Many Questions Remain About the Uvalde Shooting. How About We Wait for Answers

Many Questions Remain About the Uvalde Shooting. How About We Wait for Answers

By Steve Pomper  

Note: As with any ongoing, complex news story, especially horrific ones like the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, writers can only report and opine on what information exists at the time. Information streaks in one direction and then boomerangs or ricochets sideways. This opinion is based on information I had at the time of its writing.

I had a hard time getting to sleep last Friday night. There were reports about kids trapped in the classroom with that homicidal fiend, calling 911, but no one came. Swirling in my mind were thoughts of those children calling for the police, and the cops not coming—for whatever reason. The reports may not be accurate, but that didn’t stop my mind from going there.

I’m not placing blame—not my job. If it happened as reported, I’m mentioning this solely from my notion of the kids’ perspectives. Did the dispatcher broadcast to officers the kids were calling 911? If not, did the commanders know? If so, what did those commanders do or not do about it?

Thinking of those children haunts me. Part of the satisfaction I got as a cop was when I could tell someone felt safer when I was around. So, it disturbs me when I hear reports that officers may not have been able, allowed—whatever the reason—to respond to children in such desperate need.

Still, I’m looking ahead to more difficulty sleeping. But, having grandchildren close to the ages of the kids whose lives were so viciously extinguished by that demon, I’ll take some sleeplessness over the torture those grieving parents are experiencing.

No one should let go of the fact that it was that 18-year-old villain who committed the crime in Uvalde, Texas that day. Others may have made mistakes—maybe huge mistakes—maybe not. Some mistakes may have allowed the killer more opportunity to kill or allow children to succumb to their wounds.

Other people’s mistakes, poor judgement, or whatever that may have exacerbated the circumstances, will become clearer in the coming days. And people should be held accountable, but they did not perpetrate this evil act. He did.

Still, the killer is the murderer, no one else.

People will criticize the person who reportedly propped open a door where the suspect may have entered. However, new reporting says the staff member removed a rock propping open the door, closed it, but it did not latch properly. This shows the dynamic nature of reporting on this incident.

Assigning various levels of blame and/or accolades will be done after a thorough investigation is completed. They’ll reconstruct the incident from top-to-bottom, side-to-side, and front-to-back to determine what happened. Our job is to try to help people understand what it’s like for the average cop responding to and dealing with these types of life and death incidents.

We don’t know what orders commanders gave officers assigned to various posts in and around the school. We don’t know on what information commanders made their decisions. Will we learn they were good orders based on the best information at the time? Or were they good orders but based on bad information? Or were they bad orders based on poor judgment? We don’t know.

I already saw one headline about a teacher defending the cops saying, “they [cops] were there [in the school]. They were helping save people.” But I also saw another headline about an officer lamenting they “felt like cowards waiting,” but those were their orders.

Some people say the cops should have gone in anyway. But, as people who normally follow orders, officers tend to trust that commanders have better information than they do and have reasons for doing or not doing something.

There are so many different perspectives based on the time during the incident and location of the officer at that time.

Without being there, we all form scenarios in our heads about what we think happened. Even cops who’ve handled similar situations are not immune from this. If we weren’t there, then we cannot know anything for sure. Often, in the heat of an intense, highly emotional moment, again, we think we know we would have done it “better.”

In my mind, when I’m reacting to a situation where I was not there, and too many blank pages about what happened remain, I stop myself. 20/20 hindsight is a trickster. Some people are denigrating the cops as if they each had their own personal drone and dispatcher transmitting real-time information to them.

We wish!

Often cops on the scene are largely in the dark getting only bits and pieces of info as their commanders decide on strategy and tactics. For example, I remember working riots (there were many; it was Seattle) where officers were ordered to stand by, not knowing what was happening a half block away. I remember a few times even calling my wife to find out if she knew more information from watching the TV news coverage.

During one Mardi Gras event in 2001, Seattle’s mayor and police chief would not allow the cops to deal with violent gangsters in a crowd. Their inaction allowed thugs to murder a young man who’d been attempting to rescue a young woman they were attacking. To this day the incident bothers even Seattle cops who were not there.

Afterward (20/20 hindsight), cops will learn more and wonder, should we have disobeyed orders and have gone to his rescue? The problem is, at the time, the cops didn’t know exactly what was going on. People at home watching the TV news probably knew more than the cops posted there.

Now, who cares what I think, right? I wasn’t there. But that’s the point on several levels. I wasn’t there as it was happening. I wasn’t there to know what the cops, parents, and media knew and didn’t know. And I wasn’t a parent gripped by the throat by the abject anguish of such an unbearable loss.

