911 calls, active shooter, barricaded suspect, black comedy, Border Patrol, bullet resistant vests, cover or concealment, NYT, Pete Arredondo, Robb Elementary School, SWAT, Texas DPS, Texas Rangers, The Texas Tribune, Uvalde Texas
On June 3, 2022, the Texas Tribune published a long, autobiographical account of Ulvalde School District Police Chief Pete Arredondo’s involvement in the Robb Elementary School attack, with this lede:
Waiting for keys, unable to break down doors: Uvalde schools police chief defends delay in confronting gunman.
Obviously this is Arredondo’s attempt, surely prepared by his lawyer, to establish his narrative before others do it to him. Arredondo cannot be faulted for that. Circa 2022, any police officer in America who does not speak with an attorney before answering questions about his involvement in any potentially explosive incident isn’t smart enough to be a police officer.
Disclaimer: once again, we know very little about what happened. Without a comprehensive, entirely truthful and accurate to the second timeline, we’ll never know much of anything. There are many conflicting media accounts, and more all the time. We have no way to know which is accurate. The Texas Rangers are investigating the police response, and hopefully, they’ll quickly produce that comprehensive timeline and report. In this article, I’ll not address every possible issue. Take the link and read the whole thing. However, based only on Arredondo’s representation in The Texas Tribune, his actions and inactions, and a variety of other actions and inactions attributed to other police officers remain inexplicable. I’ll analyze those issues based on my knowledge of what should have happened in this case.
One additional note: many, including police commentators have tried to explain what looks like cowardice and confusion by observing the events were chaotic, and no one could possibly prepare for that kind of attack. Nonsense. We pay, and train to varying degrees, police officers to keep their heads when all about them are losing theirs. We pay them to think about and plan for the improbable and impossible. Of course we must judge their actions in light of what we expect of a reasonable police officer in similar circumstances, but chaos and unusual situations are the stock in trade of the police. In this case, it may be all of the different agencies present contributed to the chaos and confusion rather than ameliorated it.
Only a locked classroom door stood between Pete Arredondo and a chance to bring down the gunman. It was sturdily built with a steel jamb, impossible to kick in.
He wanted a key. One goddamn key and he could get through that door to the kids and the teachers. The killer was armed with an AR-15. Arredondo thought he could shoot the gunman himself or at least draw fire while another officer shot back. Without body armor, he assumed he might die.
‘The only thing that was important to me at this time was to save as many teachers and children as possible,’ Arredondo said.
Apparently, the door opened outward, which is common in school construction, however, it’s a rare classroom door that doesn’t have at least a narrow window, which, with nothing more impressive than a hammer or crowbar, could have been broken to allow the inner knob or lever to be turned. If a lever, it would be simple to hook it with the curved end of a crowbar and open the door while avoiding possible gunfire. Because the article avoids mentioning it, we must assume the door was made of wood, as most such doors are. We don’t know if the hinges were on the inside or outside. More on keys shortly.
Arredondo, 50, insists he took the steps he thought would best protect lives at his hometown school, one he had attended himself as a boy.
‘My mind was to get there as fast as possible, eliminate any threats, and protect the students and staff,’ Arredondo said. He noted that some 500 students from the school were safely evacuated during the crisis.
Hyde, Arredondo’s lawyer, said those criticisms don’t reflect the realities police face when they’re under fire and trying to save lives. Uvalde is a small working-class city of about 15,000 west of San Antonio. Its small band of school police officers doesn’t have the staffing, equipment, training, or experience with mass violence that larger cities might.
This comment about a lack of training and resources reflects my observations in Update 4 of this series, available here.
One of Arredondo’s most consequential decisions was immediate. Within seconds of arriving at the northeast entrance of Robb Elementary around 11:35 a.m., he left his police and campus radios outside the school.
To Arredondo, the choice was logical. An armed killer was loose on the campus of the elementary school. Every second mattered. He wanted both hands free to hold his gun, ready to aim and fire quickly and accurately if he encountered the gunman.
Thinking he was the first officer to arrive and wanting to waste no time, Arredondo believed that carrying the radios would slow him down. One had a whiplike antenna that would hit him as he ran. The other had a clip that Arredondo knew would cause it to fall off his tactical belt during a long run.
Arredondo said he knew from experience that the radios did not work in some school buildings.
But that decision also meant that for the rest of the ordeal, he was not in radio contact with the scores of other officers from at least five agencies that swarmed the scene.
