To begin this article, I’d first like to offer my deepest condolences to the family, friends, and acquaintances of those who had their lives taken in Uvalde, Texas, on Tuesday, May 24. These lives were senselessly taken, and my heart is broken that this occurred.
I’ve been wanting to write something up on this for weeks now, but I wanted to wait until a bit more information was available before I gave commentary on initially reporting that is often false or misleading. I feel comfortable now that enough credible and accurate information is available to take a critical look at some of the actual facts about this case and to provide a brief commentary on what we (believe) we know.
In this article, I’d really like to consider things such as the police response and discuss whether the police truly do have the legal responsibility to enter an environment such as this. I’d also like to honor those who were lost and opine on things we as a society can do to help ensure violent incidents like this don’t occur with such frequency in our schools.
Those of you who are faithful members of SOFREP.com likely already know that my professional background is in law enforcement (my last two years as a police officer were as an SRO) and that I am currently the director of safety for a school district in the suburb of a large midwestern city. In other words, every side of this tragedy hits me hard, both personally and professionally.
That said, let me begin with the law enforcement aspect of this tragedy. Before I venture into a critical review of the police response, let me just say that almost nobody is more pro-police than me. Heck, I even have a thin blue line tattoo running the length of my inner forearm. I loved being a police officer, and I think police officers have an incredibly difficult job that seems to be getting even more difficult on a daily basis. So, when I am critical about the overall response to this incident, please keep in mind that I’m not bashing the police as a whole (nor would I ever). I’m offering my professional assessment(in consultation with others in my profession) about actions taken by specific officers that seem to demonstrate either a failure of proper training or a failure to act according to that training as this tragic event occurred.
There also seems to have been a serious breach of the security of that school in the form of a broken lock on a secure door that was not treated with the sense of urgency that it required.
As a former police officer in a major midwestern suburb, I’ve had countless hours of active killer response training. Each year, all police officers in every jurisdiction around where I worked had to complete between 8-16 hours of active killer training (as a group) with the SWAT team (in addition to department-specific training). The first year we did this specific training was in 2011. That year we learned bounding (how to get to a building more safely by way of a large field), and we learned diamond formations and how to best utilize those for safe entry and progression through the hallways and rooms of large buildings. One point continually reiterated even in this first year was that if you arrived as the first responder and people were actively dying, then you did not wait for enough officers to arrive to form a diamond formation; you entered alone and hunted down the threat.
In subsequent years, we learned modified diamond formations and the best way to clear a building alone. We practiced shooting SIM rounds on live targets. We rehearsed everything from eliminating suicide bombers to establishing casualty collection points and how we’d get paramedics safely into the building to begin treating injuries once a threat was subdued. We practiced subduing suspects while using rifles, shotguns, and pistols, and we knew when we screwed something up because we’d get smoked with a SIM round ourselves. For what it was, the training was excellent.
The training I received as an officer was not unique. I know for a fact that a universal form of active shooter response training has been deeply woven into the fabric of law enforcement training in America since at least the Columbine tragedy in 1999. It was after that incident that police departments changed procedures to say that officers will enter the building – even alone – if active killing is occurring. We know by now that this standard procedure wasn’t followed in Uvalde, Texas.
This is the first part of the story that makes me sick. First, depending on various news accounts, the first officers either began on-scene or were there incredibly quickly. For those who are just picturing this response in your imagination, let me help: Once, I was breaking up a large fight (100+ people), and I was alone. I called for backup, and everyone on my shift showed up within about a minute. When they arrived, they called for backup, and nearly every police officer that bordered my town showed up in the first five minutes…and that was for a simple fight. In other words, officers were on-scene very quickly. This was true in Uvalde as well. Officers arrived nearly immediately. So, the timeliness of the initial response to the scene wasn’t the issue; officers’ actions once there were.
Here is the timeline as it was most recently reported by the Texas Tribune:
- 11:28 a.m.: The suspect arrived on campus.
