“The wrong decision”: Texas DPS says local police made crucial error as school shooting continued

Crosses outside Robb Elementary School on Thursday bear the names of children killed at the school on Tuesday. (Lauren Witte/The Texas Tribune, Lauren Witte/The Texas Tribune)

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Days after Texas’ top officials, including Gov. Greg Abbott, praised how police handled a shooting that left 19 children and two teachers dead at a Uvalde elementary school, the state’s top law enforcement official admitted Friday that officers made key errors when responding to the shooting.

Police officers did not act sooner to stop the 18-year-old gunman rampaging at Robb Elementary School because the school district's chief of police wanted to wait for backup and equipment, said Steven McCraw, director of the Texas Department of Public Safety. Meanwhile, students were still trapped inside with the gunman, repeatedly calling 911 for help.

By the time a specialized team of federal officers arrived and entered the school — they had to get keys from a janitor to open locked classroom doors — more than an hour had passed since the shooter had arrived at the school, McCraw said.

That was a mistake, McCraw said at a Friday press conference.

“From the benefit of hindsight, where I’m sitting now, of course it was not the right decision,” McCraw said. “It was the wrong decision, period. There's no excuse for that.”

“When it comes to an active shooter, you don't have to wait on tactical gear, plain and simple,” he said.

Later in the day, Abbott said he was "misled" about the police response to the shooting. He had praised officers' handling of the crisis in a Wednesday press conference, saying, "The reason it was not worse is because law enforcement officials did what they do."

Friday afternoon, Abbott said those remarks were a "recitation" of what he had been told in a law enforcement briefing.

"I am livid about what happened," Abbott said, adding that the Texas Rangers and the FBI are investigating the shooting response and will "get to the bottom of every fact with absolute certainty."

McCraw also revealed Friday that the gunman entered the school through a back door that minutes before had been propped open by a teacher. He said a police officer employed by the school district responded to an initial 911 call about an armed man near the school — but drove past the gunman, who was “hunkered down” behind a vehicle, and mistook a teacher for the shooter.

McCraw detailed harrowing 911 calls by teachers and students trapped inside with the gunman, including one at 12:47 p.m. — more than an hour after the shooter entered the school — when a student begged the 911 operator: “Please send the police now.”

It was the most detailed accounting yet of the roughly 90 minutes that forever changed Uvalde, a tight-knit community of roughly 15,000 residents a short drive from the Texas-Mexico border. From the moment the gunman shot and wounded his grandmother until the moment a U.S. Border Patrol agent ended the carnage with a gunshot, a series of decisions large and small contributed to what became the nation’s second-most-lethal shooting in a K-12 school after the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut.

Law enforcement officials have faced increasing questions in the days since the shooting about whether officers on the scene could have acted more quickly to stop the gunman. Videos circulated on social media show desperate parents begging officers to enter the school, and parents have reported being handcuffed and Tased by law enforcement officers when they implored officers to act or tried to retrieve their children.

State Rep. Vikki Goodwin, D-Austin, told the Tribune that DPS troopers restrained two parents attempting to reach their children shortly after arriving on the scene. Goodwin said she reached out to the agency after seeing a video of the incident circulating on social media and was told by DPS staff that troopers acted at the instruction of the local commander to keep “the public as safe as possible.”

At the same time, DPS officials — who are leading the shooting investigation along with local police — have often given conflicting details about how the police response played out.

For example, DPS officials initially said the 18-year-old gunman encountered a school district police officer when he arrived on school grounds — and gave conflicting accounts about whether the officer fired at the gunman.

On Thursday, the agency reversed course, saying that no campus police officer confronted the gunman when he stepped onto the premises.

McCraw said the officer “was not on campus” when the shooter arrived but did not explain why or where the officer was, saying DPS will answer that question “down the road.”

“10 more days”

In the months before the gunman struck Robb Elementary, Uvalde school district police said they had been preparing for such a shooting.

In a Facebook post March 22, the school district’s police department said it had hosted an “active shooter training” the previous day — and had already hosted “several” others — with the goal to “train every Uvalde area law enforcement officer so that we can prepare as best as possible for any situation that may arise.”

By then, the gunman was already trying to buy a gun.

He asked his sister in September — months before he turned 18, when he could legally buy a firearm in Texas — to help him buy a gun, McCraw said. The sister flatly refused.

On March 1, he chatted with a handful of other people on Instagram about wanting to buy a gun.

Two weeks later, he made an Instagram post that read “10 more days.”

According to McCraw, someone replied, “Are you gonna shoot up a school or something?”

“No. Stop asking dumb questions,” he said. “You’ll see.”

FBI investigators believe the gunman was "not motivated by a particular ideology," Rep. Joaquin Castro said Friday after meeting with the agency, and "was not on the FBI’s radar" before the shooting. Castro had called on the FBI on Thursday to “use their maximum authority to investigate and provide a full report on the timeline, the law enforcement response and how 21 Texans were killed.”

The gunman legally purchased two AR platform rifles from a federally licensed gun store earlier this month, the first one a day after his 18th birthday and exactly a week before he approached the elementary school with both rifles and more than 1,600 rounds of ammunition.

Uvalde police received the first call around 11:20 a.m. Tuesday, when the gunman’s grandmother called 911 to report that he had shot her in the face at her home, located about two minutes from Robb Elementary.

The shooter fled in his grandmother’s pickup truck and crashed it in a ditch near the school at 11:28 a.m. He was carrying 58 magazines and 1,657 rounds of ammunition, McCraw said.

McCraw said the gunman fired at two passersby on the street, then went to the school, where he fired shots at the building from outside before entering the building at 11:33 a.m. through a back door that a teacher had left propped open.

Once inside, the gunman entered a pair of connected classrooms — rooms 111 and 112 — where he killed 19 children and two teachers and wounded 17 others. McCraw said the gunman fired more than 100 rounds at that point. He fired at least 186 rounds from the time he crashed his vehicle outside the school to the moment he was killed, McCraw said.

Local police officers quickly arrived at the school and entered two minutes after the gunman at 11:35 a.m., McCraw said, but fell back after two officers were shot and wounded by the gunman. Officers tried to negotiate with the shooter, officials have said, but the man “did not respond.”

McCraw said the commander on site at that point treated the situation as a “barricaded suspect” case and thought children were no longer at risk, which McCraw also called a mistake. McCraw said at one point there were as many as 19 officers in the hallway outside the classrooms where the gunman had locked himself inside with students and teachers.

“There was plenty of officers [at the scene] to do what needed to be done,” McCraw said.

Throughout the hour it took for law enforcement to reach and kill the gunman, 911 calls came from inside the classrooms. McCraw said the first came at 12:03 p.m., followed by another from a student inside room 112 at 12:16 p.m. The student told the 911 operator there were eight or nine students still alive in the classrooms, McCraw said.

McCraw, who had praised the police response the day after the shooting, struck a less defensive posture Friday. During a contentious press conference, he often looked visibly unsettled and choked up near the end.

“We're not here to defend what happened,” McCraw said.