Roll Call: School shooter response in Uvalde, Texas, was the worst in nation’s history

Riverside Police Chief Tom Weitzel will retire in May after serving the community for 38 years, the last 13 as chief.

You may remember that in a previous column I reviewed the police response to the Robb Elementary School shooting in Uvalde, Texas.

It was the worst police tactical response to a school shooting in the nation, which was my opinion then, and remains my opinion today. On Jan. 18, the final report from the Department of Justice was released on the Robb Elementary School shooting. This critical incident review was conducted by a panel of experts in the field, including retired Illinois Police Chief Kristen Ziman from Aurora. She was put on this committee because of the mass shooting that occurred in Aurora in 2019 at the Henry Pratt Company.

The nation needed a comprehensive understanding of the response of local, state and federal law enforcement agencies to this critical incident in Uvalde. There have been several reports done so far, but this is the most damning. The official report, requested by the state of Texas, was the only one published by a panel representing all occupations and professional associations dealing with school response.

The report covered incident timeline reconstruction, tactics and equipment, leadership incident command and coordination, post-incident response and investigation, public communication during and after the crisis, trauma support, overall school safety and security and pre-incident planning and preparation.

The report was critical of the police response, focusing on the fact the Uvalde School police were unprepared, not trained, lacked the right equipment and afraid to advance and engage the shooter.

Just a brief review: The incident took place at 11:33 a.m. on the morning of May 24, 2022. On that day, the offender entered Robb Elementary School equipped with a high-powered AR-15 rifle. He immediately started shooting and, within a minute, entered classrooms where he continued to shoot and slaughter students and staff.

Within three minutes of the offender entering the school, there were 11 law enforcement agency officers from the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District and Uvalde Police departments, including supervisors, on the scene. They heard continuous gunfire but did not advance and engage. This was verified by interviews, police radio tapes and video from both outside and inside the school.

One of the main takeaways from the report is the police made a huge error in classifying their engagement as either a hostage situation or a barricade situation, which it clearly was not. It was an active school shooter and this was a deadly error by the police. The report went on to say that, “Officers on the scene did not attempt to enter any rooms and stop the shooter for over an hour after they entered the building. The shooter was not killed by police until 77 minutes into the school takeover and when the first police officer arrived on the scene.”

Responding officers also waited for the arrival of more assets, such as shields and specialized tactical teams, to make entry – another deadly error.

The report highlights that “leadership in law enforcement is critical, especially in moments of dire challenges, such as an active shooter incident that took place at Robb Elementary School.”

Courage requires action and steadiness in a chaotic environment. Leadership was absent for too long at the Robb Elementary School enforcement response. I would argue there was no leadership at all. Leadership does not only come from supervisors and the chief. First responding officers must assess the situation and take leadership command immediately. There is no rank when responding to a school shooting.

The report includes some selected observations: poor leadership or no leadership, failure to establish a unified command; the absence of a uniformly recognized incident commander; Chief Pete Arredondo did not provide the appropriate leadership, command or control at the scene; and on the day of the incident, no one took leadership for more than 77 minutes. When leadership was taken, it was dismal.

Numerous police agencies responded, including school, local, state and federal police, the Texas Rangers and U.S. border patrol. Literally every police agency within 50 miles responded to this incident. None of them could communicate on one unified platform. The radio systems used by these officers were not interchangeable.

Public communication, both internal and external, was terrible. A public information officer was not assigned early on. Instead, numerous police officials talked to the media and much of what they put out was false.

The report also outlined several recommendations, and quite frankly, almost every police agency follows these protocols. It’s common sense. While there are far too many recommendations for me to put in this column, some of them include better training, advanced training, better equipment, equipment available immediately, leadership, pre- and post-planning and training with other agencies.

This is basic training that is required by almost every police agency in America, except this preparedness and training were not done by the Uvalde School District or the Uvalde Police before this incident took place. This is a failure of leadership and the chief of police was not equipped to oversee this type of situation. School shootings require leadership, not management. Chief Arredondo provided no leadership. Some might think this is harsh criticism, but he was over his skis in this situation and his failure to lead cost precious lives.

What is most disturbing to me is this report is flying under the radar. The public is neither commenting on it, expressing outrage or even questioning when the recommendations in the report will be implemented. Throughout the U.S., police leadership and police agencies are not talking about this senseless loss of life or recognizing and accepting this event for what is.

The Uvalde school shooting is, without a doubt, the worst police school shooting response ever. I feel safe in saying that because I have read all the reports, watched hours and hours of video and have talked to colleagues, who currently serve on SWAT teams or rapid-response units, and not only do they agree with me, but they have educated me about the reasons why.

If we want to contrast the Robb Elementary School, which was the worst, to what I would consider one of the best police responses to a school shooting, let’s look at the school shooting that took place in Nashville in 2023 at the Covenant School.

In that instance, it was textbook, professional and on point. The first officer on the scene, who had military training, immediately took command. This was a patrol officer, not a supervisor. As officers arrived right behind him, they immediately teamed up in a group of three, got the keys to the locked door from school staff that was outside and immediately advanced throughout the school toward the gunshots, killing the offender within 14 minutes of entry to the school.

This was verified by interviews, videotapes, body-worn camera tape and the videos that were in the hallways of the school. Additionally, both students and staff praised the response of the Nashville Police Department. The response is what I would consider the gold standard in law enforcement for school shooter response.

I am the first in line to praise police when they do an excellent job. I’ll highlight their accomplishments and advocate for the profession I love and think is the most honorable profession in America. But we also must call out when the police response, training and planning are not adequate, and in this case of Robb Elementary School, not only was it not adequate, it was nonexistent.

There always has been the question: Can leadership be taught or are you born a leader? The answer is “yes” for both situations. Some individuals are born with leadership qualities and leadership can be taught in the proper settings and with the proper mentors. The key is you must lead and not sit on the sidelines. All police officers are fearful in these situations, but you must revert to your training and advance on the shooter. If not, the cost is immeasurable.

The final Department of Justice report is out. Let us all learn from it and never let this happen again.

• Tom Weitzel was chief of the Riverside Police Department. Follow him @chiefweitzel.