Uvalde, Texas school shooting response hampered by poor police radio communications: official

The gunman killed 19 children and two teachers

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The police officers who waited more than an hour inside a school in which a mass shooter was barricaded were in a position that received only sporadic and unreliable radio communications, according to two officials with knowledge of the investigation and the system.

The lack of direct and clear communication complicated the response to the mass shooting that left 19 fourth-graders and two teachers dead, said a U.S. official with knowledge of the investigation. For over an hour, law enforcement waited in a hallway, instructed not to rush into a classroom in which the gunman had barricaded himself, while children inside were calling 911 pleading for help.

Ultimately, 19 children and two teachers were shot to death in the classroom on May 24 before federal agents from a Border Patrol tactical team known as Bortac breached the doors and killed the shooter.

Exactly what happened with police radio transmissions is part of ongoing investigations by state and federal law enforcement, the U.S. official said.

UVALDE, TEXAS SCHOOL DISTRICT POLICE CHIEF DIDN'T HAVE RADIO WITH HIM WHEN RESPONDING TO MASS SHOOTING: REPORT

A law enforcement personnel lights a candle outside Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, Wednesday, May 25, 2022. Desperation turned to heart-wrenching sorrow for families of grade schoolers killed after an 18-year-old gunman barricaded himself in their Texas classroom and began shooting, killing several fourth-graders and their teachers. 

A law enforcement personnel lights a candle outside Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, Wednesday, May 25, 2022. Desperation turned to heart-wrenching sorrow for families of grade schoolers killed after an 18-year-old gunman barricaded himself in their Texas classroom and began shooting, killing several fourth-graders and their teachers.  (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Forrest Anderson, an emergency-management employee for Uvalde County who oversaw installation of the local police radio system nearly 20 years ago, said the low-frequency radios that are best for the terrain in the area don’t work well in buildings with thick walls and metal roofs like Robb Elementary School, where the shooting took place. Furthermore, the more people try to use the radios at the same time, the less likely they are to work well, he said.

Mr. Anderson, who was serving as homeland security director for nine counties in South Texas at the time the system was installed, said state investigators have tested the radio system inside the building in the last few days, but he didn’t know the outcome of that test. An official from the Texas Department of Public Safety, which is leading the state investigation, didn’t respond to a request for comment about the results of the test.

Uvalde County Judge William Mitchell, the county’s highest-ranking elected official, declined to comment on the investigation, and didn’t respond to a request for comment on the communications system.

The ability of officers in the school to receive communications "was probably very, very sketchy with the amount of radio traffic in that whole area," said Mr. Anderson, who still oversees the radio system.

Dozens of law-enforcement officials from multiple federal, state and local agencies responded to the school. Investigators haven’t commented on what information officials tried to relay to law enforcement inside the school.

The local police radio system, which serves a nine-county area in this stretch of rural South Texas, was built in the early 2000s after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when emergency response was priortized nationwide, according to Mr. Anderson.

Mr. Anderson said higher-frequency radios used in urban areas, which can better penetrate buildings, cannot cover the vast geography of an area like South Texas. He said he and other system designers assumed officers inside buildings could step outside when they needed to communicate. "The thought just wasn’t there that it would ever be an issue," he said.

TEXAS SCHOOL SHOOTING: LIVE UPDATES

Law enforcement work the scene after a mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, on Tuesday, May 25.

Law enforcement work the scene after a mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, on Tuesday, May 25. (Jordan Vonderhaar/Getty Images)

Visiting law enforcement from areas elsewhere in Texas can tap into the Uvalde-area communications, but federal agencies such as Border Patrol use an entirely different radio system, Mr. Anderson said. Local law-enforcement officials can get permission to patch in to the Border Patrol systems to relay communications back and forth.

Shortly before the Bortac agents and others breached the classroom where the 18-year-old gunman had barricaded himself, someone called over the radio with directions to not breach the room, according to the official briefed on the investigation. However, investigators haven't determined who gave the order, to whom it was directed, or which system the order was sent over, this person said.

The New York Times earlier reported details of that radio call on Friday.

DPS, which has responsibility for investigating the shooting, said last week that school police Chief Pete Arredondo, who was in command, mistakenly thought the situation had shifted from that of an active shooter, to a barricaded hostage taker. The decision led law enforcement on the scene to wait more than an hour to go into a set of connected classrooms where the gunman was barricaded.

Texas State Sen. Roland Gutierrez told the Associated Press on Friday that Mr. Arredondo didn’t have a police radio when he arrived at the school shortly after the incident began.

Mr. Arredondo didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment. He refuted assertions last week from Texas DPS officials that he had not responded to their requests for follow-up questioning.

Mr. Gutierrez didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment.

PHOTOS: FAMILIES, VICTIMS OF TEXAS SCHOOL SHOOTING

A memorial for a victim's of Tuesday's mass shooting at an elementary school, are seen in City of Uvalde Town Square on May 26, 2022, in Uvalde, Texas.

A memorial for a victim's of Tuesday's mass shooting at an elementary school, are seen in City of Uvalde Town Square on May 26, 2022, in Uvalde, Texas. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

State and local officials have stopped releasing details of the ongoing investigation, and DPS has referred all questions to District Attorney Christina Busbee. Ms. Busbee’s office didn’t respond to requests for comments.

The Justice Department previously announced plans to investigate the police response to the shooting. The agency said Saturday that the probe hasn’t yet begun.

Separately, on Friday the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District board of trustees met for the first time since the shooting. Superintendent Hal Harrell reiterated a previous statement that students wouldn’t be returning to Robb Elementary School in the fall. The district, he said, is still sorting out plans to house all of the district’s students.

During the public comment period, district parent Dawn Poitevent pleaded with the board to leave younger children at their current schools for the coming school year, saying her first-grader is terrified to go to a new school next year.

"What he knows right now is that he goes to a new school and he’s going to get shot by the bad man," said Ms. Poitevent, tearfully recounting a conversation with her young son.

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Mr. Harrell said during brief remarks at the start of the meeting that he had no information to share about the investigation of the response to the shooting. "I want answers just like everyone else. But they’ve not given me any answers," he said, referring to investigators.