UVALDE, Texas — With criticism swelling about the police response to the Texas elementary school massacre, a law enforcement official said Thursday that the gunman who killed 19 children and 2 teachers entered the school “unobstructed” through an unlocked door 12 minutes after police were alerted about a man nearby with a rifle.
Victor Escalon, South Texas regional director for the Texas Department of Public Safety, said at a news briefing Thursday that the suspect, Salvador Ramos, 18, did not initially encounter any police officers when he entered Robb Elementary School on Tuesday and opened fire.
Ramos shot most of his victims inside within the first few minutes of entering the school, Escalon said. He could not answer why it took an hour for a federal special weapons team to enter the classroom and kill the gunman.
“Once we interview all those officers — what they were thinking, what they did, why they did it, the video, the residual interviews — we’ll have a better idea,” Escalon said. “Could anybody have gotten there sooner? You’ve got to understand, small town. You have people from Eagle Pass, from Del Rio, Laredo, San Antonio responding to a small community.”
With many questions remaining about what happened in the hour before the gunman was shot and killed, some Uvalde families who lost their loved ones criticized school preparedness and the police response.
Videos posted on social media, apparently shot outside the school during the shooting, show law enforcement drew weapons on parents and pinned a parent to the ground to prevent them from entering the building.
Derek Sotelo, 26, whose family owns a tire shop near the school, said he was outside the school Tuesday after hearing shots with a friend who’s son is a student at Robb and who was frantically trying to get police to go in — or go in himself.
“He was right in the officer’s face, like, ‘Man, give me your vest. You’re not doing nothing with it!’ ” he said. “Give me that vest and I’ll go in and kill that guy.”
Many parents were beside themselves about the officers not rushing inside, Sotelo said.
“Everyone was like, ‘What’s going on?’ ” he said. “What the heck’s going on? Why aren’t they going in? What are they waiting for?’ “
“That’s when a lot of people were like, ‘Man I’ll go in myself!’ screaming at them.”
Jose Cazares, who lost his niece, fourth-grade daughter, Jacklyn Cazares, said his brother, Javier, was frustrated that he had to watch police wait outside after he rushed to the school.
“There’s all this police presence and he’s going ‘Let me in, let me in!’ ” Cazares, 54, of Lubbock said of his brother as he visited the victims’ memorial Thursday.
Cazares said he believed lives could have been saved if law enforcement had better responded and secured the school.
But not all Uvalde parents and family members who had children inside the school were critical of law enforcement.
Monique Hernandez, whose 8-year-old son Joaquin survived, said she rushed to the scene after getting a call about the shooting from a family member in law enforcement. Officers were already surrounding the building and parents were frantic, telling the officers “just to go in.”
The officers were doing everything in their power to help the children, she said, and did not deserve criticism.
“You want to talk down on them? No. They did everything,” she said. “They got fired at, they took bullets, they did everything. They were here within minutes. ... They did their damn job.”
Carlos Ovalle, 32, a county worker, arrived at the school minutes after noon, handgun holstered on his hip, prepared to rush the school to save his 8-year-old daughter, Makaylah. But he saw police telling other parents to stay off school grounds. When two other fathers tried to grab their children as they were being evacuated to a nearby building, Ovalle said police arrested and handcuffed the fathers.
“I thought if I do that, I’m never going to be able to get her.”
So he waited, feeling useless — until he reunited with his daughter at the civic center three hours later.
He faulted law enforcement’s slow response.
“They failed,” he said. “Someone off duty got there faster than they did.”
Law enforcement experts across the country said the police response in Uvalde appeared to fall significantly short of the rule when dealing with active shooters in school.
“With an active shooter, you are not waiting for cavalry,” said Horace Frank, retired Los Angeles Police Department assistant chief. “You used to wait for SWAT, but that leads to lives being lost. So at the LAPD, we taught officers to be prepared to make the entry themselves. Many, many departments followed that approach. There is even a video put out by the FBI teaching officers about the need for immediate entry.”
Police responses to “active shooter” situations in the 22 years since the Columbine High School shooting, which left 13 dead in Colorado, call for officers rushing in to kill or arrest a shooter can reduce the potential death toll of a heavily armed assailant, authorities say.
For years, the standard approach was for police to surround an active shooting scene, assess the situation and attempt to negotiate in hopes of avoiding a violent showdown. Today, police are trained to kill or arrest any shooters before taking other actions, including helping victims.
“Charge. Don’t wait. Run toward the threat and engage,” said Art Acevedo, the former police chief of Houston, Austin and Miami.
“We learned after Columbine and other mass shooting incidents that in a world of high-capacity firearms, the carnage occurs quickly and not engaging immediately is not an option, especially when shots are actively ringing out, Acevedo said.
Acevedo said it took police several years and multiple iterations of training based upon the after-action lessons learned. “But police tactics evolved from wait for the first four officers before moving in, to today where most agencies train that even a solo officer must advance and engage the threat,” he said.
Fred Guttenberg, whose 14-year-old daughter, Jaime, was killed when a gunman rampaged through Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in 2018, said he did not have a lot of details about the Uvalde shooting, but that it appeared to him the gunman was “in that building alone by himself for a very expansive period of time.”
“If that is, in fact, the case, this is another failure of law enforcement to protect our kids,” he said.
But Guttenberg, a gun control activist, said the solution was not as simple as urging police officers to arm up to respond more quickly and more forcefully.
“We now have gunmen that are out-arming our police, and that’s a problem,” he said, noting that the officer who tried to stop the shooter in Buffalo, New York, was killed.
“The good guys with the guns,” he said, “they’re dying, too.”
Times staff writer Hayley Smith, reporting from L.A., contributed to this story.