Uvalde: Why is anyone surprised?

There are brave police officers who would willingly risk their lives, but the leadership at a local, state, and federal level has long moved past such an old fashioned, pedestrian mission.  Why should local officials be any different than the big boys and girls in Washington, DC? 

There is no doubt that the Uvalde Police Department completely failed to respond courageously or professionally to the horrific mass shooting at Robb Elementary School, during which 19 students and two teachers were killed over the course of more than an hour before the shooter was neutralized.  Last month, a special Texas Senate committee heard devastating testimony from the director of the Department of Public Safety, Steve McCraw.  Mr. McCraw claimed a “sufficient number of armed officers wearing body armor” were on the scene a mere “three minutes after the subject entered the west building,” but the children waited “one hour, 14 minutes, and 8 seconds — that’s how long the children waited, and the teachers waited, in room 111 to be rescued.”  This was even as the “the only thing stopping the hallway of dedicated officers from entering room 111 and 112 was the on-scene commander who decided to place the lives of officers before the lives of children.”  The on-scene commander was Pete Arredondo, who has since resigned.  Mr. McCraw continued to lay out the details of the scene in very stark terms. “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…And while they waited, the on-scene commander waited for a radio, and rifles, then he waited for shields, then he waited for SWAT. Lastly, he waited for a key that was never needed.”  In his conclusion, “there’s compelling evidence that the law enforcement response to the attack at Robb Elementary was an abject failure and antithetical to everything we’ve learned over the last two decades since the Columbine massacre.”  “The post-Columbine doctrine is clear, and compelling, and unambiguous,” Mr. McCraw said. “Stop the killing, stop the dying.”

These poor decisions made during the shooting were further compounded by constantly changing stories in the immediate aftermath.  On May 24, we were told that a school resource officer “engaged” with the shooter before entering the school, but the very next day the shooter “walked in unobstructed initially.”  Commander Arredondo claimed officers tried multiple keys to enter the room, “I was praying one of them was going to open up the door each time I tried a key,” but video evidence showed no one even touched the door handle to see if it was locked.  We learned later that the door couldn’t even be locked from the inside.  Commander Arredondo also told dispatch, “We don’t have enough firepower right now. It’s all pistol, and he has an AR-15,” when officers on the ground had full tactical gear.  The situation was further confused by no one appearing to know whether or not there remained an active shooter.  Mr. McCraw noted that Commander Arredondo was “was convinced at that time that there was no more threat to the children, and that the subject was barricaded” and that “they had time to organize, with the proper equipment, to go in,” but the officers on scene knew otherwise.  Incredibly, Commander Arredondo was even confused about his own role onsite, saying he didn’t know he was the officer in charge.  He told the Texas Tribune that he “didn’t issue any orders” and didn’t even have his radio, leading them to conclude “assumed that some other officer or official had taken control of the larger response” and he “took on the role of a front-line responder.”  Some, like Uvalde Mayor Don McLaughlin have taken aim at the Department Public Safety itself, claiming they hadn’t been properly briefed on the investigation. Perhaps nothing crystallizes the fiasco more than a video released earlier this week showing one of the officers on scene stopping to sanitize their hands while the shooter was still killing children.

The result has been a healthy outpouring of public outrage accompanied by a near endless series of questions about how this could happen in the first place.  How could the police, those whose mission it is to protect us, have gotten this so devastatingly wrong. Personally, I’m wondering why anyone is surprised.  This the government in action in the year 2022, especially in the current political and legal climate where even justified use of force by police officers are given the utmost scrutiny and the officers themselves rarely receive the benefit of the doubt.  The situation is so extreme that last year we witnessed an officer who shot a woman in the act of stabbing another pilloried as a racist killer.  I do not doubt that there remain brave officers on duty who would willingly risk their lives, especially to save children, but the leadership at a local, state, and federal level has long moved past such an old fashioned, pedestrian mission, or the desire to back up the front line of public safety.  We’re so backward at this point that a man in the process of getting beaten and stabbed in New York City by a perpetrator and his girlfriend who were in the process of accosting the man himself has been charged with murder.  If nothing else, the modern government world is defined by four things:  Mission creep or missions entirely contrary to their initial purpose, organizational bloat, a complete lack of accountability, and a compelling risk-averse desire to avoid legal repercussions.  Uvalde might be too small a town to suffer from much mission creep, but the rest were all on full display to the detriment of the children and staff stuck inside.