It’s almost impossible to explain how bizarre this is. No sane police officer would ever willingly abandon his radio. While it’s true radios and cell phones don’t always work in some portions of school buildings, they do work in others, and throwing away any means of communicating with other officers is gross incompetence. If Arredondo had a clip that didn’t securely hold his radio, it was his responsibility to get one that did, for him and for his other officers. This is policing 101, the basic minimum. As for needing both hands free to shoot, did Arredondo have no pockets? Was he incapable of sticking the radio in his waistband, of simply dropping it if shooting was required?
What this demonstrates is Arredondo’s lack of understanding of his role. Of course, if he was the first on the scene, or one of the first few there, he could and should have taken on the shooter role. But the second sufficient others were present, he should have taken on the chief’s role. It’s similar to that of military officers. They don’t kick in doors and shoot bad guys. They tell their NCOs to do that. They choose and train them to know what to do when they receive those orders. Then Chiefs/military officers think about what’s next, what’s the next necessary order? Who do I have to work with in a multi-agency response? What’s the next step? How do I ensure we have everything we need to save lives? Clearly, Arredondo did virtually none of that.
Almost immediately, Arredondo teamed up with a Uvalde police officer and began checking classrooms, looking for the gunman.
As they moved to the west side of the campus, a teacher pointed them to the wing the gunman had entered. As Arredondo and the Uvalde police officer ran toward it, they heard a ‘great deal of rounds’ fired off inside. Arredondo believes that was the moment the gunman first entered adjoining classrooms 111 and 112 and started firing on the children with an AR-15 rifle.
The shooter entered the school through a back door on the northwest side of the building. Once inside, he shot at least 100 rounds inside classrooms 111 and 112, which are connected.
Arredondo and the Uvalde officer entered the building’s south side and saw another group of Uvalde police officers entering from the north.
Arredondo checked to see if the door on the right, room 111, would open. Another officer tried room 112. Both doors were locked.
We have no idea of the time frame here, or here:
Arredondo remembers the gunman fired a burst of shots from inside the classroom, grazing the police officers approaching from the north. Some of the bullets pierced the classroom door, and others went through the classroom wall and lodged in the wall adjacent to the hallway, where there were other classrooms. The officers on the north end of the hallway retreated after being shot, but they weren’t seriously injured and returned shortly after to try to contain the gunman.
We don’t know what cover or concealment was available. This account is confusing. Cover is material that will stop an attacker’s projectiles. Concealment merely keeps you hidden from an attacker. Were the walls mere drywall? Cinderblock? Were there metal lockers attached to the walls? The ammunition the killer was using–.223/5.56mm–is a notoriously poor penetrator. Were bullets actually piercing the walls into the hallway, or was that merely spalling?
Arredondo believed the situation had changed from that of an active shooter, to a gunman who had barricaded himself in a classroom with potential other victims.
We do know, as well as we can know anything with certainty at this point, the killer fired “sporadically” while officers waited 40 and more minutes in the hallway. This might have tipped them off he remained an “active shooter.”
Texas Department of Public Safety officials and news outlets have reported that the shooter fired his gun at least two more times as police waited in the hallway outside the classrooms for more than an hour. And DPS officials have said dispatchers were relaying information about 911 calls coming from children and teachers in the classrooms, begging the police for help.
Arredondo said he was not aware of the 911 calls because he did not have his radio and no one in the hallway relayed that information to him. Arredondo and the other officers in the hallway took great pains to remain quiet. Arredondo said they had no radio communications — and even if they’d had radios, his lawyer said, they would have turned them off in the hallway to avoid giving away their location. Instead, they passed information in whispers for fear of drawing another round of gunfire if the shooter heard them.
Finding no way to enter the room, Arredondo called police dispatch from his cellphone and asked for a SWAT team, snipers and extrication tools, like a fire hook, to open the door.
Arredondo remained in the hallway for the rest of the ordeal, waiting for a way to get into the room, and prepared to shoot the gunman if he tried to exit the classroom.
Mass confusion and inaction. How much preparation would Arredondo, or any officer, need other than taking a position, aiming and firing?
Arredondo assumed that some other officer or official had taken control of the larger response. He took on the role of a front-line responder.
He abandoned his radios. How would he know otherwise?
He said he never considered himself the scene’s incident commander and did not give any instruction that police should not attempt to breach the building. DPS officials have described Arredondo as the incident commander and said Arredondo made the call to stand down and treat the incident as a ‘barricaded suspect,’ which halted the attempt to enter the room and take down the shooter. ‘I didn’t issue any orders,’ Arredondo said. ‘I called for assistance and asked for an extraction tool to open the door.’
