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Authorities took an hour to stop Uvalde gunman, raising questions about law enforcement response

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Sergio Flores
/
The Texas Tribune
Victor Escalon, an official with the Texas Department of Public Safety, offered additional details Thursday about the law enforcement response to a mass shooting at a Uvalde elementary school.

Officials clarified the timeline of the shooting Thursday after giving varying accounts. They refused to answer many questions about the tactics.

A gunman who killed 19 children and two teachers at a South Texas elementary school walked unopposed onto school grounds, state law enforcement officials said Thursday — and once he was inside, it took police an hour to stop him.

In the days after the massacre at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, officials with the Texas Department of Public Safety said the shooter encountered a police officer employed by the school district before charging through a back door.

Agency officials now say there was no police officer on campus when the shooter first arrived — and that the gunman entered the building through an unlocked back door.

It took officers an hour to kill the gunman once he was inside, Victor Escalon, an official with the Texas Department of Public Safety, said during a press conference Thursday — but he wouldn’t explain why it took so long.

“We're working every angle that's available and won't stop until we get all the answers that we possibly can,” Escalon said.

The law enforcement response to the active shooter call has sparked growing concern and questions in the days since the shooting.

Videos have circulated on social media showing frustrated parents confronting police officers outside the school while the gunman was inside — and debating whether to charge into the school themselves.

Since then, state law enforcement officials have given vague and conflicting answers on what exactly happened over the course of the shooting — particularly in the moments before the 18-year-old carrying an AR-15 rifle entered the school — and how long it took officers to breach the classroom where he was holed up.

Steve McCraw, the head of the Texas Department of Public Safety, said Wednesday that a school police officer “engaged” with the gunman before he entered the school but did not exchange gunfire with the gunman. Other DPS officials have been quoted in media reports saying there was an exchange of gunfire at that moment.

Once the gunman got inside and entered a classroom full of students, The New York Times reported Thursday, two police officers tried to enter the classroom shortly after, but were shot and wounded before pulling back. Citing a person familiar with an internal law enforcement timeline, the newspaper reported that officers fell back and a tactical team was assembled.

The gunman was “able to make entry into a classroom, barricaded himself inside that classroom and … just began shooting numerous children and teachers that were in that classroom, having no regard for human life,” Lt. Chris Olivarez, a Texas Department of Public Safety spokesperson, said in an appearance Wednesday morning on “The Today Show.”

Later Wednesday, McCraw said officers were successful in “containing” the shooter to that classroom.

How much time passed between when the shooter arrived at the school and when a Border Patrol agent shot him to death has also been unclear since the shooting. McCraw told reporters Wednesday that it was anywhere from 40 minutes to an hour but refused to give an exact timeline.

Uvalde police received the first call about the gunman around 11:20 a.m., when his grandmother called 911 after he shot her in the face at their home about two minutes from the school. The gunman then fled in her pickup truck, crashing it in a nearby ditch — prompting a 911 call from a neighbor, a DPS spokesperson told The Washington Post.

At 1:06 p.m. Tuesday, the Uvalde Police Department posted on its Facebook page that the shooter was in police custody. Authorities later reported that the shooter was dead.

“The bottom line is that law enforcement was there, they did engage immediately, they did contain him in the classroom,” McCraw said at a press conference Wednesday.

That hasn’t stopped the mounting questions about why it took at least 40 minutes for the shooter to be subdued while police were outside the school.

Kenneth Trump, a Cleveland-based school safety consultant, said after the mass shooting at Colorado’s Columbine High School in 1999 — when two students fatally shot 12 other students and a teacher and injured 21 others before killing themselves — law enforcement has moved away from the tactics employed at the time of waiting and setting a perimeter during an active shooter situation.

Instead, police are now trained to immediately enter and try to subdue the shooter, even if they’re alone on the scene, he said.

“Columbine changed the entire landscape of enforcement tactical response to active shooters because it became clear that these incidents unfold in minutes,” he said. “You have mass loss of life, the longer you go on.”