- 11:30 a.m.: A teacher dialed 911 stating they saw a man with a firearm, and the suspect began firing rounds at the school.
- 11:33 a.m.: The suspect physically entered the school building and shot at least 100 rounds into classrooms 111 and 112. Original reports stated that a teacher had propped a door, but those claims were later changed to say the electronic lock had “failed.”
- 11:35 a.m.: Uvalde police officers first entered the school and were grazed with bullets upon entry. They then retreated out of the building. Pete Arredondo, the chief of the school district’s police department, also arrives at the scene around this time. He did not have his radio. Arredondo wanted both hands on his gun if he encountered the shooter and believed the radios would have slowed him down, his attorney said. Four more officers, including a deputy with the Uvalde County Sheriff’s Office, also enter the school around this time.
- 11:37 a.m.: Gunman fires 16 additional rounds.
- 11:44 a.m.: Police are inside the building and find the door – where they believed the shooter to be – locked. The chief called for specialty equipment, SWAT and others.
- 11:51 a.m.: More officers arrive on the scene.
- 11:54 a.m.: An onlooker films a video of parents begging police officers to enter the building.
- 12:03 p.m.: A student from room 112 calls 911. Roughly 19 police officers were in the hallway during this call.
- 12:10 p.m.: The same student called back and reported that multiple people were dead.
- 12:15 p.m.: Border Patrol Tactical Unit arrives with shields.
- 12:16 p.m.: The same student called back and said 8-9 students inside were alive.
- 12:17 p.m.: The school announces there is an active shooter via Facebook. During this time, parents plead with officers to respond. Parents begin breaking windows of the school building to gain attempt to gain entry.
- 12:21 p.m.: The shooter fires 3 additional gunshots.
- 12:46 p.m.: The campus police chief gives officers permission to make entry.
- 12:50 p.m.: A Border Patrol Agent unlocks the door with a janitor’s keys and kills the gunman.
First, we know for a fact that active killing was occurring within the school in the officers’ presence.
At 11:35 a.m., officers were literally shot at (and even grazed) when they made entry.
Then, a short two minutes later, at 11:37 a.m., the gunman fired 16 additional rounds. Clearly, either killing or the significant chance of killing was occurring.
Every training program I’ve attended regarding school shootings (whether at the local, state, or federal level) has a pretty solid consensus that if active killing is occurring, then law enforcement is responding immediately. That clearly didn’t happen. Now for an aside…as a police officer, you are nothing more than a screenshot of the general community. As a police officer, I both witnessed and heard stories about incredibly brave and heroic actions by guys and gals with whom I worked. Conversely, I sometimes saw policemen act in complete cowardice in dangerous situations. I can picture some of those scared officers I knew standing at the classroom door in Uvalde, hoping that nothing bad would happen to them while children were inside being actively murdered. I also know some brave men and women (like the Border Patrol Agent who eventually stopped the killing) who would’ve gladly risked their lives for just the chance to shoot this killer.
It reminds me of something former Navy SEAL Rob O’Neill has said in multiple interviews regarding the Bin Laden raid. He said the SEALs involved in that mission knew it was likely a one-way mission. But they also knew that they were the ones who were supposed to be in the fight, not the innocent men and women who perished in the twin towers on 9-11-2001. According to O’Neill, the men on that mission both ached to be there in that fight while still questioning themselves as to why they were going on a mission that almost certainly would result in their deaths. The SEALs knew in their heads that they’d likely die on the mission, but they knew in their hearts that it was their mission to undertake, so they gladly went.
Now, I’m by no means comparing the skills of SEAL Team *Redacted* to the skills of a beat cop. I do believe, however, that the mental conundrum and the human element were no different for those men one moonless night in Pakistan and the men and women standing in a school hallway in Uvalde. I get it, I have two kids, and my promise to them every day that I went to work as a police officer was that I’d be home that night. I dealt with some situations in which my b*tthole could’ve doubled as a penny press, but in my mind, you cannot let that stop you from fulfilling your duty. At the end of the day, like those SEALs, it is a police officer’s job to be in the fight because those students didn’t sign up for it; they did.
