, we need to go in there.” The timeline notes a radio transmission reminding officers at the scene that “it is critical” to let the local police take the lead on the situation.
That transmission seems to contradict a prior statement in Arredondo’s limited media remarks that he was unsure who was in charge and assumed someone else was.
In any event, 50 minutes after the transmission about letting the local police lead, Arredondo told officers to storm the classroom where the intruder was when ready. Officers did and killed the intruder.
McCraw dismissed Arredondo’s handling of the response as “abject failure and antithetical to everything we’ve learned” about mass shootings.
A little more than a day after McCraw made that statement, the school district’s superintendent placed Arredondo on administrative leave.
Neither Arredondo nor his attorney have responded to repeated requests for comment. Arredondo testified behind closed doors for a separate state house of representatives committee investigating the killings at Robb, but he hasn’t made any public statements about what he told that body.
It’s clear that the loved ones of the killed children and teachers want more.
Yet the prospects for a resounding civil lawsuit over the police failure to protect the victims seem unlikely. Ominously for the potential plaintiffs, in late 2020, a federal court of appeals left in place a lower court ruling that found police officers were not liable for various failures to protect students during the 2018 shooting that killed 17 at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas high school in Parkland, Florida.
“It’s very difficult to recover on those,” said Gary Bizal, a Louisiana-based attorney who often represents people accusing police of failing to uphold their duty. “You almost have to prove that you knew something would happen if you didn’t react, didn’t do anything – not that it was a possibility, but it was guaranteed.”
So some of those in Uvalde still deep in their grief went to a Tuesday night meeting of the city council, the second in a row which Arredondo had missed.
The council was considering a leave of absence for Arredondo, which would protect him from being possibly dismissed from the panel if he missed a third consecutive meeting. But residents spoke out against cutting Arredondo any sort of break, and the council voted the measure down.
One of the speakers, Kim Hammond, said there was palpable momentum for a petition to make Arredondo face a recall election for the seat he won on 7 May. Because his election had quite a low turnout, such a petition would only need 45 signatures, or 25% of the total votes cast for the contest.
But the law protects him from such a petition for the first eight months in office, and Hammond implored the council to make Arredondo either start attending meetings or risk losing his seat.
“Don’t give him an out” with the leave of absence, Hammond said. “We don’t want him – we want him out.”
The grandmother of 10-year-old Amerie Jo Garza, one of the students killed at Robb, implored the council to dismiss Arredondo if he missed the necessary number of meetings.
“Make it right for everyone in here,” Berlinda Arreola said. “We deserve better. Our children deserve better. And those teachers deserve better. Please! Please! We’re begging – get this man out of our lives.”