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Will We Ever Know the Truth About Uvalde? – Texas Monthly


More than three weeks have passed since the terrible events in Uvalde. What was once a torrent of appalling facts about the police response—many of them misleading or false—has now slowed to a trickle of leaks and lawyer-mediated, self-serving narratives. Governor Greg Abbott has pivoted to talking about the border again. Texas Department of Public Safety director Steve McCraw, last seen slipping into a closed-door meeting of a state House investigative committee, has gone quiet. The Uvalde schools chief of police, Pete Arredondo, finally emerged from hiding last week, lawyer at hand, to contradict reports that he had made the call to wait around for more than an hour while the gunman lingered in the classrooms with dead and dying children and teachers; hours later, key parts of his story were contradicted by evidence reported in the New York Times.

For anyone expecting an apology, accountability, or even a clear and concise narrative of what happened at Robb Elementary School on May 24, 2022, well, you may be waiting a while longer—perhaps forever. No one has resigned, no one has been fired, and local and state authorities from the Uvalde CISD superintendent up to the governor have stopped providing updates. Local and state agencies are refusing most requests to release information they are supposed to make available under Texas’s open records law, even to the state senator who represents Uvalde. Off-duty police from around the state, as well as mysterious motorcycle clubs whose members reportedly include former police officers, descended on Uvalde to physically block reporters from talking to families and community members, even after those locals had agreed to talk—a blockade so unusual and aggressive that one veteran Texas journalist has called it “bordering on official oppression.” It’s as if those in power concluded that the answer to communicating poorly was to stop communicating altogether, and to obstruct anyone seeking answers. 

Perhaps all will be revealed soon. Perhaps ongoing investigations by the Texas Rangers and the U.S. Department of Justice will bring clarity. Perhaps the Texas House committee, which is taking testimony in private, will emerge with a full report. Perhaps someone will take responsibility. But right now, it seems that authorities are biding their time, waiting for public attention to move on to the next outrage, and hoping to insulate themselves from accountability. “People in Uvalde are angry,” said state senator Roland Gutierrez, a Democrat who represents the small city. “They want answers. They’re distrusting of law enforcement. The credibility of law enforcement is at stake,” he said. “They’re good people, but they just want honesty, man.”

The inflection point—the shift from a public reckoning to a studied silence—came on May 27, just three days after the nineteen kids and two teachers were killed. That morning McCraw gave a press conference in which he announced to a stunned world that police had committed a grave “mistake.” They had not, as Abbott and McCraw had stated in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, engaged the gunman at the earliest possible moment. Instead, the DPS director said, law enforcement had waited more than an hour before breaching the classroom and killing the shooter.

At the outset of the press conference, McCraw said his only goal that day was to “report facts” and not to “criticize what was done or the actions taken.” But faced with a barrage of pointed questions from the media, McCraw did point a finger—at Arredondo. Without using his name, McCraw said Arredondo, as incident commander that day, was responsible for the dilatory response. It was his decision—a “wrong decision, period”—to treat the gunman as a “barricaded subject” rather than an “active shooter.” It was Arredondo alone who had held back all the gathered law enforcement—Uvalde city police, the county sheriff’s deputies, Border Patrol officers, and DPS state police.

Later that day, Abbott held his own press conference. The governor, not known for his emotional range, seemed eager to convey outrage. In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, he had praised law enforcement for their “amazing courage” and averred that without their actions, “it could have been worse”—the “it” referring to the 21 deaths. Abbott wanted everyone to know that he had been wronged. “I was misled. I am livid about what happened,” he said. What happened, he explained, was that in the aftermath of the shooting “law enforcement officials and non–law enforcement officials” had debriefed him on the shooting. Abbott had taken notes by hand, writing everything down “in detail” and “in sequential order.” The information he then provided the public was a “recitation” of those facts.

Who had given him such bad information? What consequences would they face? If the governor was so angry, surely heads would roll. But Abbott offered no names, no accountability. In an unusually quick turnaround after an open records request, the governor’s office released his notes this week to a Houston television station. But the nine pages of scrawl confirmed only that Abbott had been misled, not who had done the misleading. 

At the May 27 press conference, Abbott signaled that he was moving on. He admonished law enforcement leaders to “get to the bottom of every fact with absolute certainty” as part of their investigations. Ever since, Abbott, McCraw, and other officials have stopped answering questions or publicly sharing information, pointing to the ongoing investigations. It’s an all-purpose excuse. Republicans in the Legislature are using the investigations as a reason to avoid calling for a special session on gun violence prevention. They’re also conveniently postponing, perhaps forever, a discussion about gun safety; as one state senator put it, “bad facts make bad law.”

Meanwhile, one “fact” lingers like an image frozen on a computer screen: that of a single culprit, a bad cop.