Outside the kill room, the police response was poorly coordinated and convoluted, making it unclear who was even in charge and who was calling the shots.  There were school resource officers, actual police officers, sheriffs, and ultimately border agents plus US Marshals all present on scene.  It’s easy to blame Commander Arredondo, but he commanded a unit of 6 total officers when there were 19 officers outside the classroom alone, many of whom didn’t report to Commander Arredondo . The different departments were evidently not trained to work together seamlessly, lacking any coordinated command and control.  It is not clear to this day who actually should’ve made the call to go in immediately.  No one is willing to say it out loud, but the decision itself was undoubtedly influenced by a fear of negative repercussions.  It’s far easier to say the police should have charged into an active shooter situation with children in the cross-hairs than it is to actually accomplish it in the real world.  The officers would be entering a room with the express goal of neutralizing a shooter surrounded by children.   How forgiving do you think the public and the media would be if the police accidentally shot and killed one of those children while taking out the perpetrator?  I can assure you the headlines wouldn’t have been about brave police officers risking their lives in a split second situation to save kids.  The entire focus would be on the accidental shooting, which would surely be depicted as either sloppy or outright reckless.  The officers involved would undoubtedly be attacked in the media, their actions second-guessed by the usual squad of armchair quarterbacks.  Simultaneously, the department and the city would likely face legal action on behalf of the parents for wrongful death, which as we have seen in recent years can result in multimillion dollar settlements.  One of the key challenges in society today can be reduced to the old adage:  You can’t have it both ways.  If you want brave police officers that charge into an active shooter situation with innocent victims in the middle, you are necessarily accepting a risk both to the officer and those victims.  If you want hesitant if not outright cowardly officers who wait until the shooting has stopped, you’ll have more dead victims, but no one killed from friendly fire.

This is an inescapable loop, bravery by definition means taking risks.  Risks entail less than optimal outcomes.  You cannot have one without the other.  All of this is occurring in the context of what’s come to be known as the “Ferguson Effect,” where law enforcement personnel in general are increasingly standing down rather than aggressively policing.  The effect is named for the city where Michael Brown was lawfully shot by police in 2014 after he attempted to grab an officer’s firearm, refused to follow orders, and charged the officer on the scene in Ferguson, MO, a suburb of St. Louis.  Though the officer involved was cleared of all wrongdoing, including by President Obama’s own Justice Department, the lie “hands up, don’t shoot” persists to this day, suggesting police opened fire on a man trying to surrender.  The “Ferguson Effect” was coined by City Journal’s Heather McDonald who believes the reaction to the justified killing of Mr. Brown changed the calculus for police in major cities throughout the country.  The Journal of Public Economics found that self-initiated arrests by police declined by 62% in the immediate aftermath.  This decline was accompanied by decreases in an incredible 9 out 11 categories of self-initiated policing.  These are the things that require gusto and guts on behalf of the police.  The choices they make whether to engage or not.  The metrics included some huge drops: Foot patrols were down 82% and pedestrian checks were down 76%.  The decline continues to this day, and with it crime rates in general have skyrocketed to levels not seen in decades.  Once again, you cannot have it both ways:  Police officers cannot be slandered in public for shooting someone that tried to grab their firearm, and simultaneously be expected to eagerly engage with potential criminals.  The police are people the same as everyone else. They respond to incentives.  The incentives now are to do nothing and hope for the best.  Of course, an active shooter incident is supposed to be different, but the underlying atmosphere remains the same.

Ultimately, it is an inescapable reality that a society as risk averse and bloated as ours also leads to a lack of accountability.  Who is going to willingly take the blame when things go bad?  Once upon a time, accepting responsibility was seen as the honorable course to take, but the path has never been without risk.  People might respect you for it.  They might also demand retribution.  It becomes easier to hide beyond the organization, deflect, deny, and blame, even lie, and we should not be surprised when everyone involved figuratively runs for cover as if the bullets were still flying, failing to take responsibility.  After all, local governments have learned from watching the best in the business at the federal level.  You cannot insist on accountability in Uvalde, TX after the entire world witnessed an excuse-filled rout in Afghanistan following 20 years and trillions of dollars, one we were promised would not happen and then, once it did, saw no one in a position of power held accountable for anything.  Why should local officials feel they are any different than the big boys and girls in Washington, DC?  If the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Defense Secretary can preside over the worst military disaster since Vietnam without any accountability, what’s a couple of dozen dead people in Texas?  I don’t mean to sound crass, but this is reality:  Excuses, excuses, excuses, just like we saw in the lead up to the war in Ukraine.  The policy doesn’t work, people die, and nothing meaningful happens.

The sad truth is that we live in a world where the US military claims its most important battle is against climate change, and indoctrination into Critical Race Theory is essential training for our troops, both examples of the mission creep I mentioned earlier.  On the surface, this has nothing to do with whether or not the police in Uvalde should’ve aggressively taken out an active shooter, but, in my opinion at least, we all live in the same world.  The largest institutions on planet Earth are spinning wildly out of control, replete with bloat and a lack of accountability, and we should all expect smaller institutions to follow suit.  You might say shit rolls downhill, and in that regard we’re all drowning in the same miasma of incompetence, risk avoidance, and blame-shifting.  Therefore, I am not surprised and, sadly, I don’t think you should be either.  The failings in Uvalde are just a microcosm of an affliction that has spread far and wide beyond a small Texas town.

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