Nearly 2 years after the Uvalde shooting, who has been reprimanded and where investigations stand?

ByLexi Churchill and Lomi Kriel, The Texas Tribune
Friday, March 29, 2024
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UVALDE, Texas -- Nearly two years after a gunman killed 19 children and two teachers at a Uvalde elementary school, investigations have offered strikingly different assessments of the botched law enforcement response, fueling frustrations and additional calls for transparency from victims' families.

Many families had expressed hope that law enforcement officers would be held accountable after a scathing Justice Department report in January detailed "cascading failures of leadership, decision-making, tactics, policy, and training." At an associated news conference, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland said lives could have been saved had law enforcement acted sooner. But just two months later, Uvalde residents said they felt whipsawed when a private investigator hired by the city cleared all local police officers of wrongdoing, even praising some of their actions.

Now, families anxiously await the results of the only remaining investigation: a criminal case brought by Uvalde District Attorney Christina Mitchell, for which a grand jury began reviewing evidence in January. It will determine whether any of the nearly 400 federal, state, and local officers are criminally charged.

"For the most part, we just feel like we've been let down," Jesse Rizo, an uncle to 9-year-old Jackie Cazares, who died during the May 2022 shooting, said.

Families continue to push for transparency but feel like they are getting little help from elected officials, Rizo said.

He added, "We feel betrayed."

If history is any indication, bringing charges against officers will be difficult. The only known previous attempt to prosecute an officer for such inaction during a mass shooting came after the 2018 school massacre in Parkland, Florida. The effort failed last year after a jury acquitted him.

Jaclyn Schildkraut, executive director of the Regional Gun Violence Research Consortium, said that in the 17 years she has studied mass shootings, she has never seen the level of inaction that took place in Uvalde. But Schildkraut said that, in most instances, federal protections shield law enforcement officers from prosecution for doing their jobs. Aside from that, she said, the sheer number of responding officers in Uvalde makes it difficult to single out individuals responsible for the "catastrophic failure."

"You don't have one person in question as being part of this issue in Uvalde," Schildkraut said. "You have 380 people potentially being in question."

In the absence of clear answers from government officials, families have filed civil lawsuits and are supporting litigation by multiple news organizations, including ProPublica and The Texas Tribune, that are seeking the release of body-camera footage, police radio recordings, and other records related to the shooting.

Last year, a state district court ruled that such records must be released, but the Texas Department of Public Safety appealed that ruling. DPS and Mitchell have argued that their release could interfere with any potential criminal prosecution. Neither Mitchell nor DPS responded to multiple questions.

"There is simply no reason to keep the investigative file under wraps because of a grand jury that may or may not act," Laura Prather, an attorney representing the news organizations in the lawsuits, said.

Prather said releasing the records would have "zero impact" on a possible criminal trial because evidence has already been collected and will not change.

"This is really just the fox guarding the hen house," she said.

Below is a list of where the investigations and publicly known personnel actions stand as victims' families await the grand jury's decision.

Uvalde investigations

At least six investigations have been launched since the shooting.

More than a month after the shooting, Texas State University's Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training Center, which the FBI has rated as the national standard in active shooter training, released an initial report on the response at the request of DPS. The analysis, which relied on limited information provided by DPS, including a briefing with investigators, a timeline provided by the agency, and surveillance footage, was intended to identify training gaps. Once released, the analysis drew criticism from some for reinforcing the narrative put forward by DPS that local law enforcement was mostly to blame, although hundreds of state and federal officers also rushed to the school.

Two weeks later, on July 17, 2022, a state House committee appointed by Republican Speaker Dade Phelan released a 77-page report that provided the first official government assessment of the flawed response. The report relied on radio communications, body-camera footage, and interviews lawmakers conducted with responding officers, as well as accounts collected by DPS investigators. It found an "overall lackadaisical approach" by responding officers, adding that many "were given and relied upon inaccurate information. For others, they had enough information to know better."

The Texas Rangers, the investigative arm of DPS, probed law enforcement officers' actions, including those of 91 of their colleagues in the department who responded to the shooting. A DPS spokesperson told the Tribune in January 2023 that the agency's initial investigation had been completed. A final report was later delivered to Mitchell so that she could determine whether to press charges. The report has not been publicly released.

The DOJ conducted a federal after-action review at the behest of former Uvalde Mayor Don McLaughlin. In January, the nation's highest law enforcement agency released a 600-page report faulting the response. Among its biggest findings was that officers often had insufficient training, which mirrored findings from an earlier ProPublica, Tribune, and FRONTLINE investigation. During a news conference announcing the probe's results, Garland urged departments across the country to prioritize active shooter instruction.

