Document Shows Uvalde Officials Sought Favorable Account of Police Action

HOUSTON — Days after the massacre at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, the leaders of the grieving city fumed during a closed-door meeting with Steven McCraw, the state’s top police official.

They objected to Mr. McCraw’s public criticism of the response by city police officers to the May 24 massacre that killed 19 children and two teachers and, in a one-page document, laid out their own version of events, one that praised the officers for initially rushing to the gunfire and saving hundreds of other children in the school.

The document prepared by Uvalde officials and labeled “narrative” was obtained by The New York Times after a public information request. Its account of events differed in significant aspects from the one described by Mr. McCraw’s agency, the Department of Public Safety, which is leading the police investigation into the shooting and the law enforcement response.

The Uvalde officials pushed the document across the table to Mr. McCraw, asking him to publicly endorse it, according to a state police official who requested anonymity to describe the meeting on June 2. Mr. McCraw refused.

The heated encounter at Uvalde City Hall, which has not been previously reported, was among the earliest indications of a simmering feud between state and local officials that has since exploded into public view over who should be blamed for the 77 minutes it took heavily armed officers to kill the gunman after he first entered Robb Elementary School.

The competing accounts have obscured the actions of the police and angered the victims’ families, who have pleaded for reliable information. The clearest picture yet is expected to come on Sunday when a Texas House committee is set to report the results of its investigation, one of several overlapping inquiries into what took place.

The committee’s report was expected to spread blame beyond Chief Pete Arredondo, the head of the small Uvalde school district police force who Mr. McCraw has said was principally responsible for a law enforcement response that he has called an “abject failure.”

Instead, the committee was expected to find fault broadly among the several law enforcement agencies and officers that responded, including dozens of officers from the U.S. Border Patrol, the local sheriff’s office and the Department of Public Safety, according to a person familiar with the investigation.

The conclusion, the person said, would be that the delayed response was not one person’s failure, but rather that of dozens of trained officers and supervisors. Nobody knew what was going on and nobody tried to take charge, the person said, citing failures of inaction and communication by the agencies.

Such a finding would echo what others have already concluded after studying the sometimes contradictory versions of events offered by state and local officials.

“There was no incident commander, that’s the truth of the matter — it was complete system failure,” said State Senator Roland Gutierrez, who represents the area and has been critical of the version presented by the state police that holds no other law enforcement agencies accountable. “Why didn’t they take command and control of the situation?” he asked.

Mr. McCraw had said that Chief Arredondo had been in charge at the scene and had made “the wrong decision” in treating the gunman as barricaded inside the classroom — a situation that would call for a more careful, tactical approach — rather than as someone who was actively shooting and whom officers are trained to immediately confront. Chief Arredondo has not spoken publicly but said in an interview with The Texas Tribune that he did not see himself as the incident commander.

In the account the Uvalde officials laid out in their narrative, they focused on the quick arrival of officers at the school and their success in containing the gunman inside a pair of connected classrooms while clearing children from the rest of the school. They described a scene that was dangerous to officers and a response that was not chaotic but focused on getting children to safety.

“There was zero hesitation on any of these officers’ part, they moved directly toward the gunfire,” the document said, only to be repelled when the gunman fired at them. Two of the officers were grazed by debris from the gunfire.

“The total number of persons saved by the heroes that are local law enforcement and the other assisting agencies is over 500 per U.C.I.S.D.,” the document said, referring to Chief Arredondo’s department, the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District police force. “But for U.P.D. and U.C.I.S.D. being on scene IMMEDIATELY, that shooter would have had free range on the school.”

The document also said that specially trained Border Patrol agents had been pushing to clear the other classrooms first. “BORTAC insisted that all the rooms be cleared, i.e. all the children and teachers be removed, PRIOR to use of the shields and breach of Room 112,” the document said.

“Absent the shields, every U.P.D. officer was of the opinion that breaching the door was suicide and every Texas Ranger or D.P.S. agent who took their statements agreed,” the document read. “Not a single officer present, including D.P.S. troopers and Texas Rangers, believed that they could save lives by approaching that door and being killed one by one.”

That description conflicted with the account Mr. McCraw has presented of officers not following standard training, developed after the deadly shooting at Columbine High School in 1999, that calls for officers to quickly confront a gunman and end the shooting. At a hearing in the State Capitol last month, Mr. McCraw said officers had enough firepower to confront the gunman within three minutes of his entering the school, but had been prevented from doing so by Chief Arredondo.

The Uvalde officials, in their document, made no reference to a lack of keys as a reason for the delayed confrontation with the gunman, which Chief Arredondo had said in his interview was another big reason for the delay.

Instead, they defended the protracted response, saying that the extended time period before confronting the gunman was “not wasted but each minute was used to save lives of children and teachers.”

Some of the footage from the scene raises questions about the city’s account.

Video from the hallway of Robb Elementary — which was reviewed by The Times last month and published by The Austin American-Statesman this week — made clear that shields began arriving in the hallway outside the classrooms long before the officers moved in.

And several Border Patrol agents had expressed frustration at the lengthy delay in getting clearance to enter the classroom, a person briefed on the investigation told The Times.

The gathering at Uvalde City Hall had been arranged by Gov. Greg Abbott’s office because of rising tensions between Uvalde officials, including Mayor Don McLaughlin and the county judge, Bill Mitchell, and state police officials.

By that point, more than a week after the shooting, Mr. McLaughlin had requested that the Justice Department conduct its own review of the shooting, an indication that he did not trust the state police to impartially review the actions by officers.

And several key points about the shooting and the police response had already changed during a series of news conferences convened by the state. For instance, Mr. Abbott, speaking in Uvalde a day after the massacre, said that “the reason it was not worse is because law enforcement officials did what they do,” and praised “their quick response.” The governor later said he had been “misled” about the facts.

After the video from the hallway emerged, Mr. Abbott told reporters on Thursday that “none of the information in that video was shared with me on that day.”

Also in attendance at the June meeting was the local district attorney, Christina MitchellBusbee, and the Uvalde city attorney. The mayor, county judge and local district attorney did not respond to requests for comment. A spokesman for the state police declined to comment.

Mr. Abbott’s chief of staff attended the meeting, as did his general counsel, who sought to play the role of mediators.

But things quickly went off the rails, the senior official said.

The Uvalde officials voiced their strong displeasure with Mr. McCraw. Early in the roughly hourlong meeting, the city attorney presented the document, which was the product of interviews with police officers who responded to the scene, the senior official said. The Uvalde officials wanted Mr. McCraw to have another news conference in which he would present the narrative from the document. He told them he did not agree with its summary, the senior official said.

Ms. Busbee, the district attorney, also objected to its release and argued the point with the city attorney, the senior official said. Some in the room raised their voices.

“I objected to the release of any information given that the Texas Rangers had only begun their investigation and there was no way to assess whether that narrative was accurate,” Ms. Busbee said in an email. “I was concerned with the release of inaccurate or incomplete information that would adversely affect the investigation and further traumatize the families.”

The document was not made public at the time.

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