“They did contain him in the classroom.”
That was the best defense Texas Public Safety Director Steve McCraw could offer on Wednesday of the police response to the mass shooting that killed 19 kids and two teachers at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, on Tuesday. Police took 14 minutes to arrive after the first 911 call as the shooter fired off rounds outside the school for 12 minutes; then, after an initial exchange of gunfire, they waited outside the building for more than an hour while the shooter remained in the school. Parents and bystanders urged them to confront the gunman again.
From the Associated Press:
Javier Cazares, whose fourth grade daughter, Jacklyn Cazares, was killed in the attack, said he raced to the school when he heard about the shooting, arriving while police were still gathered outside the building. Upset that police were not moving in, he raised the idea of charging into the school with several other bystanders. “Let’s just rush in because the cops aren’t doing anything like they are supposed to,” he said. “More could have been done.”
Robb Elementary School’s vaunted security plan didn’t stop the killing. Nor did the presence of a guard, who has given conflicting stories about his actions that day. Above all it was the inability of the police force to take down the shooter that should show once and for all that a “good guy with a gun” is not an effective strategy to stop school shootings when a police force with guns can’t even do it.
The tiny Uvalde school district has its own seven-person force; the 15,000-person city spends 40 percent of its budget on policing, and in 2020, the Uvalde Police Department proudly touted its nine-person SWAT team that was getting to know the layouts of local schools. Not only did the police spend an hour preparing to enter the school on Tuesday, but there was also this, from a fourth grader to local CBS affiliate KENS, presumably about the police’s first attempt to get into the school:
“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 boy said.
Each of these failures shows the absurdity of the GOP’s two-pronged policy response to school shootings—armed teachers and more support for law enforcement. (There was also an armed guard at the Buffalo supermarket, for what it’s worth. He fired at the suspect and was killed.) If the town SWAT team can’t stop a school shooter before 19 children are dead, what’s the point? Republicans have since moved on to other innovative proposals, like building schools with only one door, or giving up on schools altogether.
For years, we’ve been told that even the police killing of a 12-year-old can be justified by officers’ constant exposure to great danger. But when the time came for them to act out that deference, for some reason, they didn’t.
We don’t know everything that happened in Uvalde that day; reporters, and the police themselves, are still filling in the picture. But we do know that the knee-jerk instinct to lionize the police response before understanding what happened is symptomatic of America’s broader inability to think critically about the work of policing except—on occasion—when officers kill unarmed Black people on camera. For now, Texas officials have failed to provide much of an explanation for what appear to be serious failures. And by stumbling over their own account of the facts, they’ve turned what should have been a cut-and-dried after-action report into a mess of competing theories and timelines.
Sometimes you have to admit that the police didn’t do a great job. Uvalde is a policing anecdote, but the data illustrate some serious weak spots that virtually no prominent elected official risks digging into for fear of being branded a “defunder.” Crime rates are soaring in spite of the fact that police funding is at record highs. The percentage of murders that police solve is at its lowest rate in 50 years. To put it mildly, when it comes to preventing and solving crimes, there is room for improvement.
This reflexive support of the boys in blue, no matter the outcome, is not limited to deep-red Texas. In New York City, for example, an upward trend in subway crime has been met with mass deployment in the subways by the New York Police Department—a huge investment at a time when other city services, such as parks and playgrounds, are being defunded. But crime has not fallen in response; instead, April and May each saw shocking subway shootings.
In the first incident, a gunman shot straphangers only to vanish into the city for almost two days. In the second, the killer shot a stranger in the chest before fleeing at the next station. In both cases, New York officials praised the NYPD—but in both cases, the assailants roamed the subway with guns, escaped after shooting, and were at large in the city for days until they turned themselves in. “I said to myself, it’s the NYPD, they’ll get him,” Janno Lieber, the head of the MTA, said after Sunday’s killing. “And here we are.” But, of course, the NYPD didn’t actually get him.