Three weeks after Uvalde school massacre, many Texans fight to keep focus on changing gun laws
Three weeks after an 18-year-old gunman shot and killed 19 children and two teachers, wounding 17 others, at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, local law enforcement has gone silent on its investigation. Despite daily requests for comment from media, and police records seeking insight into what happened and didn’t happen that day, officers have done an about-face in the last week. They’re refusing to share further details about their response, leaving community members confused, frustrated and angry without anyone taking accountability.
“We’ve all seen the initial response to be failures on all levels — system failures, communication failures and more,” Texas state Sen. Roland Gutierrez, a Democrat who represents Uvalde, told Yahoo News. “For 45 minutes, we’ve seen the police not follow protocol, and we deserve better.”
Gutierrez has been one of the most outspoken critics of the collective response to the mass shooting — calling out responding officers, Republicans in the state, Gov. Greg Abbott and the National Rifle Association. Nearly a month after the massacre, Gutierrez says, the shooting’s impact has led to a lack of trust in law enforcement among Uvalde residents.
“That lack of trust is based less on the errors and omissions and more on the fact that no one is speaking up,” he added. “There is no transparency and no truth. When you can't own up to your truths and say you failed and let me know how you failed ... then you will have problems.”
The Uvalde Police Department did not return Yahoo News’ request for comment.
Abbott’s press secretary, Renae Eze, said in a statement, “The investigations being conducted by the Texas Rangers and the FBI are ongoing, and we look forward to the full results being shared with the victims’ families and the public, who deserve the full truth of what happened that tragic day.”
Sara Spector, a former Uvalde prosecutor of five years who last worked in the city in 2017, told Yahoo News that given her experience with local police, she doubts the public will ever know the truth about what unfolded that day.
“I knew after the second press conference that there was a cover-up, that something was wrong,” she said. “I knew that eight years ago, and this was bringing up a lot of memories for me that I'd forgotten.”
Spector, who currently serves as a criminal defense attorney in Midland, Texas, recalls a hostile environment that she alleges local Uvalde police created during her time there. Low pay and a lack of education, she says, gave way to officers producing incident reports that were barely legible for her or potential jurors. Any critique, she added, was met with “skepticism” and “misogyny.”
“If I ended up being correct on something that I may have criticized them to try to correct, they would go into a complete world of denial or alternative facts,” Spector said. “It was just another world, and at some point I realized I can’t make this much better.”
In a tweet that’s since gone viral, Spector said just two days after the mass shooting that given her past interactions with officers in that city, “you will never know the truth about what went down in that school until every inch of video tape is released to the press.”
She later added, “The fact there's no explanation as to the radio silence by every single official, and now we're up to the district attorney's office, why would anything change now?”
Uvalde schools Police Chief Pete Arredondo has taken the brunt of the criticism for law enforcement’s response to the shooting. As head of a six-member team tasked with keeping Uvalde schools safe, it was Arredondo who decided that for nearly an hour, officers would not enter the classroom where the gunman was shooting and killing children and teachers, even as children as young as 10 years old called police and pleaded for help.
Arredondo said he purposely left his police and campus radios outside the school to free his hands in preparation for the active shooter, a decision that has since come under much scrutiny. In recent weeks, state officials and the public at large have criticized his response as selfish and nearsighted — one that put the safety of the officers before that of the children. Texas Department of Public Safety director Steven McCraw late last month called it the “wrong decision” to wait so long to breach the door.
In an interview with the Texas Tribune last week, however, the chief defended his decision.
“Not a single responding officer ever hesitated, even for a moment, to put themselves at risk to save the children,” Arredondo told the paper. “We responded to the information that we had and had to adjust to whatever we faced.”
The chief of police added that he didn’t think he was in charge of the scene that day. “I didn't issue any orders,” he said.
Arredondo’s response, along with that of other officials who were on the scene, including Border Patrol and state and federal agencies, is now under collective investigation by the Texas Rangers, the Justice Department and the local district attorney’s office, according to the New York Times. Uvalde County District Attorney Christina Mitchell said this week that she is not, in fact, investigating the shooting, and is waiting for the Rangers and FBI to complete their own probes so she can review them.
