Every journalist knows how hard it can be to sort fact from fiction in a breaking news event. But the shifting story public safety officials have spun since Tuesday’s shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, is a brutal reminder that the police can’t always be trusted as reliable narrators.
“They said they rushed in and all that. We didn’t see that,” Javier Cazares, whose 9-year-old daughter was killed Tuesday, told The New York Times. In a video that shows parents outside the school frustrated with the police’s inaction, a man can be heard saying: “They’re all in there. The cops aren’t doing s--- except standing outside. You know they’re little kids, right? Little kids, they don’t know how to defend themselves.”
Three days after a gunman killed 19 students and two teachers, it seems every new detail contradicts Tuesday’s initial statements from the Texas Department of Public Safety, or DPS. That’s especially the case for the department’s praise of the bravery and heroism of the officers who the public was told challenged the gunman even before he infiltrated the school.
To be clear, there's no reason any civilian should have an AR-15-style rifle, as the gunman did, nor should that level of firepower be what the average police officer should have to face on the job. The chaos of dealing with a shooting at an elementary school shouldn't be something any human being has to face, be they parents or police officers. It was the gunman’s actions, not the hesitant response from law enforcement, that killed those children and their teachers. But the more the initial story from the police is scrutinized, the more out of step it seems with both the expectations of the parents outside the school and the long-standing argument that these are the moments when police are most necessary.
DPS’s news conference Thursday only highlighted how many elements of the original story had changed in 48 hours. Early reports indicated that law enforcement confronted the gunman almost immediately after he crashed a car before he got to Robb Elementary School. Sgt. Erick Estrada told CNN on Tuesday that the shooter “was engaged by law enforcement” but that “unfortunately was able to enter the premises.” But Victor Escalon, DPS’s South Texas regional director, said Thursday there was no confrontation — the shooter walked into the school unobstructed, a whole 12 minutes after the crash.
Did the shooter and an armed school safety officer exchange gunfire outside the school? A spokesperson for DPS told The Washington Post on Tuesday that they did and that the school officer was wounded; the department also confirmed to NBC’s “TODAY” show on Thursday that the school safety officer was armed. But DPS Director Steve McCraw walked back the gunbattle detail Wednesday, and Escalon went further Thursday, telling reporters that there “was not an officer readily available, armed,” which sounds a lot like a hedge.
DPS initially tried to justify law enforcement’s inability to bring down the shooter quickly by saying he wore “body armor.” The next morning, the agency acknowledged that it wasn’t body armor but a tactical vest that could be fitted with ballistic protection. That’s a major difference.
Officials initially said that once the shooter was inside, he immediately barricaded himself inside a classroom and began shooting. McCraw said Wednesday that police pinned the shooter inside the classroom. The Associated Press also reported that Border Patrol agents who responded “had trouble breaching the classroom door and had to get a staff member to open the room with a key.”
All 21 victims were reportedly killed in the same classroom; that detail also shifted Thursday, as NBC News reported that Texas investigators say victims were found in four classrooms. This prompts a number of questions: Did the shooter lock himself inside a classroom, preventing the police from entering? Or did the police trap him inside with his victims after he'd fired in other classrooms?
It’s an important point to clarify given what one student told KENS-TV: “When the cops came, the cop said: 'Yell if you need help!' And one of the persons in my class said 'help.' The guy overheard and he came in and shot her. The cop barged into that classroom. The guy shot at the cop. And the cops started shooting.”
Outside the school, officers reportedly had their stun guns drawn and were busying themselves keeping parents from running inside the school after their children. Reportedly, almost an hour elapsed as police restrained parents before an off-duty Border Patrol officer killed the gunman. One of those parents, according to The New York Times, was Angel Garza, whose stepdaughter Amerie Jo was killed. CNN anchor Anderson Cooper’s interview with Garza, a medical aide, went viral as Garza wondered how someone could shoot his baby. Meanwhile, there are reports that some officers went into the school during the attack to retrieve their own children, even as other desperate parents were being detained outside in handcuffs.
There are a lot of unanswered questions, none of which make DPS or the city of Uvalde look particularly good. The city of about 16,000 spends nearly 40 percent of its annual municipal budget on its police force, which includes a SWAT team that is supposed to mobilize in this sort of situation. The school district, which has its own police force, doubled its security budget in recent years. And yet the shooter still managed to kill almost two dozen people in an hour.
The official narrative framed the law enforcement officials who first showed up as heroes who prevented even more casualties. That’s unsurprising given the free rein police across the country generally have to present their version of events as irrefutable.
Police have a responsibility to provide the most accurate information possible to the public, but all too often they decide to promote themselves and put a positive spin on their actions.
Even after the horror this week is eventually pieced together in full, it will be well worth remembering how far the final version of history will have come from where it started — and how law enforcement spent time trying to portray its inaction as heroism.