On March 7, the city of Uvalde released an independent review it commissioned. It found that about two dozen city police officers, three dispatchers, the fire marshal, and the acting police chief largely followed policy. In the wake of those findings, Brett Cross, father of 10-year-old Uziyah Garcia, who was slain during the shooting, camped outside of the Uvalde Police Department for a week, demanding accountability. "There's no moving on when you've lost a kid," he said. "You can try to move forward with your new life because it's just a totally strange existence. But we still can't even do that when there's just blatant disrespect by our city and not holding these officers accountable." Retired Austin police detective Jesse Prado, who conducted the analysis, wrote in the report that he was able to review information only as permitted by the district attorney. (The city has sued her office over that lack of access to records.) Prado declined to comment on the report.

At Mitchell's request, a Uvalde state district judge convened a grand jury in January to hear evidence related to law enforcement's response to the shooting. Mitchell has said that her office conducted its own probe in addition to the DPS investigation. She has declined to say what charges may be brought and which officers could be prosecuted, citing the secrecy of grand jury proceedings. At the request of the Texas Rangers, Austin's chief medical officer, Dr. Mark Escott, was examining whether lives could have been saved had victims received quicker treatment, but he said that Mitchell halted his probe last year and never sent him key records. Escott believed at least one person could have been saved but said that the lack of records, including autopsy reports, hindered a final determination. ProPublica, the Tribune, and The Washington Post reported in December 2022 that at least two children and a teacher who died still had a pulse when they were rescued from the school more than an hour after the shooting.

Personnel changes

Of the nearly 400 federal, state, and local officers who responded to the shooting, about a dozen have been fired, have been suspended or retired. In some cases, the actions were clearly related to the response, but the reasons are less clear for others.

Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District: The district fired Police Chief Pete Arredondo three months after the shooting. A nearly 30-year law enforcement veteran, Arredondo was listed as incident commander on the school district's active shooter response plan, meaning he was supposed to take control. He later told the Tribune and a state House committee that he never considered himself in charge. On the day Arredondo was fired, his attorney argued in a statement that he was being scapegoated. Nearly all of the officers who were with the district's police department at the time of the shooting also resigned or retired.

Uvalde Police Department: Mariano Pargas, who was the acting police chief during the shooting, retired in November 2022 before the City Council was set to vote on his termination. Pargas was the highest-ranked officer initially at the school other than Arredondo, according to the Justice Department report, which said that, as acting chief, Pargas "should have assumed a leadership role." Police Chief Daniel Rodriguez, who was out of town during the shooting, resigned this month following the release of the city-commissioned investigation. Rodriguez cited family reasons for his decision to depart, saying in a statement that he was "not forced, asked, or pressured" to quit. Many officers in Rodriguez's department lacked sufficient training to respond to a shooting, according to a ProPublica, Tribune, and FRONTLINE analysis of records and the Justice Department's report. Additionally, five other Uvalde police officers have left the department since the shooting, according to the city's report. None of those officers faced any publicly known discipline. A city spokesperson did not respond to questions about the report. A lawyer representing Uvalde police officers, including Pargas and Rodriguez, said that he and they declined to comment, citing reasons that included the ongoing criminal proceedings.

Texas Department of Public Safety: The agency said in October 2022 that it had fired Sgt. Juan Maldonado. A 23-year veteran, Maldonado was one of the highest-ranking state troopers initially on the scene, arriving within four minutes of the shooting. He told investigators that he mostly stayed outside of the shooter's wing because he was focused on maintaining the perimeter. DPS did not comment on the reasons for his termination. Another trooper, Crimson Elizondo, resigned the same year while under investigation by the department. She quickly joined the Uvalde school district police but was fired after parents raised concerns about her inaction. She was the first state trooper at the scene. Separately, Texas Ranger Ryan Kindell was suspended with pay in September 2022 for failing to perform his duties. In January 2023, the director of DPS, Col. Steve McCraw, issued Kindell a preliminary decision to terminate him. That came with an opportunity to meet with McCraw before the decision was finalized. But that meeting will not occur until the grand jury has made a decision on criminal charges, a DPS spokesperson said. Kindell is still being paid, in accordance with department policy, she said. Kindell, the other state troopers, and their lawyers didn't respond to a request for comment. In addition, the agency's two highest-ranking Texas Rangers, who did not respond to the shooting but initially oversaw the law enforcement investigation, retired in 2022. Chief Chance Collins and Assistant Chief Brian Burzynski could not be reached for comment, but Burzynski told Austin television station KXAN that Uvalde was "an important factor" in his decision.

Customs and Border Protection: A spokesperson for the federal agency, which sent the majority of officers to the scene, said in November that an internal investigation into the response was ongoing. The agency did not respond to emails and phone calls about the current status of the probe.

Ruben Torres, the father of Khloie, a survivor who was 10 at the time of the shooting and called 911 after the gunman killed her classmates, said that unlike many other families, he does not seek criminal prosecutions of officers. But he said he wishes they would lose their licenses and be barred from a calling he feels their actions have shown they have no right to participate in.

"Go find another job, another profession, because you suck at this one," Torres said.

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