AUSTIN, Texas — As law enforcement’s delayed response to the Uvalde school gunman comes under increasing scrutiny and criticism, both Uvalde residents and citizens nationwide have demanded that police officers be held accountable for their inaction.
While officers can face disciplinary action if their agencies determine they violated department policies, it would likely be a difficult path in the criminal and civil justice systems, experts said.
Jennifer Laurin, a University of Texas law professor, said pursuing criminal charges against any of the 376 responding officers could be difficult because the law is not clear that police have a legal duty to act.
“No matter how much we have the sense that the job of police officers is to run toward fire, that does not itself create a legal duty,” she said.
Based on a cursory review of information made public in the case, Laurin said prosecutors would have to show that officers did something to cause the injuries or death of children, which would be difficult to prove in the Robb Elementary shooting.
But Laurin added it is possible that prosecutors may be examining whether one officer may have impeded another in responding – in which case a law called “interference with public duties” may apply.
Under the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure, officers are prescribed certain duties, including arresting someone, “but I have never seen a criminal prosecution premised on law enforcement omission based on the code of criminal procedure,” Laurin said.
Austin personal injury attorney Adam Loewy said he believes it may be difficult to hit officers with civil penalties because of one of the key findings in a 77-page report outlying the systemic failures during the response to the shooting released Sunday: it is “almost certain” that the shooter fired 100 of approximately 142 rounds before any officer entered the school, likely killing most victims in the first few minutes of the attack, the report says.
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“The plaintiffs would have the burden of showing but for the officers’ actions or inactions the children would have lived,” he said. “If they just can’t show that, I can’t see a scenario where there is a case.”
The Texas Department of Public Safety has hired an outside medical expert to try to determine when the victims died and whether any could have been saved, Director Steve McCraw has said.
That still leaves a role for each law enforcement agency that sent officers to Uvalde.
Art Acevedo, a former police chief for Austin, Houston and Miami who now consults on law enforcement matters, said every agency involved in the Uvalde shooting should undertake an administrative review to best determine the role of its officers.
“At the end of the day, you have to have a critical look at who did what and when, and it starts with the leadership and work your way down the chain to see what kind of, or if there is, discipline warranted,” he said. “It is case by case based on the totality of the circumstances, but it starts with the leadership, who was there in terms of people of rank and what did they do to try to take control.”
The entire profession and the police agencies themselves “would be served by a top to bottom review of each agency’s actions,” he added.
Texas Department of Public Safety to conduct internal review
Last week, the Texas Department of Public Safety formed an internal committee to review the agency’s response to the Uvalde school attack and determine if any policy, doctrine or law had been violated. The review committee also will make recommendations for handling future “mass casualty events,” agency spokesman Travis Considine said.
That committee — which has already begun examining the actions of all 91 DPS troopers, officers, agents and Texas Rangers who responded to Robb Elementary — is being led by Jeoff Williams, the deputy director of law enforcement services who is a former highway patrol officer, member of the DPS SWAT team, staff sergeant on the governor’s protection detail and a narcotics sergeant and lieutenant with the department.
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Other members of the review committee were taken from the DPS training operations division, office of the inspector general, general counsel’s office and the special operations group.
Uvalde Mayor Don McLaughlin has criticized McCraw for blaming city and school district police officials for the long delay in confronting the gunman, saying numerous experienced DPS officers also failed to take charge during the chaotic 70-plus minutes after the shooting began.
Also Sunday, Uvalde leaders announced that the city’s acting police chief, Lt. Mariano Pargas, was placed on administrative leave while an internal review of the department’s response to the attack is conducted by former Austin police detective Jesse Prado, a private investigator. Twenty-five Uvalde police officers responded to the shooting.
“We feel like that was the right call until we get all of the facts,” McLaughlin said Sunday.
376 law officers responded
The focus on law enforcement grew brighter after a specially created investigative committee of the Texas House released Sunday the most comprehensive report to date on what happened during the May 24 attack that left 19 fourth-graders and two teachers dead inside two adjoining classrooms.
The committee said faulty assumptions and poor decisions by responding law officers, including a failure in leadership and a failure to follow active-shooter training, led to a delay of more than 70 minutes in confronting the gunman.
The school district’s police chief, Pete Arredondo, failed to take adequate command of the situation and did not transfer that authority to other law enforcement leaders as directed by his agency’s active-shooter plan, the committee’s report said.
In all, 376 law officers responded to the school shooting, “many of whom were better trained and better equipped than the school district police” and could have provided the necessary leadership, the report said.
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Many of the officers apparently arrived after the gunman was killed, such as four from the Dilley Police Department.
“We arrived to help with traffic control and anything that the officers needed,” said Homer Delgado, Dilley Police Chief. “I think the number of officers that was reported were the totals that were at the scene throughout the whole evening and afternoon.”
The San Antonio Police Department has not initiated an internal investigation into the shooting because its 16 SWAT officers, some of whom traveled by helicopter, also arrived after the gunman had been killed, Lt. Michelle Ramos said.
According to the U.S. Border Patrol, which supplied the most officers to Uvalde — 149, including the tactical team that led the assault on the classroom that ended with the gunman being shot to death — the agency’s Office of Professional Responsibility is still conducting a comprehensive review of the massacre.
No conclusions have been reached, and the agency said it is working with other investigative agencies and the Department of Justice as part of its review.
A representative with the Uvalde County sheriff’s office, which sent 16 officers to the school, told the Austin American-Statesman, part of the USA TODAY Network, that the department had no one in the office available to answer questions.
A U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration official declined to discuss the role played by eight DEA officers.