Much to the chagrin of critics demanding increased transparency, the city of Uvalde and its police department are also working with a private law firm to prevent nearly any record of the shooting from being released to the public. That record includes police body camera footage, crime scene photos, 911 calls, emails and more.
“The City has not voluntarily released any information to a member of the public,” Cynthia Trevino, the city’s lawyer, who is working with the law firm Denton Navarro Rocha Bernal & Zech, wrote in a letter to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton. “The requested information is not information that is collected, assembled, or maintained under a law or ordinance or in connection with the transaction of official business by a governmental body or for a governmental body or is excepted from disclosure.”
With each passing day, many in the community are left to pick up the pieces on their own, without the help of those they thought were put in place to protect and serve them.
Arnulfo Reyes, a teacher at Robb Elementary School who was shot during the attack, called the responding officers “cowards” for not doing more that day in an interview with ABC News earlier this month.
“They sat there and did nothing for our community,” Reyes said. “They took a long time to go in. ... I will never forgive them.”
Others have chosen not to point a finger at anyone.
“I feel like no matter who went in, they still would’ve did the best they can,” longtime Uvalde resident Anne Jacques told the Texas Tribune. “And I feel like they did the best they could. So how can you fault that?”
“I hold no hatred,” longtime Uvalde Baptist pastor, now retired, Julián Moreno told NPR. “God's love reminds me that I’m not here to judge a person.”
The makeup of the city helps shed light on the power dynamics consistently at play. Uvalde, a south Texas city just over an hour’s drive from the Mexican border, has a population of 15,000 people, which is made up of 80% Latino people and 14% white, according to census data. The median income in 2020 was just over $41,600 in a community where one in five residents lives in poverty. It’s a deeply religious community where it’s not uncommon for parishioners to attend church upwards of two or three times a week. And they have great reverence for law enforcement in Uvalde — partly because of tradition, but also because many are friends or family, including cousins, brothers and sisters, as the Border Patrol is a major employer in the region. Still, immigration advocates say the increased presence of agents and the Department of Homeland Security has given an unknown number of undocumented immigrants grief. Others do their best not to make trouble.
Regardless of their status, Gutierrez said that members of the Uvalde community just want transparency and truth.
“I hope that people would care about fourth-graders dying,” he said. “What happened here should never happen to any community. It means we need to keep pressure for change, not just to keep a story going.”
He added that the alternative is unacceptable: “Imagine this: These parents have lost 19 beautiful babies and the only thing they have to look forward to in 10, 20 years is a duller sense of pain.”
With the backdrop of the governor’s race between incumbent Republican nominee Abbott and Democratic nominee Beto O’Rourke less than five months away, the politics of Uvalde — and of Texas generally — has come into focus. Despite many critics bemoaning talk of politics shortly after a shooting, Gutierrez said he sees it as the only way to enact swift change.
“People elect me to fix stuff,” he said. “This situation is broken, and it’s a political solution to be had.”
Despite liberal optimism, with a strong showing among Democrats in the past few elections across the state, the latest polling shows that Texans have doubled down on their support for Abbott in recent weeks. A Newsweek poll published on Monday found that Abbott had a commanding 19-point lead over O'Rourke among likely Texas voters.
Spector believes Texans have been so indoctrinated about guns that following the tragedy of the Uvalde shooting, more Texans are emboldened to keep Abbott in office.
“Texas is not a red state, it’s a nonvoting state,” Spector said. “I think prior to this [shooting], there was going to be a lot of complacency among the Republicans ... but I think that if people try to legislate gun laws in the nation or in Texas, I think it’s going to awaken Greg Abbott’s base again.”
Keeping the focus on what the people want should be the priority, says Gutierrez. The latest Economist/YouGov poll found that about 64% of Republicans and 85% of Democrats favor raising the age limit for owning a semiautomatic weapon to 21 from 18. But many Republicans across Texas refuse to make this move.
“We need to keep the pressure on people like Greg Abbott, who have failed to have any common-sense gun solutions,” Gutierrez said. “When you cut through all the bullshit, that’s what we need.”
“While I don’t have a whole lot of hope in Abbott, I hope the soccer moms in Austin start thinking, 'This could be me,'” he added. “It happened in Uvalde, a little Latino community, it could happen in any neighborhood. ... No amount of high gas [prices] or inflation will bring your kid back.”
Cover thumbnail photo: Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images