AUSTIN, Texas - The head of the Texas Department of Public Safety says three minutes after a gunman entered a school where he slaughtered 19 elementary students and two teachers, there was sufficient armed law enforcement on scene to stop the gunman. Law enforcement authorities also allegedly never checked the classroom door to see if it was locked.
Yet, police officers armed with rifles stood and waited in a school hallway for nearly an hour while the gunman carried out the massacre.
Col. Steve McCraw, director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, called the police response "an abject failure."
"I don't care if you have on flip-flops and Bermuda shorts, you go in," Col. Steve McCraw, director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, said in testimony at a state Senate hearing.
McCraw also outlined for the committee a series of missed opportunities, communication breakdowns and other mistakes.
The classroom door, it turned out, could not be locked from the inside, yet there is no indication officers tried to open the door while the gunman was inside, McCraw testified. Instead, he said, police waited around for a key.
"I have great reasons to believe it was never secured," McCraw said of the door. "How about trying the door and seeing if it's locked?"
McCraw also spoke on Pete Arredondo, the Uvalde school district police chief who was in charge, saying: "The only thing stopping a hallway of dedicated officers from entering Room 111 and 112 was the on-scene commander who decided to place the lives of officers before the lives of children."
"Obviously, not enough training was done in this situation, plain and simple. Because terrible decisions were made by the on-site commander," McCraw said.
Arredondo said he didn't consider himself the person in charge and assumed someone else had taken control of the law enforcement response.
While Arredondo was being criticized in the Senate, he was reportedly testifying behind closed doors in a House committee hearing.
The public safety chief presented a timeline that said three officers with two rifles entered the building less than three minutes after the gunman, an 18-year-old with an AR-15-style semi-automatic rifle. Several more officers entered minutes after that.
The decision by police to hold back went against much of what law enforcement has learned in the two decades since the Columbine High School shooting in Colorado in which 13 people were killed in 1999, McCraw said
"You don't wait for a SWAT team. You have one officer, that's enough," he said. He also said officers did not need to wait for shields to enter the classroom. The first shield arrived less than 20 minutes after the shooter entered, according to McCraw.
Eight minutes after the shooter entered the building, an officer reported that police had a "hooligan" crowbar that they could use to break down the classroom door, McCraw said.
Nineteen minutes after the gunman entered, the first ballistic shield was brought into the building by police, the witness testified.
The public safety chief also outlined for the committee a series of missed opportunities, communication breakdowns and other mistakes, among them:
- Arredondo did not have a radio with him.
- Police and sheriff's radios did not work within the school; only the radios of Border Patrol agents on the scene worked inside the school, and even they did not work perfectly.
- Some diagrams of the school that police were using to coordinate their response were wrong.
State police initially said the gunman entered the school through an exterior door that had been propped open by a teacher, but McGraw said that the teacher had closed the door and it could only be locked from the outside. "There's no way for her to know the door is locked" McGraw said. "He walked straight through."
Delays in the law enforcement response have been the focus of the federal, state and local investigation of the massacre and its aftermath.
The police commander made the comments while giving testimony during a special Texas Senate committee on the deadly school shooting that left two teachers and 19 children dead.
The Texas House has been holding its own investigative committee meetings, targeting the law enforcement response. Those meetings have been held behind closed doors.
An 18-year-old gunman killed 19 students and two teachers at the school on May 24.
Law enforcement officials have provided little or conflicting information since the shooting, sometimes withdrawing statements hours after making them. Officials have declined to offer details, citing ongoing investigation.
Some are concerned that Texas officials will use a legal loophole to block records from being released — even to the victims’ families — once the case is closed. The law’s exception protects information from being released in crimes for which no one has been convicted. The Texas Attorney General’s Office has ruled that it applies when a suspect is dead.
Officials also haven’t released records sought under public information laws to media outlets, including The Associated Press, often citing broad exemptions and the ongoing investigation. It has raised concerns about whether such records will be released, even to victims’ families.
Others interviewed behind closed doors by the committee include school staff.
Burrows has defended the committee interviewing witnesses in private and not revealing their findings so far, saying its members want an accurate account before issuing a report.
Outside Senate Chambers "Moms Demand Action" protested the committee hearing.
Activist Molly Bursey called it "political theater." Stating, "we know that nothing will come from this."
Protestors like Bursey were critical of Governor Greg Abbott’s decision to call for special committees.
"After every mass shooting the Governor seems to call these special sessions or roundtables committees that all they do is talk and there's no action," said Activist Melanie Greene.
"We have participated in these hearings in the past after Santa Fe High School, after El Paso and Midland-Odessa. And Governor Abbott knows exactly what to do to prevent these shootings from occurring in the future and refuses to do so," Bursey said.
Bursey believes Abbott should have called a special session and passed stricter gun control laws.
"Laws that will that have been proven to reduce gun violence. He could repeal permitless carry. He could pass a law requiring a background check on every gun sale. He could raise the age to buy a firearm from 18 to 21 and he could pass red flag laws. He knows exactly what to do. I've told him volunteers have told him gun safety advocates and survivors of gun violence have told him over and over again. And what does he do? He convenes committees that have no power and puts on this dog and pony show," she said.
In a statement House Speaker Dade Phelan supported his investigative committee writing, "I established this investigative committee for the dedicated purpose of gathering as much information and evidence as possible to help inform the House’s response to this tragedy and deliver desperately needed answers to the people of Uvalde and the State of Texas."
This is a developing story. Check back for updates
The Associated Press and The Texas Tribune contributed to this article