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Uvalde locals grapple with school chief’s role

A school building stands behind a tree with an American flag and crime scene tape at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas (Jae C. Hong/AP)
A school building stands behind a tree with an American flag and crime scene tape at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas (Jae C. Hong/AP)

The blame for an hour’s delay in killing the gunman at a Texas primary school — even as parents outside begged police to rush in and panicked children called 911 from inside — has been put on the school district’s homegrown police chief.

It has left residents in the small city of Uvalde struggling to reconcile what they know of the well-liked local man after the director of state police said the commander at the scene — Pete Arredondo — made the “wrong decision” not to breach a classroom at Robb Elementary School sooner, believing the gunman was barricaded inside and children were not at risk.

Steven McCraw, the head of the Texas Department of Public Safety, said at a Friday press conference that after following the gunman into the building, officers waited over an hour to breach the classroom.

Nineteen children and two teachers were killed in the shooting.

Mr Arredondo, who grew up in Uvalde and graduated from high school here, was set to be sworn in on Tuesday to his new spot on the City Council after being elected earlier this month, but Mayor Don McLaughlin said in a statement on Monday that would not happen. It was not immediately clear whether the swearing-in would happen privately or at a later date.

“Pete Arredondo was duly elected to the City Council,” Mr McLaughlin said in the statement. “There is nothing in the City Charter, Election Code, or Texas Constitution that prohibits him from taking the oath of office.”

The 50-year-old has spent much of a nearly 30-year career in law enforcement in Uvalde, returning in 2020 to take the head police job at the school district.

When Mr Arredondo was a boy, Maria Gonzalez used to drive him and her children to the same school where the shooting happened.

“He was a good boy,” she said.

“He dropped the ball maybe because he did not have enough experience. Who knows? People are very angry,” Ms Gonzalez said.

Another woman in the neighbourhood where Mr Arredondo grew up began sobbing when asked about him.

The woman, who did not want to give her name, said one of her granddaughters was at the school during the shooting but was not hurt.

Juan Torres, a US army veteran who was visibly upset with reports coming out about the response, said he knew Mr Arredondo from secondary school.

“You sign up to respond to those kinds of situations,” Mr Torres said.

“If you are scared, then don’t be a police officer. Go flip burgers.”

After his election to the city council, Mr Arredondo told the Uvalde Leader-News earlier this month that he was “ready to hit the ground running”.

“I have plenty of ideas and I definitely have plenty of drive,” he said, adding he wanted to focus not only on the city being fiscally responsible but also making sure street repairs and beautification projects happen.

At a candidates’ forum before his election, Mr Arredondo said: “I guess to me nothing is complicated. Everything has a solution. That solution starts with communication. Communication is key.”

Mr McCraw said on Friday that minutes after the gunman entered the school, city police officers entered through the same door.

Over the course of more than an hour, officers from multiple law-enforcement agencies arrived on the scene.

Finally, officials said, a US border patrol tactical team used a janitor’s key to unlock the classroom door and kill the gunman.

Mr McCraw said pupils and teachers had repeatedly begged 911 operators for help while Mr Arredondo told more than a dozen officers to wait in a corridor.

That order — which goes against established active-shooter protocols — prompted questions about whether more lives were lost because officers did not act sooner.

Two law enforcement officials have said that as the gunman fired at pupils, officers from other agencies urged Mr Arredondo to let them move in because children were in danger.

They spoke on the condition of anonymity because they had not been authorised to talk publicly about the investigation.

Mr Arredondo started his career in law enforcement working for the Uvalde Police Department.

After spending 16 years there, he went to Laredo, a border city located 130 miles to the south, where he worked at the Webb County Sheriff’s Office and then for a local school district, according to a 2020 article in the Uvalde Leader-News.

Ray Garner, the police chief of the district in Laredo where Mr Arredondo worked, told the San Antonio Express-News in a story published after the Uvalde shooting that when Mr Arredondo worked in the Laredo district he was “easy to talk to” and was concerned about the pupils.

“He was an excellent officer down here,” Mr Garner told the newspaper.

“Down here, we do a lot of training on active-shooter scenarios and he was involved in those.”

Mr Arredondo, who spoke only briefly at two short press conferences on the day of the shooting, appeared behind state officials speaking at news conferences over the next two days but was not present at Mr McCraw’s Friday news conference.

After that press conference, members of the media converged at Mr Arredondo’s home and police cars took up posts there.

At one point, a man answering the door at Mr Arredondo’s house told a reporter for The Associated Press that Mr Arredondo was “indisposed”.

“The truth will come out,” said the man before closing the door.

State senator Roland Gutierrez, a Democrat whose district includes Uvalde, said on CNN’s State of the Union that he is asking a lot of questions after “so many things went wrong”.

He said one family told him that an emergency service worker told them that their child, who was shot in the back, likely bled to death.

“So, absolutely, these mistakes may have led to the passing away of these children as well,” Mr Gutierrez said.

Mr Gutierrez said that while the issue of which law enforcement agency had or should have had operational control is a “significant” concern of his, he has also “suggested” to Mr McCraw “that it’s not fair to put it on the local (school district) cop”.

“At the end of the day, everybody failed here,” Mr Gutierrez said.