This is the first major problem I have with this L.E. response. They didn’t respond.
“Four brave men who do not know each other
will not dare attack a lion.
Four less brave, but knowing each other well,
sure of their reliability and consequently of mutual aid,
will attack resolutely”.
Col. Ardent du Picq
An Unlawful Order To Not Act On Their Training and Duty.
A second concern I have is that it has been reported that the chief, who was the on-scene commander, ordered officers to stay outside of the room because they were in grave danger. So much has changed with this account, but I’ll simply say this: like those of us who were in the military were told…orders must be followed, but illegal orders should be ignored. If that order was indeed given, then, in my opinion, it was illegal (or at least incongruent with national policy) and thus should’ve been ignored by all officers on the scene. I’ve seen officers epically ignore stupid commands, and those situations paled in magnitude to the shooting in Uvalde. A quick story about this.
A guy I worked with was in a vehicle pursuit – which is, for the most part, banned where I worked. He was a good deal into chasing this guy who had just tried running him over (which would be a pursuable offense per policy), and the supervisor on duty said: “discontinue.” First off, the word most supervisors will use when they’d like you to stop a chase is “terminate,” so when he said to discontinue, it opened Pandora’s box for intentional misinterpretation. The officer responded to the order “10-4,” meaning, “OK,” and he kept chasing him. This continued for many miles before the suspect ultimately crashed in a different STATE and was taken into custody.
When asked by his supervisor why he didn’t “discontinue,” this officer said, “Oh, you said discontinue? I thought you said JUST CONTINUE. My bad.”
My point is that quality policemen will ignore orders that are improper or illegal, even if for more minor incidents. It seems that none of the officers in Uvalde felt empowered enough – or confident enough in their skills – to do that.
In my professional opinion, the role of the supervisor is to ensure the men and women under his authority act in accordance with their training, not give them orders to violate that training. His officers had a duty to follow that training as well, even if, especially if, they received orders that contradicted it.
Imagine a different scenario for a moment. An officer responds to a domestic violence incident and finds a battered and bleeding woman, and her husband who appears intoxicated and shows indications of having been in a fight, and he has blood on his clothing the officer believes might be that of the victim. Under questioning the husband admits to striking the woman several times during an argument. The officer training is very clear here. There is clear evidence that a serious crime(felony battery/domestic violence) has been committed, and one of the participants has admitted to the crime. His clear duty under his training is to make an arrest on suspicion of this crime and collect evidence for the state to prosecute with. His supervisor then arrives. The officer has placed the suspect under arrest and into his car and gives his supervisor a report on what he believes has occurred and the subsequent arrest.
The supervisor listens carefully and then says, “Hey, it’s about an hour before shift change and this thing will tie us up at the jail for hours for sure. I want you to just let him go.”
If the officer does as his supervisor just ordered, he will be knowingly violating his training and duty under the law and is in the same kind of trouble as his supervisor is in. There is no proper way for either of them to not act on their training and the duty to perform that goes with it.
The School’s Response, Broken Locks and Propped Doors
I’m not going to second guess the school’s reaction to this incident because at the end of the day, teachers are there to teach and students to learn, not to fight gunmen, but I will say if the timeline is correct, they had roughly three minutes (in a perfect world) for teachers to barricade their classrooms before the gunman’s entry. That should be enough time in most situations—props to the teacher who noticed the gunman and alerted the authorities.
Secondly, the new official account is that a door wasn’t left propped; instead, an automatic door locker failed. I can’t say which account is true since I wasn’t there, but I can certainly tell you which one I think is more plausible.
