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Texas school shooting probe clears police officers despite ‘many problems’

Family members arrive for a special city council meeting in Uvalde (Eric Gay/AP)
Family members arrive for a special city council meeting in Uvalde (Eric Gay/AP)

An investigation into a Texas school shooting has cleared local police officers despite acknowledging a series of failures in the response to the 2022 attack that left 19 children and two teachers dead.

Several family members of victims walked out in anger midway though a presentation that portrayed Uvalde Police Department officers as acting swiftly and appropriately, in contrast to previous reports that faulted police at every level.

“You said they did it in good faith. You call that good faith? They stood there 77 minutes,” said Kimberly Mata-Rubio, whose daughter was among those killed in the attack, after the presentation ended.

Another person in the crowd screamed “cowards”.

Uvalde School Shooting
Crosses with the names of shooting victims were placed outside Robb Elementary School (Jae C. Hong/AP)

Jesse Prado, an Austin-based investigator and former police detective who made the report for the Uvalde City Council, described several failures by responding local, state and federal officers at the scene that day: communication problems, poor training for live shooting situations, lack of available equipment and delays on breaching the classroom.

“There were problems all day long with communication and lack of it. The officers had no way of knowing what was being planned, what was being said,” Mr Prado said. “If they would have had a ballistic shield, it would have been enough to get them to the door.”

The report is just one of several probes into the massacre. Texas lawmakers found in 2022 that nearly 400 local, state and federal officers rushed to the scene but waited more than an hour before confronting the gunman.

A Department of Justice report in January criticised the “cascading failures” of responding law enforcement.

Law enforcement took more than an hour to get inside the classroom and kill the gunman, even as children inside the classrooms called 911, begging police to rescue them.

But Mr Prado said his review showed that officers showed “immeasurable strength” and “level-headed thinking” as they faced fire from the gunman and refrained from shooting into a darkened classroom.

Uvalde School Shooting
Jesse Prado, an Austin-based investigator, has been criticised (Eric Gay/AP)

“They were being shot at from eight feet away from the door,” Mr Prado said.

He also said families who rushed to the school that day compromised efforts to set up a chain of command, as officers had to conduct crowd control while parents desperately tried to get in the building or begged officers to go inside.

”At times they were difficult to control,” Mr Prado said. “They were wanting to break through police barriers.”

Family members erupted when Mr Prado briefly left after his presentation.

“Bring him back!”, several of them shouted.

Mr Prado returned and sat and listened when victims’ families cried and criticised the report, the council and the responding officers.

“My daughter was left for dead,” Ruben Zamorra said. “These police officers signed up to do a job. They didn’t do it.”

Uvalde School Shooting
Uvalde police officers have faced criticism (Eric Gay/AP)

A criminal investigation by Uvalde District Attorney Christina Mitchell’s office into the law enforcement response in the May 2022 shooting remains open. A grand jury was summoned earlier this year and some law enforcement officials have already been asked to testify.

Tensions remain high between Uvalde city officials and the local prosecutor, while the community of more than 15,000, about 85 miles south west of San Antonio, is plagued with trauma and divided over accountability.

The city investigation report comes after a nearly 600-page January report by the Department of Justice found massive failures by law enforcement, including acting with “no urgency” to establish a command post, assuming the subject was barricaded despite ongoing gunfire, and communicating inaccurate information to grieving families.

Attorney General Merrick Garland said the victims “deserved better” as he presented the Justice Department’s findings to the affected families in Uvalde.

“Had law enforcement agencies followed generally accepted practices in active shooter situations and gone right after the shooter and stopped him, lives would have been saved and people would have survived,” Mr Garland said at the news conference in January.

The report also found failings in the aftermath, with untrained hospital staff improperly delivering painful news and officials giving families mixed messages and misinformation about victims and survivors.

One official told waiting families that another bus of survivors was coming but that was untrue.

Texas Republican Governor Greg Abbott initially praised the law enforcement response, saying the reason the shooting was “not worse is because law enforcement officials did what they do”. He claimed that officers had run toward gunfire to save lives.

But in the weeks following the shooting, that story changed as information released through media reports and lawmakers’ findings illustrated the botched law enforcement response.

At least five officers who were on the scene have lost their jobs, including two Department of Public Safety officers and the on-site commander, Pete Arredondo, the former school police chief. No officers have faced criminal charges.