A video released this week by the Austin American-Statesman gives an unsettling look into the police response to the May mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. The footage — from security cameras inside the school — shows an apparently disorganized group of police idling down the hall from the part of the building the shooter was in for nearly an hour after he opened fire inside the school, while children and teachers were dying in nearby classrooms without medical care. Some of the officers appear to be holding ballistic shields capable of blocking the shooter’s gunfire.
The police actions in the video run counter to standard active shooter training that officers across the country — including the Uvalde police force — receive today, said Frank G. Straub, director of the Center for Targeted Violence Prevention at the National Policing Institute, a nonpartisan research nonprofit. And it was a departure from law enforcement response to other recent mass shootings.
They should’ve made an effort to enter the classroom where they heard gunfire.Frank G. Straub, Ph.D.
“The sad reality that we have learned over the years since Columbine is that we can’t wait,” said Straub, who has reviewed many videos of mass shootings as part of his work. “The first officers on scene have to go in, have to respond to hearing gun shots, and they have to neutralize the shooter or shooters as quickly as possible. And they do that recognizing that there is great risk to themselves of serious injury or death.”
Several mass shootings in recent years, including those at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, and in San Bernardino, California, saw rapid police intervention, Straub said, and the carnage in those cases could have been significantly worse if police didn’t work to quickly stop the shooting and get medical care to victims, he said.
Straub agreed to watch the new footage from inside Robb Elementary School and share his minute-by-minute analysis with Grid. Prior to becoming a researcher, Straub spent three decades in law enforcement in roles that included police chief in Spokane, Washington, and public safety commissioner in White Plains, New York. He holds a Ph.D. in criminal justice and has led studies of several mass shootings.
“It almost had the feel to me, looking at the video, that people didn’t understand that this was real,” Straub told Grid. “It was almost like something you would see during an active shooter drill or a training exercise, more than what you would see when you knew that active shots had been fired and there were people in those classrooms.”
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Grid: The first part of the video shows the gunman crashing his car outside the school and firing a gun at two men who approach the crash. We hear a teacher call 911, and we see the gunman enter the school and go to a classroom. He fires an AR-15 in two classrooms for two-and-a-half minutes. Three minutes after the gunman walked in, police officers enter the school. From a police officer’s perspective, what is going on and what needs to be done at this point?
Frank G. Staub: The officers theoretically know that they got a 911 call from a teacher saying there’s been shots fired and kids are running. I believe 911 calls went out after he crashed the car, so the police are going into this situation knowing there have been shots fired inside and outside of this school when they’re arriving. That’s an important piece of context to this. They probably have no idea how many shots have been fired in the school, but clearly you can see the arriving officers know there’s shooting going on.
I think they do the right thing: The first group of officers who get there immediately advance down the hallway. From what I can see, one of them had a rifle, the other three look like they had handguns. Nobody has vests other than their duty vests, and duty vests typically don’t stop rifle rounds.
Then we see, at four minutes [after the shooter entered the school], there’s gunfire directed at the officers in the hallway. What I don’t know is, what provoked that? Did the shooter hear noises in the hallway and fire out the door? It looks like one of the officers took some type of shrapnel in the face, and they retreat.
What I don’t know is, when they first went down there, did they just stand outside the classroom, or did they try to enter the classroom? We can’t tell. They should’ve made an effort to enter the classroom where they heard gunfire. Why they didn’t, I don’t know. But in theory, they should’ve tried to enter the room. They know the person is in there, they know he’s shooting, so their job is to stop that individual from firing additional shots.
G: How might this situation have looked to those officers?
FGS: They were in a lose-lose situation. The gunman had an advantage because he was inside the room. They had to breach the door to get in there, and he could position himself to see them, they couldn’t necessarily see him. So they’re going into that classroom blind, with the hope they could find him and neutralize him quickly.
They’ve got to be figuring out, we’re not really in the best position now to try to go through that door. Again, the rules would suggest you try to breach that door and draw the gunman out of the classroom to you where you would have the tactical advantage. It doesn’t look like that happened.
G: Fifteen minutes later — 19 minutes after the gunman entered the school — other officers show up on the scene.
FGS: What you see is an officer show up with a ballistic shield, a ballistic helmet, a vest and a rifle. So now in theory, they have cover. They have this ballistic shield — albeit it’s not the best — but it should stop the 223 rounds [from the gunman’s rifle]. Those are high-capacity rounds that would typically penetrate Sheetrock walls, wooden doors or most officers’ duty body armor. So it’s a very powerful round. It causes significant, body-damaging trauma.
At this point, you have additional officers on scene, and you have equipment on scene. I don’t understand why they didn’t try to breach the classroom at this point.