Is Arredondo lying? The DPS? Or is it more likely things evolved into a disorganized game of telephone where messages never reached their intended receiver, were altered in bizarre ways, no one had any idea who was in charge, and that paralyzed everyone? What should Arredondo—someone—have done? Ideally, someone should have called the highest-ranking officers of every responding agency together and asked 1): who has the most experience/training in dealing with this sort of thing? 2) Would you be willing to assume tactical command?
Arredondo apparently tried to negotiate with the killer, who didn’t respond, and more time—who knows how much?–passed. Evacuation efforts were underway, but were apparently no better organized than efforts to stop the killer.
Lights in the classrooms had also been turned off, another routine lockdown measure that worked against the police. With little visibility into the classroom, they were unable to pinpoint the gunman’s location or to determine whether the children and teachers were alive.
Apparently no efforts were made to see into the classrooms from outside—there were multiple windows large enough for people to climb though, and it was bright daylight outside. Even if people were trying to do that, to who would they report? Who would be able to do anything with whatever intelligence they developed?
At one point, a Uvalde police officer noticed Arredondo was not wearing body armor. Worried for the chief’s safety, the Uvalde officer offered to cover for Arredondo while he ran out of the building to get it.
‘I’ll be very frank. He said, ‘Fuck you. I’m not leaving this hallway,’ Hyde recounted. ‘He wasn’t going to leave without those kids.’
A note on vests: patrol officers wear bullet resistant vests—there is no such thing as “bullet proof.” Their vests are rated only for handgun and most shotgun ammunition; higher levels of protection are too thick, inflexible and heavy for daily wear. Rifle ammo, including the .223/5.56mm, will penetrate most police vests. Detectives and administrative officers generally don’t wear vests of any kind. SWAT teams commonly wear vests rated for rifle fire, but because they are so large and heavy, they wear them only when directly operating. This is why SWAT types wear tacticool “drop” holsters on their thighs; their vests get in the way of wearing handguns on their waists.
Without any way to get into the classroom, officers in the hallway waited desperately for a way to secure entry and did the best they could to otherwise advance their goal of saving lives.
‘It’s not that someone said stand down,’ Hyde said. ‘It was ‘Right now, we can’t get in until we get the tools. So we’re going to do what we can do to save lives.’ And what was that? It was to evacuate the students and the parents and the teachers out of the rooms.’
Which apparently amounted to waiting and doing nothing, though parents, and various police officers evacuated their, and other, children. This, too, is ridiculous:
Tools that might have been useful in breaking through the door never materialized, but Arredondo had also asked for keys that could open the door. Unlike some other school district police departments, Uvalde CISD officers don’t carry master keys to the schools they visit. Instead, they request them from an available staff member when they’re needed.
Robb Elementary did not have a modern system of locks and access control. ‘You’re talking about a key ring that’s got to weigh 10 pounds,’ Hyde said.
If that’s true, it’s gross negligence.
Eventually, a janitor provided six keys. Arredondo tried each on a door adjacent to the room where the gunman was, but it didn’t open.
Later, another key ring with between 20 and 30 keys was brought to Arredondo.
‘I was praying one of them was going to open up the door each time I tried a key,’ Arredondo said in an interview.
Imagine, gentle readers, the black comedy of that scene. As regular readers know, police work was my first career, and teaching high school English, my second. In education, keys are often another means of administrative control over staff. While most buildings have a “master” key, very few have a single master key that will open every door. Most teachers are given only a key that fits the lock to their classroom door. Master keys are reserved for important people, not mere teachers. It is, however, common for every key issued to be stamped with door numbers—such stamps are cheap—and extra master keys and individual door keys kept by custodians and principals. If what Arredondo and his lawyer are saying about the keys to this building is true, as I said, it’s gross negligence.
Eventually, the officers on the north side of the hallway called Arredondo’s cellphone and told him they had gotten a key that could open the door.
The officers on the north side of the hallway formed a group of mixed law enforcement agencies, including U.S. Border Patrol, to enter the classroom and take down the shooter, Arredondo said.
