Law enforcement officials in Texas defended their response to the Uvalde elementary school shooting amid questions about why officers waited an hour to engage the shooter, who killed 19 children and two teachers.
In a Thursday afternoon press briefing, Regional Director for the Department of Public Safety South Texas Region Victor Escalon said it was a “complex situation” at Robb Elementary School on Tuesday.
Escalon said there were “numerous officers” outside the fourth-grade classroom but refused to elaborate on what law enforcement was doing for an hour while they waited for the Border Patrol team that eventually killed the gunman to arrive. He said they were getting negotiators on-site but later added that the shooter did not have demands.
Escalon also said that there was no school resource officer at the scene, as officials, including Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, had initially described. At a press conference on Wednesday, Abbott said that an officer had “approached the gunman and engaged with the gunman.” Escalon said Thursday that not only did the officer not exchange gunfire with the shooter, but also that no officer was even present.
Abbott, as well as Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steven McCraw, said the shooter had barricaded himself inside the classroom. When asked about the detail on Thursday, Escalon would not provide further information.
“We’ve been given a lot of bad information, so why don’t you clear all of this up now and explain to us how it is your officers were in there for an hour — yes, rescuing people — but yet no one was able to get inside that room?” asked CNN reporter Shimon Prokupecz. Escalon said he would eventually answer the questions but needed time to establish the “why.”
Escalon’s press conference followed a written statement from Uvalde Police Chief Daniel Rodriguez In which he said he "[understood] questions are surfacing regarding the details of what occurred," but that police had responded “within minutes” and had suffered gunshot wounds. Police also had to retract initial statements that the gunman was wearing body armor.
Since Wednesday night, reporting has continued to surface that law enforcement officials on-site milled around outside the school while parents urged them to enter the building or asked to borrow equipment so they could attempt to save their children.
The Associated Press reported late Wednesday that police waited outside the school for at least 40 minutes while parents and onlookers urged them to do something.
“Let’s just rush in, because the cops aren’t doing anything like they are supposed to,” Javier Cazares, whose daughter Jacklyn was killed in the attack, told the AP. “More could have been done.”
“There were five or six of [us] fathers hearing the gunshots, and [police officers] were telling us to move back,” Cazares told the Washington Post. “We didn’t care about us. We wanted to storm the building. We were saying, ‘Let’s go,’ because that is how worried we were, and we wanted to get our babies out.”
The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday afternoon that one mother “was one of numerous parents who began encouraging — first politely, and then with more urgency — police and other law enforcement to enter the school. After a few minutes, she said, federal marshals approached her and put her in handcuffs, telling her she was being arrested for intervening in an active investigation.”
Angeli Rose Gomez, who had children in second and third grade, told the Journal that she “convinced local Uvalde police officers whom she knew to persuade the marshals to set her free. Around her, the scene was frantic. She said she saw a father tackled and thrown to the ground by police and a third pepper-sprayed. Once freed from her cuffs, Gomez made her distance from the crowd, jumped the school fence, and ran inside to grab her two children. She sprinted out of the school with them.”
The aunt of one of the victims told a similar story to the New York Times, saying that her niece’s stepfather was restrained and handcuffed by police when he attempted to help her.
“Nobody was telling him anything,” said Desiree Garza, whose niece Amerie Jo Garza was killed. “He was trying to find out. He wanted to know where his daughter was.”
A nearly seven-minute video posted to social media seems to support the reporting, showing police restraining parents outside of the school and even holding one person on the ground. Uvalde, a small city of about 16,000 people, spends roughly 40 percent of its annual city budget on police.
When asked about the reports of parents begging officers to do something, Escalon said he had heard that information but had not verified it yet.
“You gotta understand we’re getting a lot of information we’re trying to track down and see what is true,” Escalon said.
During the Thursday afternoon press conference, Escalon provided the latest timeline on the shooting. After wrecking a truck that belonged to his grandmother, whom he had shot in the face (Escalon said the woman is alive and in stable condition), the gunman, identified as 18-year-old Salvador Ramos, entered the school through what was believed to have been an unlocked door around 11:40 a.m.
Four minutes later, Uvalde and district police engaged the shooter but took cover while being shot at. Authorities didn’t enter the school because of the gunfire, Escalon said, and called for help.
“Tactical teams. We need equipment. We need specialty equipment. We need precision riflemen, negotiators,” Escalon said, adding that officers were evacuating students and teachers during this time. An hour later, a Border Patrol agent killed Ramos.
Abbott had praised the police response at his Wednesday press conference.
“The reality is, as horrible as what happened, it could have been worse," Abbott said Wednesday. "The reason it was not worse is because law enforcement officials did what they do. They showed amazing courage by running toward gunfire for the singular purpose of trying to save lives. And it is a fact that because of their quick response getting on the scene, being able to respond to the gunman and eliminate the gunman, they were able to save lives. Unfortunately, not enough.”
In an interview Wednesday evening with San Antonio outlet KENS 5, a fourth grader who said he had been hiding in a classroom indicated that police officers’ actions may have caused another child who was hiding from the shooter to get shot.
“When the cops came, the cop said, ‘Yell if you need help!’ And one of the persons in my class said, ‘Help.’ The guy overheard, and he came in and shot her,” said the boy. “The cop barged into that classroom. The guy shot at the cop. And the cops started shooting.”
Details about the events of Tuesday had been scarce, as law enforcement did not provide a televised press briefing on Tuesday evening. Abbott spoke briefly about the shooting in the late afternoon before attending a campaign fundraiser. School district leadership gave brief statements without providing any details or taking questions.
Lt. Christopher Olivarez of Texas DPS told CNN Thursday morning that authorities were still gathering information on what happened, including why it took officers so long to enter the building.
“I can tell you right now, as a father myself, I would want to go in too, but it’s a volatile situation,” Olivarez said when asked about Cazares’s comments. “We have an active shooter situation, we’re trying to [prevent] any further loss of life, and as much as they want to go into that school, we cannot have individuals go into that school, especially if they’re not armed.”
Olivarez said the school did have surveillance video that the FBI was obtaining.