I can’t imagine what those parents are going through, and I don’t want to. But, as much as I resist, my mind keeps pushing me toward thoughts of the horror that villain visited on that Texas community that day.

We just don’t know, for sure, how everything happened, yet. And, though we don’t like it, it may be a long time before we know some things for certain. For example, what happened during those 12 minutes between when the murderer crashed his car, and he entered the building?

People, of course, imagine a situation where every cop on the scene knows everything, has a clear view, and a straightforward approach to the killer. And if it were them, they’d keep going until they killed the guy killing our babies.

If they didn’t have a key or other entry tools, and the door in question was steel reinforced would that make a difference making an assessment? I don’t know what their barriers were. Ironically, these doors are made to protect those inside.

I understand the urge to go in no matter what. I have it too. But we need to know what the “what” is. But then experience interrupts those emotions. It reminds me that I wasn’t there, and without the information of an honest and accurate after-action report, I just don’t know—I can’t know what exactly happened. All I can do is guess.

What we think we know keeps changing, and what we don’t know is a moving obstacle course of information, confusion, and probably honest mistakes. This warns me not to come to any premature conclusions—as much as I may want to.

I explained to my loved ones, I’ve been on calls not even close to this tragic, but still life and death serious. I’ve told them that the officers on each side of the same building didn’t know what was going on the other sides. I remember I was one of the first patrol officers to show up for a man who’d shot at a man and then barricaded himself in his apartment.

We crouched in the hallway, with no clue about what was going on around or in other parts of the building. In that hallway, wondering what was going on, I remember being startled when SWAT officers came up from behind to take over our positions.

I’m not saying this was like an active shooter. This was before active shooter training, anyway. My point is, whether it’s an active shooter or barricaded man, officers often have little knowledge of what other officers were doing at the time. And that was just one relatively small building, not a school with multiple buildings.

There are plenty of reasons officers may not have the same information, on a call. And those reasons are exacerbated when you have multiple federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies responding, multiple witnesses and victims calling 911, multiple parents crying for action, and multiple children and teachers dead or dying.

How many people consider that only one officer at a time can talk on the radio. Radio traffic must be kept to a minimum for priority transmissions. Individual officers cannot ask, “what’s going on?” every 30 seconds. Think about how limiting that is for officers at the scene.

Even if cellphones make communications options better, today, that doesn’t change radio communication limitations. Also, some reporting seems to point to discrepancies between a law enforcement commander(s) treating the incident like a barricaded man rather than an active shooter. After the murderer stopped shooting, technically (though it seems a stretch), it could be considered a barricaded man. On paper—maybe.

Incidentally, the AP also reported, about the police “who thought the gunman was barricaded and children were no longer at risk.” They did not elaborate.

There are far too many issues to discuss here, but here are a few more off the top of my head. What did the officers in the hallway and other posts know at the time? What were their orders? Also, just what were the circumstances of the suspect’s apparently highly defensible position? The reality of a “fatal funnel” can’t be ignored, either.

As Lee Lofland wrote in 2020, “This [fatal funnel] is the place where an officer is most likely to die during a high-risk entry.” This doesn’t mean cops shouldn’t try and keep trying, but it is a reality cops, supervisors, and commanders must consider, even if it’s just for practical strategic and tactical purposes.

Even when everyone wants to throw caution to the wind, they will ask what are the practical realities that may exist? I’m not saying there were or weren’t any, but they may be valid. When we finally get to whatever after-action report investigators can release to the public, will we find something that helps us to better understand what happened? I hope so.

About parents reportedly handcuffed, tased, or pepper-sprayed, we also have to wait and see. Of course, we all empathize with the parents. And when we think we know what happened, it’s easy to criticize the cops. But again, cops, parents, and others are operating from limited, differing, and sometimes contradictory information.

Generally, police cannot allow civilians to run into a building where they are dealing with either an active shooter or a barricaded person. Think about that, not just from emotion but from understanding the chaos that could arise from such a scenario.

Am I giving the cops in the hall and elsewhere on the call the benefit of the doubt? Yes. I will always do that. I’ve stood around on too many calls watching mayors and police chiefs make bad decisions, or worse, unable to make a decision at all.

Again, the most important thing, though, is I wasn’t there. And it’s likely, neither were you. We could hear information later today, tomorrow, or next week that takes away that benefit of the doubt. But, for now, I need more information to do that.

I refuse to write off all those cops as cowards, as many pundits are doing on cable news networks. I don’t believe that. Often, the mistakes come down to bad information, poor communications, or dreadful command decisions. But stories about officers’ courage are already beginning to trickle out. I’m waiting for those.