Uvalde residents frustrated with officials over finger pointing, conflicting accounts and leaked video

Hundreds of dried-out flowers lie with handwritten notes and dust-covered toys in front of Robb Elementary School in Uvalde last month. Weeks after a gunman killed 21 people there, Uvalde residents and victims' relatives are frustrated by officials' handling of information about the massacre. (Kaylee Greenlee Beal For The Texas Tribune, Kaylee Greenlee Beal For The Texas Tribune)

Sign up for The Brief, our daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.

UVALDE — Over the past month and a half, Adam Martinez has attended Uvalde City Council meetings in this grieving Texas town hoping officials will give some insight into why police officers waited 77 minutes to confront and kill an 18-year-old gunman who fatally shot 19 elementary school students and two teachers on May 24.

Recommended Videos

Earlier this week, at the third City Council meeting Martinez has attended since the state’s deadliest school shooting, he stood up from his chair inside an auditorium to challenge Mayor Don McLaughlin’s criticism that surveillance footage showing officers waiting in a school hallway was leaked to news outlets.

The mayor said the leak “was one of the most chicken things” he’d ever seen. But what Martinez wanted to know is what McLaughlin thought of the officers’ lack of action and if any of them were going to be held accountable.

“I don’t want to get into it with you, Adam,” McLaughlin said from his seat between other council members.

Martinez pressed him and the mayor said every officer in the hallway should be held accountable.

“It’s confusing — we really don’t know who is in charge,” said Martinez, whose 8-year-old son was at Robb Elementary School the day of the shooting.

The interaction between Martinez, 37, and McLaughlin highlights a prolonged — and growing — frustration residents and parents of victims have felt for nearly two months since the horrific massacre. People in Uvalde, a city of about 15,000 people west of San Antonio, say they can’t depend on getting information from city, county or state leaders who for weeks have provided conflicting accounts, pointed fingers at each other over the law enforcement response and publicly squabbled about why more details can’t be provided. Some residents have depended on leaks to news outlets for insight, and others have turned to social media.

Active shooter protocols train police to confront mass shooters immediately. Victims’ families, Uvalde residents and elected leaders have questioned and criticized why police waited more than an hour at Robb Elementary to confront the gunman. Law enforcement experts have said that several lapses in judgment occurred during the response to the Uvalde shooting.

State Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, the chair of a state House committee investigating the shooting and law enforcement response, had promised to show victims’ loved ones the school surveillance footage on Sunday — before it was to be released to the public. So it came as a shock to parents when the footage was published earlier this week by the Austin American-Statesman and KVUE-TV, then later disseminated by national news outlets. In a letter to readers, the Statesman’s editor said the newspaper published the video to bring light to what happened and also edited out the screams of children.

For many victims’ relatives, seeing the footage online retraumatized them, furthered their suspicions about trusting officials and prompted them to question news organizations’ judgments.

Kimberly Rubio, whose 10-year-old daughter Alexandria “Lexi” Aniyah Rubio was killed, appeared at a news conference Tuesday in Washington, D.C., along with other victims’ parents and said it was unnecessary for the video to have been leaked and published before they could review it since it was coming out soon.

“We understand that the media wants to hold people accountable because the government hasn’t been transparent with us, but you don’t need the audio for that and you don’t need the full video for that,” she said.

In June, The Texas Tribune reviewed the surveillance video from the hallway outside where the shooting happened and published a detailed account of law enforcement’s delayed response but did not obtain a copy of the video and did not publish one.

The leak of the video followed a series of changing stories and conflicting accounts about how the gunman got into the school, who led the police response and what caused the delay in killing the shooter.

Last week, the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training Center at Texas State University in San Marcos released a report saying a Uvalde police officer had the gunman in his crosshairs and asked a supervisor for permission to shoot — but the supervisor did not hear the request or responded too late. ALERRT was asked by the state Department of Public Safety to review the response to the shooting.

Two days later, McLaughlin refuted the report.

“A Uvalde Police Department officer saw someone outside but was unsure of who he saw and observed children in the area as well,” McLaughlin said. “Ultimately, it was a coach with children on the playground, not the shooter.”

John Curnutt, the assistant director of ALERRT, told CNN in a statement earlier this week that their findings were based on two statements from an officer that was later contradicted by a third statement.

“At the time we released our initial after-action, the information we had on this particular officer came from the officer’s two previous statements given to investigators,” he said in a statement. “We were not aware that just prior to us releasing our initial after-action, the officer gave a third statement to investigators that was different from the first two statements.”

The day after the shooting, Gov. Greg Abbott said school police officers had “engaged with the gunman” outside before the gunman got into the school. The next day, a DPS commander said the gunman got into the school unobstructed by police. Abbott, in turn, said he was “livid” about being “misled.”

Uvalde schools police Chief Pete Arredondo defended the law enforcement response in an interview with the Tribune last month. Among other things, he said he and other officers tried to get inside adjoining classrooms where the shooter was, but the doors were reinforced and impenetrable. But no such attempts were caught in school surveillance footage reviewed by the Tribune, and some law enforcement officials are skeptical that the doors were ever locked.

DPS Director Steve McCraw has said that Arredondo was the incident commander at the scene of the shooting and blamed him for deciding to “place the lives of officers before the lives of children.” Arredondo has disputed that he was the incident commander. State Sen. Roland Gutierrez, D-San Antonio, told The New York Times “there was no incident commander” and called the response a “complete system failure.”

And on Friday evening, another instance of law enforcement squabbling came to light when The New York Times reported that Uvalde officials had asked the head of DPS to sign on to a statement in June that would have praised police for their response to the shooting. McCraw refused, the Times reported.

On Sunday, the House committee investigating the incident is scheduled to release its own report about the shooting and police response.

But Martinez said the repeated back and forth has led him to mistrust not only news outlets but official leaders. He said all he wants to know is how the city is going to make sure this type of tragedy doesn’t happen again. He said his son’s personality has changed from playful and jovial to serious and anxious.

“They’re not on the same page. There’s lack of communication, there’s incompetence — all those things don’t mix,” he said. “Those are the people that are in charge of the school police, those are the people that are supposed to be keeping my kid safe. But do you think I’m gonna feel good? Do you think I’m going to feel safe?”

Some residents who didn’t have children at the school have also grown frustrated.

Pastor Daniel Myers, who has attended City Council meetings, said he approached a Uvalde police officer to ask him why the department hasn’t publicly explained why police officers waited so long to enter the classroom.

Myers said the officer responded, “‘If I talk, I go to jail.’ So I told him, ‘Go to jail then, but do the right thing.’”

“If it bothers me, if it irritates me and frustrates me, can you imagine how the parents feel?” Myers said.

Disclosure: The New York Times has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Join us at The Texas Tribune Festival, happening Sept. 22-24 in downtown Austin, and hear from 300+ speakers shaping the future of Texas including Joe Straus, Jen Psaki, Joaquin Castro, Mayra Flores and many others. See all speakers announced to date and buy tickets.

Recommended Videos