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After Uvalde, an emerging narrative of police incompetence

Details from the Uvalde shooting are buttressing an emerging narrative of police incompetence.
Image: Back of a police officer facing people assembling at a church.
Police watch as guests arrive for the service for Nevaeh Bravo at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Uvalde, Texas on June 2, 2022.Eric Gay / AP file

Over the past year, Democrats' already lackluster momentum on passing police reform has slowed. In response to rising crime rates, the party has even begun to swing back in the direction of reviving aggressive policing tactics. But public outrage over the police’s mismanagement of the horrific mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas, in May has raised new questions about policing in America. Critics are not just challenging the idea of police using excessive and abusive force, but questioning whether the police are good at what they’re supposed to do, particularly when it comes to intervening in violent situations.

Progressive activists and major media outlets have drawn attention to the size of Uvalde’s police budget.

On Tuesday, the director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, Steve McCraw, revealed an astonishing assessment of how poorly he believed local police handled the response to the mass shooting in Uvalde during a Texas Senate committee hearing: He said he believed there were enough properly equipped police officers to stop the shooting just three minutes after it began — instead of the roughly hour and 14 minutes it ended up taking.

McCraw also said a door to the classroom where the shooter was wreaking havoc was unlocked, contradicting initial claims from law enforcement officials who said that part of the reason that it took so long to neutralize the shooter was that the door was locked.

McCraw deemed the police response an “abject failure” that disregarded standard protocols for active shooter situations. "The officers had weapons, the children had none. The officers had body armor, the children had none. The officers had training, the subject had none," McCraw said at the hearing.

But that’s not all. McCraw’s withering criticism came just one day after The Texas Tribune released a damning new account of the police response based on interviews, surveillance footage and transcripts of radio traffic and phone calls from the day of the shooting. Among other things, that report found that there’s no evidence that police officers even tried to see if the doors to the classroom were locked, and that even if the doors had been locked, police officers had the tools and manpower to enter the room swiftly anyway.

The police response to the Uvalde mass shooting has attracted widespread scrutiny precisely because it seems to deviate from the active shooter police playbook, so it’s not fair to say it typifies police responses to high-profile mass shootings. But since it took place amidst a broader re-evaluation of policing in America, it has sparked a national conversation about police funding and competence that would never have happened before 2020.

As increasingly damning details of the slow Uvalde response have leaked out, progressive activists and major media outlets have drawn attention to the size of Uvalde’s police budget (40% of the city’s budget, according to Bloomberg News) and used it as a springboard for debating whether police budgets are bloated or to supplement arguments that reducing funding for conventional law enforcement is warranted because some police forces aren’t fulfilling basic duties to uphold public safety.

A similar kind of dynamic played out after the New York Police Department struggled to find the gunman behind a subway shooting in Brooklyn in April; he was arrested only after he reportedly tipped off the police to his location himself. Left-leaning commentators pointed out that while NYPD displays efficiency when it comes to arresting homeless people, they seemed far less nimble when it came to tracking down someone who had committed a high-profile crime in the city. When New York Mayor Eric Adams called for more police to be stationed in public spaces across the city after the shooting, progressive criminal justice advocates pointed out that robust NYPD presence in subway stations seemed to make little difference in the first place.

And in a distillation of this emerging narrative, the progressive journal The American Prospect published an essay in June documenting and critiquing how police crime-solving rates have fallen to historic lows in recent years.

I am not personally of the view that the Uvalde catastrophe validates an argument for police abolition. But at a time when some Democratic politicians like Adams and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot are responding to crime by reviving the mindset behind mass incarceration, it's critical to remember that more funding for police does not equal more safety or competence.

The increasing public scrutiny of the efficacy of standard policing that is surfacing across the country will ultimately serve the public good. Policing is a tough job; police officers should be tasked with a narrower set of core responsibilities — and also be more proficient and responsible when fulfilling them.