After McCraw pointed his finger at Arredondo, the question became: Where’s Pete? The chief of a school-system police force of six officers had been blamed for one of the most spectacular law enforcement failures in American policing, and naturally Texans wanted answers. For example, why had Arredondo stopped cooperating with the Texas Rangers investigation, as DPS had alleged? But Arredondo was elusive. Elected to city council in early May, he was sworn in by Uvalde mayor Don McLaughlin in a secret ceremony just one week after the shooting. A CNN reporter staked out Arredondo’s house and got the man on camera at last; the chief had little to say but insisted that he was still cooperating with the investigation. 

Finally, on June 9, Arredondo surfaced with his story. Any expectations that the narrative of what happened on May 24 would be settled by Arredondo were quickly dashed. Not only did he deny any wrongdoing, he and his lawyer, George Hyde, disputed key facts. 

Arredondo and Hyde told the Texas Tribune that Arredondo had acted bravely and professionally, rushing into the school armed with a Glock 22 handgun. His actions evacuating the school, Arredondo said, had “saved over 500 of our Uvalde students and teachers.” As to the criticisms—that he had entered the school without his police radios; that he had kept the numerous heavily armed cops from breaching the classrooms—Arredondo and Hyde had ready answers. Arredondo had chosen not to bring the radios because they would slow him down, they told the Tribune, which paraphrased: “One had a whiplike antenna that would hit him as he ran. The other had a clip that Arredondo knew would cause it to fall off his tactical belt during a long run.” He also knew the radios wouldn’t work in some school buildings. (Even taking these thin rationales at face value, they raise other questions—for instance, why did the school police chief keep using clunky, faulty radios that he knew didn’t function well in the very buildings he was charged with protecting?)

As for the decision not to breach the classroom, Arredondo denied McCraw’s account. Arredondo had never believed himself to be incident commander, he said, and “didn’t issue any orders” for police to stand down. He claimed to have not known about 911 calls from children in the classroom begging for help because he didn’t have his radio with him. Arredondo has since said he isn’t giving any more media interviews. One gets the sense that he is girding himself for a long, painful legal battle. 

Later, on the same day that Arredondo’s account came out, the New York Times published an account that was wildly at odds with that of the school police chief. The complex Times story was based on interviews with unnamed law enforcement sources as well as documents and video evidently leaked by investigators. This evidence posits that Arredondo knew that students and teachers needed medical attention but opted to wait for shields to protect officers before breaching the classroom. He was quoted as saying during the incident: “People are going to ask why we’re taking so long. We’re trying to preserve the rest of the life.” But like so much in this hazy, frustrating saga, it’s not even entirely clear if those were Arredondo’s words. (The Times said it reviewed a transcript of police body-camera footage, and that the newspaper’s sources—the leakers—believe the voice to be Arredondo’s.)

Given that these clashing narratives persist, even after authorities have had three full weeks to investigate and clarify at least the basics of what happened at Robb Elementary, it seems likely that some of the responsible parties are lying, and that others are doing their best to obfuscate and cover up. The lack of clarification from authorities, the strategy of apportioning blame through tactical leaks to the media, the heavily lawyered explanations—it all tends to introduce new questions, new confusions.

Senator Gutierrez notes that the Times story that pointed toward Arredondo’s responsibility came out on the same day that the Texas House committee took testimony behind closed doors from DPS director McCraw. “I don’t think [the timing] is a coincidence,” he told me last week. “And it’s obvious that it’s there to establish a narrative. And the DPS narrative from the beginning has been that this is one cop’s fault.” (DPS referred questions to the Uvalde County district attorney, Christina Mitchell Busbee. It has been widely reported that Busbee is heading up the Rangers’ investigation, but on Thursday, she told TV station KSAT, “I’m not investigating anything.”)

Despite representing Uvalde in the state Senate, Gutierrez has been left on the outside looking in. Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick pointedly kept him off a Senate committee tasked with considering how state laws and policies might change in response to Uvalde. Meanwhile, Gutierrez has been on a mostly fruitless mission to establish basic facts about DPS’s role in Uvalde. The agency has refused to provide the senator with documents that could shed light on the actions of DPS troopers at Robb Elementary that day, including whether state police ever had operational control of the police response. In an initial conversation with McCraw, Gutierrez said the director disclosed that there were two troopers in the hallway outside the classroom, and then later said there were “as many as thirteen at any given time.” Why didn’t they act? Were they just following Arredondo’s orders? McCraw also admitted to Gutierrez that DPS had not conducted joint active-shooter trainings with local law enforcement in the Uvalde area. 

Gutierrez is convinced that Abbott and McCraw are trying to divert attention away from the state police’s failures. “What I truly believe is that everybody froze,” Gutierrez said. “That’s what it seems like to most of us outsiders looking in. Law enforcement froze, they didn’t act right. And now they need to go find a scapegoat.”

Maybe so. But with the truth so elusive, Gutierrez is in the same boat as the rest of us: grasping in the dark for answers. 

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