Even though it is against our district’s policy, I’ve seen hundreds of doors across our campuses propped over the years. In one building, it got so prevalent that I went through one afternoon and stole every teacher’s door stop in the hallway where it most often occurred. After reading that, you may be thinking that I have some “Petty White” tendencies, and you’d be correct. Either way, that stopped propped open doors a while. But it did inform me that teachers and administrators are often my biggest obstacle in trying to keep a school safe.
I’ve seen between 5-10 automatic door lockers fail. If it was indeed the lock that failed at Uvalde, then almost certainly it didn’t fail at the instant the killer turned the handle…most likely, it was already broken, and if it was already broken, I could assure you that the teachers – and students – knew it. I’d say the chance it went bad right as the shooter touched it is Powerball Winning levels of unlikely. If the gunman did indeed enter via a broken electronic Lock (assuming he didn’t break it), that is simply unacceptable.
Safety and security as a matter of ingrained culture, habits, and mindset are just not what teachers are there for. They want to just teach the kids and put thoughts of active shooters out of their minds. The thinking that goes, “It won’t happen here, or happen to me” is part of human nature. That broken lock should have been regarded as a serious security breach. That broken lock compromised the security of that entire school. Would you consider your house “safe” and “secure” from intruders if one of the locks on your doors or windows didn’t work? Or would you take immediate steps to repair, replace or otherwise secure that entry point so you could sleep at night feeling safe?
Same thing with a school, but it’s hard to get everyone on that page mentally because we tell ourselves we live in a nice quiet town and it can’t happen here.
Security professionals in law enforcement are paid to be suspicious when they have no reason to be suspicious. It’s called vigilance.
What is an Officer’s True Responsibility?
The next question I have is perhaps a bit more contentious. It is, “Do police officers really have the responsibility to enter those situations, or do they get to determine whether something is too dangerous and not respond if that’s the case?” To be honest, I’m not sure what the actual answer to this question is. I know that most police officers across the nation wouldn’t hesitate to respond to an event such as this, and the order not to breach can be damned. I know that my opinion is that officers SHOULD respond to that situation, and if they don’t think they can, they should find something else to do for a living. To be a police officer is to willingly put yourself in situations where you might have to give your own life in order to protect citizens or your fellow officers. If you aren’t willing to do that, you are depriving not just the public but your fellow officers of what they expect and you are doing so deceitfully. They won’t know you aren’t up to the task until the s*** hits the fan, which is the worst time for them to find out about it.
As a police officer, I always told people, “I’m not saying I’m going to save your life, but I’ve come to terms with dying while I give it my best shot.” Maybe it’s the Marine in me, and maybe it’s just my personality – I don’t know – but I always thought it would be better for my family to remember me as a dead “hero” than a living coward.
The main insight we have into the culpability the officers might have if they fail to act comes from the Parkland, Florida shooting. In that incident, former Broward County Deputy Scot Peterson (the School Resource Officer) was charged with Criminal Negligence for allegedly hiding while the gunman there killed students and staff. If it makes it to trial, that trial is scheduled for the fall of 2022. If it does go to trial, that case will be an indicator of how the legal system views police officers’ responsibility to act during violent situations. The verdict, in this case, will likely be the case the law used for any subsequent legal proceedings in cases similar to it.
I spoke to a police chief in the city nearest where I worked, and he told me the following about the response he expects of his officers during an active killing event:
“For over a decade, officers in our region have received annual active killer training known as Multi-Assault, Counter-Terrorism Action Capabilities (MACTAC). MACTAC has taught our officers to locate and engage the suspect(s) regardless of how many officers are on scene. If you are the first officer on scene and alone, you enter the area and attempt to locate and eliminate the threat. Once other officers are on scene, if possible, contact teams can be formed using two, three, or four officers. Our expectation is officers will quickly arrive on scene, immediately enter the building, locate the suspect(s) and stop the threat because seconds matter in these events. There is no such thing as a barricaded subject in an active killer scenario because priority 1 is stopping the killing, and priority 1A is treating the victims. Until the killing has stopped, we cannot get the victims the medical attention they need. One of my favorite sayings is ‘he who hesitates, loses.’ In an active killer scenario, hesitation can equal the ultimate loss.