G: What are possible explanations for why they didn’t try to breach the classroom?
FGS: I can only tell you from what I’ve read in the media: that someone may have thought they could negotiate with the person to come out. Maybe that’s what was going on — they were trying to negotiate with them. I don’t know. It would be hard to argue at this point that they didn’t breach because they were afraid additional people inside the classroom or classrooms would be injured. I think they needed to go.
Again — it’s a difficult situation where the gunman has the advantage, but at least now you have protection. Maybe you throw rocks at the window or something in order to cause a distraction while you breach the classroom. But at that point, you need to breach.
Then we get to 31 minutes [after the gunman entered]. You’re seeing even more shields, more rifles on-scene, more ballistic helmets and vests. You’ve got protection at that point — it’s not going to get any better. It just doesn’t make sense that they’re not trying to breach the classroom doors. There’s been some speculation that they didn’t have a Halligan tool or a sledgehammer or other breaching tools. I don’t know if the fire department was dispatched, but those are standard pieces of equipment on a fire apparatus. They should’ve been able to get breaching tools.
And then, you’re at 48 minutes later. There are more shots — so now you’re again hearing that people are still being shot or killed. You hear shots fired. And again, that should be another call to action that you’ve got to go. It should cause a reaction from the police. At this point, it’s pretty inconceivable to me that they don’t have breaching equipment — at least minimal equipment that they could easily get from a fire vehicle.
G: Fifty-seven minutes after the gunman entered the building, police finally advance down the hallway toward the classroom. How do their actions look to you?
FGS: It seemed to be somewhat haphazard. You see officers going down the hallway, and the ballistic shields are behind them. The whole idea is to put the shields up front and have the officers proceeding down the hallway behind those shields. That’s your protection.
Even from a tactical standpoint, the movement down the hall isn’t going very well. It doesn’t seem like anyone other than the people who were doing the breach knew what was happening. It seems to suggest that maybe there wasn’t an overall plan. You see an officer at one point using hand sanitizer.
It almost had the feel to me, looking at the video, that people didn’t understand that this was real. It was almost like something you would see during an active shooter drill or a training exercise, more than what you would see when you knew that active shots had been fired and there were people in those classrooms.
Maybe they were just totally overwhelmed by the situation. I don’t know.
G: What should it have looked like when police went to breach the classroom door and confront the shooter?
FGS: It has to be very disciplined, very methodical. There’s a process. We practice formations that we’re going to use.
Somebody needed to take control and say, “Here’s the entry team, here’s the team in the hall at the second point of entry behind them. There’s going to be an arrest team that we’re going to hand him out to, and a rescue team that’s poised to go in immediately after the subject’s been neutralized to engage in rescue operations.”
There’s a whole rescue methodology that’s been practiced in terms of room entries, and it’s part of an active shooter drill for officers. A lot of it isn’t necessarily different from how you would clear a room if you’re executing a search warrant and you believe firearms were present.
I give them credit that they tried to control the [additional] officers from running down the hallway. Because if the gunman came out, you have all these people in the hallway without protection.
G: Watching the video, I noticed people in different clothes and uniforms were part of the response. Who were the people gathered in the hallway?
FGS: It looked like there could’ve been investigative personnel there, there could’ve been administrative personnel or officers who came in off-duty when they heard something was going on. You had other people that appeared to have tactical-type uniforms on and other officers who looked like they had duty uniforms on.
So it looks like there were various departments represented, which then means somebody has to take control, right? Somebody has to say, “I’m the incident commander, and this is what we’re doing, and this is how we’re doing it.” And I’m not sure that ever happened — or it didn’t happen for quite a while.
G: Overall, how does the police response that you observed in the video compare to other mass shootings that you’ve reviewed?
FGS: This was tough to watch as both a parent, and as somebody who studies this stuff and has written in numerous reports about it, and as somebody who has spent 30 years in law enforcement. It just didn’t look like it should’ve looked. And like I said — and I’m sure people were trying to figure out what to do, and how to do it, and how to save lives. And it just never came together.
Maybe they didn’t have a sense of the level of violence that had been perpetrated. But I also have to think that they were there for a long time, and I’d hope they were interviewing teachers, and custodians, and whoever else was in that school to try to get a sense of where this [gunman] might be, how big of a space they were in, how many teachers and students might be in there, what the entry points were. They should’ve been gathering intelligence for whoever the incident commander was. But there were a lot of people standing around for a very long time, not doing anything.
From what I’ve read, that they did empty the school and they did prevent him from leaving that space, they confined him in those two classrooms. That’s good tactically. But you’ve got to get him out of those classrooms, or you’ve got to go in and get him. I think most people would agree that this was not a good law enforcement response to a horrific situation.
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.