On Tuesday, the Austin American-Statesman and local TV station KVUE released an 82-minute video of previously unseen footage from May’s school shooting in Uvalde, Texas. The video, which is primarily composed of footage taken from a security camera inside a Robb Elementary School hallway, begins as gunman Salvador Ramos approaches and enters the school from the outside. Gun in hand, wearing body armor, Ramos moves through the hallways and begins firing.
Though the video does not include any gory footage, and though we do not see inside the classrooms in which Ramos shot and killed 21 people, it is nevertheless hard to watch. (You can hear a lot of gunshots in the video; an “editor’s note” appears periodically informing viewers that “The sound of children screaming has been removed.”) Almost exactly three minutes after Ramos enters the school, three police officers enter and head down the hallway toward him. A minute later, after receiving fire, they retreat. More and more police officers show up. For over 40 minutes, as the video makes irrefutably clear, they more or less just stand there.
On Wednesday in Slate, my colleague Rebecca Onion nicely captured the excruciating experience of watching over an hour’s worth of footage of officers sanitizing their hands, checking their phones, standing around, and doing pretty much everything but intervening to stop the shooter. (The news outlets also released an edited four-minute version of the footage.) “The guy was so safe, so incredibly safe,” Onion wrote of the officer who was filmed getting a spritz of hand sanitizer from a wall dispenser. “[H]e was wearing armor and a helmet and hiding behind a nice, solid cement-block corner while unarmed kids smeared blood on themselves and pretended to be dead right down the hall. All that abundant protection, and he still needed just a little more.”
It’s one thing to read about the police inaction at Robb Elementary; it’s another, much more viscerally maddening thing to see it with your own eyes. The written accounts that I’ve read of the police response have contained excuses and rationales and official statements; they’ve left room for doubt over what happened and why, and for the prospect that the police on the scene actually acted heroically after all. But the video has no bandwidth for such shades of gray. It is an indelible partial record of what happened that afternoon. It sticks in a way that the stories I’ve read did not.
The Statesman-KVUE video—which was leaked to the outlets from an ongoing investigation into the Uvalde shooting—is a plain and clear document of the authorities on the scene failing to rise to the needs of the moment. The footage, in its way, is a demand for accountability, which is perhaps why some of the officials who ought to be held accountable have reacted so negatively to its public release. On Tuesday, Uvalde Mayor Don McLaughlin announced that the news outlets were “chicken” for publishing the video before the victims’ families had had a chance to see it. (The chair of a Texas House committee looking into the shooting had planned to show a version of the video to the families on Sunday, before releasing that video to the public.) “They didn’t need to see the gunman coming in and hear the gunshots,” McLaughlin said. “They don’t need to relive that—they’ve been through enough.”
The mayor’s response, in which he appealed to emotion in order to criticize the media for doing their jobs, is worth analyzing. On its face it sounds reasonable, even humane. The victims’ families have indeed been through enough, and it’s natural to want to spare them additional gratuitous trauma. But this plea to consider the families’ emotional welfare reads as smarmy and self-serving when uttered by the mayor of a town whose first responders failed the students and teachers of Robb Elementary on the day of the shooting, and whose authorities have been trying to duck responsibility for their own behavior ever since then.
More than an hour elapsed between when the first police officers arrived on the scene at Robb Elementary and when the police finally confronted and killed Ramos. This gap was not initially public knowledge, and in the aftermath of the shooting, Texas Department of Public Safety director Steve McCraw announced that “the bottom line is that law enforcement was there, they did engage immediately, they did contain him in the classroom.” Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, meanwhile, praised the police on the scene for showing “amazing courage by running toward gunfire,” and proclaimed it a fact that “because of their quick response, getting on the scene, being able to respond to the gunman and eliminate the gunman, they were able to save lives.”
When it turned out that the exact opposite had happened, the world went from praising the Uvalde first responders to trying to figure out what, exactly, had taken them so long to respond. None of the parties who might be able to accurately answer that question has been particularly forthcoming, perhaps because the answer to the question is not a flattering one. The public cannot expect officials to reliably narrate and recount their own actions in instances where they may have behaved dishonorably. In these sorts of situations, it is common for public officials to blame the media in order to divert blame away from themselves.
The fact that the Robb Elementary footage was leaked from an ongoing investigation gives the blame-the-media brigades more fodder for their smarm and their scorn. Officials of any sort hate it when embarrassing material leaks from a black box, and they generally turn their ire on the outlets that have the chutzpah to publish it. By raising a fuss about the provenance of the leaked material and the ostensible impropriety of its publicization, officials often hope to deflect attention away from the substance of the story. Fox News pulls big ratings every night by pursuing this very strategy of deflection.
But the Uvalde City Council ain’t Fox News, and the Austin American-Statesman and KVUE weren’t the ones standing around for an hour while a teenage gunman killed 19 students and two adults inside a classroom that might not have even been locked. These outlets have done a great public service in acquiring and publishing footage that renders transparent the authorities’ opaque narrative of that desperate hour at Robb Elementary. The video clarifies a part of the story about which the authorities have been neither credible nor consistent, a story on which it’s been shown that we cannot trust the authorities’ word. It has immense news value and is of immense public interest—not for what it shows us about the shooter, but for what it shows us about the people who were supposed to confront him.
I am willing to believe that by making the video public, the Statesman and KVUE may indeed have temporarily increased the pain that the victims’ families are feeling right now. Indeed, some have said as much. “This is the opposite of what the families wanted,” the mother of one deceased girl wrote on Facebook, according to the BBC. “Our hearts are shattered all over again!” But reporting decisions cannot be guided exclusively by concerns over the emotional welfare of the people who may be affected by a given story. Just as our justice system leaves it up to a judge to impose a sentence rather than letting victims and their families determine a convicted criminal’s fate, “what the families want” simply isn’t the last word when it comes to reporting on mass shootings. Like it or not, the Uvalde tragedy and its aftermath belong to the world now, and the world deserves to know exactly what went wrong with the police response.
On Tuesday night, Uvalde councilmember Ernest King echoed Mayor McLaughlin in deeming the Statesman and KVUE “chicken shit” for publishing the footage, specifically calling out those outlets’ decision to include material of Ramos entering and shooting within the school—material that would apparently have been redacted from the footage the families were supposed to view privately this Sunday. “They did that for ratings and they did that for money,” King said.
Whatever, man! The Statesman and KVUE clearly did not publish the video for lurid, tawdry ratings reasons, or in some cynical bid to drive clicks and grow wealthy by exploiting tragedy. (An editor’s note appended to the top of the Statesman’s story says that “This exclusive story and video are being made available free of charge as a public service. If you value strong journalism from the American-Statesman, support us by subscribing.”) They published the video in part because it’s become clear over the past month that the Uvalde authorities are in cover-their-asses mode. The video clarifies a part of the story about which the authorities have been neither transparent nor consistent, and reminds us all that just because some fulminating dumbass gets elected doesn’t mean that the public should automatically trust his judgment or his word.
In a column on Tuesday, Statesman editor Manny Garcia wrote that the paper’s goal in making the footage public “is to continue to bring to light what happened at Robb Elementary, which the families and friends of the Uvalde victims have long been asking for. … We have to bear witness to history, and transparency and unrelenting reporting is a way to bring change.” People who held a public trust already flinched once from confronting the awfulness of the Uvalde shooting. The media must not flinch in holding them accountable.