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Uvalde parents brace for federal review of failures in police response

Justice Dept. officials met privately with the families of the school shooting victims Wednesday ahead of the report’s release

Attorney General Merrick Garland and Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta tour murals of the Uvalde shooting victims in Uvalde, Tex., on Jan. 17, 2024. (Eric Gay/Pool/Reuters)
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UVALDE, Tex. — Justice Department leaders held an emotional private meeting Wednesday night with the families of victims of the Robb Elementary School shooting in Uvalde, Tex., preparing them for a mammoth, long-awaited report to be released Thursday that is expected to recount major failures in the police response to the crisis.

Attorney General Merrick Garland and other Justice Department officials traveled to Texas to meet with the parents of those killed and survivors of the May, 24, 2022, massacre that left 19 students and two teachers dead in one of the worst school shootings in U.S. history.

Former Uvalde mayor Don McLaughlin had requested the review after state officials provided contradictory accounts about what happened in the 77 minutes in which police failed to stop an 18-year-old gunman from firing an AR-15 style rifle inside two fourth-grade classrooms. A group of six officers, including members of a U.S. Border Patrol tactical team, eventually breached a classroom door and killed the shooter.

Oscar Orona, whose then-10-year-old son was shot inside one of the targeted classrooms, said federal officials took the families through the process of how they conducted their review, whom they spoke to and what they did to pull the more than 500-page report together. But they did not deliver specifics about their top findings or conclusions drawn from the scores of interviews and hours of evidence analysis, he said.

Nevertheless, Orona said he was encouraged that the report would be substantive after he directed a question to the report authors: “Was this, in your estimation, the failure that we’ve all seen?”

Each one said yes, he said.

“I think the report will validate what we knew all this time, that is was an abysmal failure,” Orona said. “But now the world will know, too.”

The families will be able to pick up their copies of the report on Thursday. Though they did not walk away with specific findings, the relatives who attended Wednesday’s discussion said it was more information than they have received from state and city officials about the day their children and teachers were killed.

Federal officials “came through and did what was right,” said Brett Cross, the uncle and guardian of 10-year-old Uziyah Garcia, who was killed in the attack. “We were treated with some dignity and some respect because we do not get that here.”

Elsa Avila, a Robb Elementary schoolteacher who suffered a gunshot wound in a separate classroom, said there remains one lingering question left in her mind: “Why can’t the Department of Justice put pressure or recommend to our local government the accountability we are seeking, which has not been moving forward?”

Avila said she hopes the revelations will put a spotlight on the local district attorney, Christina Mitchell, to take the next steps to impanel a grand jury after receiving the completed Texas Rangers investigation months ago.

“Tomorrow, we’ll know more,” Orona said.

The lengthy after-action report resembles those conducted after other shootings, including the Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando, in an attempt to offer guidance to improve future responses without addressing any criminal or civil matters. The federal review is separate from the criminal investigation undertaken by Texas Rangers that is being handled by the local district attorney for possible charges.

The much-anticipated report is the latest in a series of reviews conducted by Texas’s top law enforcement officer, state lawmakers and news organizations that have rattled a community desperate for accountability. Residents have been frustrated with the relative silence of Mitchell, the district attorney. She has not said when she plans to take her case to a grand jury or if she will seek charges. Several community members have lodged lawsuits against the city police and local officials that are pending.

Families have told The Washington Post they are not optimistic any officers or state officials will face legal consequences related to the shooting. But they are hoping to obtain some clarity from government officials about the specific failures and actions that led to the deaths and wounds of the victims.

“I don’t expect anything from anyone any more because the track record isn’t great,” Cross said. He said he sat down for at least two interviews with Justice officials. “I’m hoping there are some definitive answers and facts that will bring people back to focusing on Uvalde and the issues going on here. As it stands, no one is being held responsible for it.”

A year after Uvalde, officers who botched response face few consequences

Victims and survivors have channeled their grief into advocacy in the months since the tragedy. Some have pushed local school and city officials to improve campus safety measures, while other parents have sought to honor their dead by pushing for gun-control measures in Austin and Washington. Activists succeeded in pushing for the first bipartisan congressional gun-control legislation passed in decades but failed to move Texas lawmakers to raise the purchasing age for firearms like the one used at Robb.

Lingering unanswered questions have divided the small South Texas community. Some residents are eager to forget, while a strong but vocal few remain determined to pressure local and state officials to release all records from that day.

Some families have trained their ire on the Texas Department of Public Safety and its chief, Col. Steve McCraw, who officially cleared a half-dozen of his officers for their role in the shooting. DPS provided the public with the first official accounts of what happened inside Robb, a tale of heroism later relayed to the world by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott and forcefully denounced days later for its inaccuracy.

McCraw later presented a timeline and narrative for state senators that blamed local police, principally former Uvalde schools chief Pete Arredondo, for failing to assume control and give clear orders. The now-terminated Arredondo has repeatedly denied he was the incident commander responsible for coordinating the chaotic scene where hundreds of officers arrived from dozens of agencies.

A Post investigation found the delay was driven by the inaction of several senior and supervising law enforcement officers who knew shooting was taking place inside the classrooms but did not stop it. In interviews with investigators, the officers contended the scene shifted from an active-shooter situation to a barricaded suspect, slowing down the response. Most, if not all of them, remain on the job. Fewer than a dozen officers of the more than 200 local and state law enforcers who responded that day resigned or lost their jobs after a review of their actions. In some cases, they were hired to work for other agencies.

The botched law enforcement response undermined the chances of survival for some victims, a 2022 Post, Texas Tribune and ProPublica investigation found. The medical response was hampered by muddled lines of authority and communication lapses. Parked police vehicles blocked the paths of ambulances trying to reach victims. Medical helicopters with critical supplies were told to wait.

Uvalde records reveal chaotic medical response as victims lost blood

Parent Adam Martinez, whose son was inside the school during the shooting, has been a persistent presence at school, city and county meetings since the attack. He started a podcast interviewing the victims’ families to keep their stories alive as the months grew into years and journalists moved on to other stories.

“We haven’t stopped being angry,” Martinez said. “We want to know the juicy stuff, but I also just want to know what mistakes occurred so we can make sure they are on a path to correct them and train properly so we can avoid it ever happening again.”