There is no law that requires police officers to engage a suspect during an active killer scenario. The Constitution only requires us to protect those who are ‘in custody,’ but we have all taken an oath to protect those who cannot protect themselves. The public expects us to run into the building and save lives, and all police leaders should expect themselves and their officers to do the same. An improper response to an active killer can lead to a loss in public trust, and once trust is lost, it may never be restored.”
As the Chief stated, “there is no such thing as a barricaded subject in an active killer scenario.” It has been reported that the campus Police Chief in Uvalde called out SWAT and hostage negotiators, which would be common practice in response to a barricaded subject. In my mind, though, it never was a barricaded subject…it was a subject who was killing people while barricaded. THAT is totally different.
What happened at Uvalde, Parkland, Sandy Hook, and Columbine were all atrocities. The biggest question we all face now is, “How do we prevent this from happening again?” Honestly, this question sucks because there isn’t a concrete answer. In my current position as a safety director for a school district, administrators and parents routinely come to me and say, “How do we prevent this.” My answer to them is truthful, “We can’t STOP it. We can prepare for it and do everything we can to both prevent it and respond to it if it happens, but we can’t STOP it.”
To be honest, most of them hate my answer. Many teachers want to simply seize all guns out of America (I guess, so ONLY the criminals own them), or they want to place a metal detector at every door (that would cost millions per year in my district alone). TSA studies show that even the TSA misses 95% of weapons and contraband that pass through their checkpoints (during “red team” testing).
Another topic that is never discussed but that I believe is having an impact is the use of psychotropic medications for children and teens. I’m far from a doctor, but I’m not far from a detective, and it seems that every student who commits one of these major acts of violence is on some type of mood-changing prescription. It could be that people on that medication just so happen to also be the ones who commit these acts, but it could also be that the medications have a negative effect. Every school shooting I’ve ever read about was perpetrated by someone with a serious mental illness, they are frequently on medication as well. Some of it is prescribed but often they are medicating themselves with drugs or alcohol. There needs to be a serious look at the medication given to these young people to determine if the dosages are contributing to the problem here.
I think the biggest thing the school community and the general public can do is to say something if they see something. It sounds so cliche, but Secret Service studies show that more than 70% of people who commit an act of mass violence tell at least one person before committing the act. That means we have the chance to stop 7/10 school shootings that occur on campuses around the nation. Then, once reported, we have to ensure that the appropriate measures are taken (by organizations like the children’s division and juvenile court) and that the appropriate services are given to those kids who are at-risk.
Another potential option I’ve heard thrown around quite a bit lately is to either arm a veteran to stand guard and/or to arm specific teachers within the building. I don’t personally think that either of those is a bad idea, but veterans – like officers and other members of society – come with all different skill sets and backgrounds. I think a capable, armed veteran could definitely make a difference in the building’s safety, but I wonder if that movement can ever get any steam across the nation.
We have to understand that these killers purposely select schools because they have the expectation that the victims will be disarmed and helpless. They want 10-15 minutes to kill everyone they can and then expect to be shot and killed themselves by the police. If they knew that several unknown people at the school might be armed and able to confront and kill them before they live out the twisted fantasy in their head, they might be deterred from going to that school.
They will still be mentally ill and dangerous to society, but it might take schools off their target list.
Deterrence works if done credibly and smartly.
Finally, school districts must run toward training for incidents such as this and not away from it. In my experience, it is common for teachers and school admin to literally think, “If we don’t talk about shooters, then we’ll never have one.” Teachers and administrators are educators, not security professionals. They are way out of their depth when it comes to understanding what it takes to make a school safe, just as I would be out of my depth trying to teach your kids English Literature.
I’d also like to remember all those who lost their lives at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. They are: