Delay in confronting the shooter – who was inside the school for more than an hour – could result in disciplinary action, legal action and even criminal charges against police.
The attack that killed 19 children and two teachers in a fourth-grade classroom was the nation’s deadliest school shooting in nearly a decade, and for three days police offered a confusing and sometimes contradictory timeline that sparked public anger and frustration.
On Friday, authorities acknowledged students and teachers repeatedly pleaded with 911 operators for help while the police chief told more than a dozen officers to wait in a hallway at the Robb Elementary School. Officials said they believed the suspect was barricaded in adjacent classrooms and there was no longer an active attack.
The chief’s decision – and the officers’ apparent willingness to follow his guidelines against established protocols for active shooters – raised questions about whether more lives had been lost because officers had not acted more quickly to arrest the shooter, and who should be held responsible.
“In these cases, I think the court of public opinion is far worse than any police department tribunal or administrative trial,” said Joe Giacalone, a retired New York police sergeant. . “It has been so terribly handled on so many levels that there will be a sacrificial lamb here or there.”
As the shooter fired at students, law enforcement officers from other agencies urged the school’s police chief to let them move in because children were in danger, two school officials said. law enforcement.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they had not been authorized to speak publicly about the investigation.
One of the officials said audio recordings from scene capture officers from other agencies told the school’s police chief that the shooter was still active and the priority was to arrest him. But why the head of the school ignored their warnings was unclear.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott, who at a press conference earlier in the week praised police for saving lives, said he was misled about the initial response and promised that there would be investigations into “exactly who knew what, when, who was responsible” and what they did.
“The bottom line would be: why didn’t they choose the strategy that would have been best to get in there, take out the killer, and save the kids?” said Abbott.
Criminal charges are rarely brought against law enforcement in school shootings. A notable exception was the former school resource officer accused of going into hiding during the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, which left 17 people dead.
Potential administrative penalties — imposed by the department itself — could range from suspension or salary docking to forced resignation or retirement or outright dismissal.
In terms of civil liability, the legal doctrine called “qualified immunity,” which protects police officers from lawsuits unless their actions violate clearly established laws, could also be at stake in future litigation.
Uvalde School District Police Chief Pete Arredondo decided the group of officers should wait to confront the assailant, believing the active attack was over, according to Steven McCraw, the chief of the Department of Texas public safety.
The crisis ended shortly after officers used a janitor’s keys to open the classroom door, entered the room and shot and killed Ramos.
Arredondo could not be reached for comment on Friday, and Uvalde officers were stationed outside his home, but they would not say why.
Prosecutors will have to decide whether Arredondo’s decision and the officers’ inaction was a tragic mistake or criminal negligence, said Laurie Levenson, a former federal prosecutor who teaches at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.
Levenson said prosecutors could bring state felony charges of criminally negligent homicide, though she said federal civil rights charges would be unlikely because they require intent.
“I don’t know if we expect every officer to make a perfect decision on the spot,” she said. “But waiting that long – given what we know about how shooters act – predictably leads to tragedy.”
In the Parkland case, former Broward County Deputy Scot Peterson is due to stand trial in September for child neglect causing grievous bodily harm, culpable negligence and perjury. He said he did his best at the time.
The “unprecedented and irresponsible” decision by Florida prosecutors to bring criminal charges against Peterson could lead to other police officers elsewhere being “deprived of their liberty” and facing decades in prison “solely because a discovery is made after the fact that things could have been handled differently,” Mark Eiglarsh, the deputy’s former attorney, said in an email.
Maria Haberfeld, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said police department policies, procedures and training will be reviewed to see if officers on the ground at Uvalde followed them.
If they did, and criminal charges are still laid, she said it would send a chilling message to police nationwide. “If you follow your procedures, you’re still charged. So what’s the point of having procedures?” she says.
But Jorge Colina, a former Miami police chief, wants to know more about what was going through the minds of the officers inside the school as the chief told them to wait in the hallway.
“Did anyone challenge the decision there?” he said. “Has anyone at least raised an objection?”
Associated Press writer Jim Vertuno in Uvalde, Texas; Jake Bleiberg in Dallas; Terry Spencer in Fort Lauderdale, Florida; and Mike Balsamo in Washington, DC, contributed to this report.
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