Several reports suggest it was a Border Patrol tactical (SWAT) team that killed the shooter. Arredondo’s account would seem to cast doubt on that claim. The Uvalde Police Department apparently has a SWAT team, but there is no indication they were involved, though theoretically being the closest such team. One of the problems with using SWAT teams in such situations is absent major cities which maintain full-time SWAT teams, calling one out takes far more time than children and teachers have. Most teams are comprised of patrol officers, detectives, supervisors and administrators, most of who work shifts. Many teams have members from two or more agencies, sometime from multiple towns. By the time as many team members as possible can be found, travel to the scene, gear up, plan, and assault, the overwhelming majority of school attacks are long over, usually when the attacker commits suicide after killing his fill. This is why there are usually photos of fully outfitted SWAT troops milling about after the shooting is long over. In the calculation of how to save lives in school attacks, SWAT teams are essentially irrelevant. In fact, unlike at Uvalde, as tardy as it was, the police rarely have any effect on the outcome of a school shooting.
Ten days after the shooting, The New York Times reported that a group of U.S. Border Patrol agents ignored a directive spoken into their earpieces not to enter the room. The Times has since reported that Arredondo did not object when the team entered the room.
“Earpieces” might indicate SWAT-like radio equipment. Patrol officers don’t usually carry that kind of gear. See what I mean about conflicting media accounts?
Hyde said if a directive delaying entry was issued, it did not come from Arredondo, but the Times reported that someone was issuing orders at the scene. Hyde said he did not know who that person was. The Border Patrol declined to comment.
I bet they did. Who knows who is telling the truth, or as much of the ultimate truth as anyone there knows?
Hyde said attempting to enter through windows would have ‘guaranteed all the children in the rooms would be killed’ along with several officers. He said this ‘reckless and ineffective’ action, when police could not see where the shooter was, would have made officers easy targets to be picked off at will.
I will not go into the tactics that render farcical Hyde’s attempt at face saving for Arredondo. There’s no need to let potential killers know what they might face. Suffice it to say there were more than enough officers present to constitute overwhelming force, almost certainly with weapons capable of penetrating glass with sufficient energy to kill the shooter. More on this shortly.
At 12:50 p.m., as the officers entered the classroom, Arredondo held his position near the south classroom door in the hallway, in case the gunman tried to run out that door.
At last, the shooter, Salvador Ramos, 18, was brought down. A harrowing standoff rapidly became an effort to find the wounded and count the dead.
Once the officers cleared the room, Border Patrol agents trained to render emergency medical service assessed the wounded. Arredondo and other officers formed a line to help pass the injured children out of the hallway and to emergency medical care.
Final Thoughts: keeping always in mind we have no real idea what happened and when, I’ll comment based on Arredondo’s account. Apparently, periodic gunshots throughout the encounter indicated children and teachers were being shot. As I’ve previously noted, it’s likely most officers had no idea of the frantic 911 calls from kids in the deadly classrooms; Arredondo, by his own admission, did not. Would knowing that have prodded him to action? There’s no way to know. No reasonable officer could have reached any conclusion other than that this was an continually active shooter, particularly since there was apparently no attempt to gain a visual on the classroom. Often in police work—in life—there are no good choices, no safe choices, only less bad choices.
In this case, it seems clear every minute wasted contributed to the eventual toll of wounded and dead. Acting would arguably have been less likely to result in more injured children because the killer would have had to turn his attention to the assaulting officers, as he apparently did when they eventually did mount a hasty assault. Again, there are tactics that would have minimized the risk to officers.
Arredondo’s account speaks of his great concern for the children and his bravery in waiting an hour and more—apparently 77 minutes–until someone could produce a key(?!). It also speaks to the utter confusion and lack of effective action on the part of what seems to be every police officer there. As I noted in Update 4, when so many different agencies are present, it’s a miracle if there is any clear chain of command, and absent that, nothing gets done, or people work at cross purposes, often leading to disaster.
That’s not fair! They did assault and kill the attacker! Yes. After 77 minutes. How were conditions different at any time during that interminable delay? What, other than an inability to figure out how to breach a wooden classroom door, likely with a window in it, the inability to find a key, the inability to develop any intelligence by looking through outside windows, would have made an assault minutes after the killer entered the classrooms different, more dangerous, than more than an hour later? The officers were clueless at the beginning, and no better informed when they finally assaulted.
But if they looked through windows, they could have been shot! Yes. Every police officer faces that possibility every day. SWAT teams often carry fiber optic cameras, but even plumbers carry fiber optic cameras they use to inspect pipes. They could have called a plumber and used one of those—there was plenty of time—from safety. Anyone becoming a police officer imagining they’ll never face danger is in the wrong business.
Arredondo’s account actually adds relatively little to what we can know with any degree of confidence. I’ll caution again about being too hard on the officers, but until we know better what did happen, the police response appears to be, overall, an infuriating failure. Whether we’ll ever know who was responsible remains an open question.
Much more soon.