The aftermath of yet another soul-rending attack on an elementary school, this time in Uvalde, Texas, has left little time for reflection on just why these horrific incidents continue to proliferate in the United States. Grappling with the grief attendant upon learning details of the worst K-12 mass shooting since Newtown—with 19 precious grade-schoolers and two teachers senselessly slaughtered—can be all-consuming.
Yet two days after Texas governor Greg Abbott’s initial public comments on the matter, we were introduced to a different level of incomprehension, with the release of the tactical-response timeline, which offered far more questions than answers. The sobering particulars led to Abbott’s later pointed criticism of the inaccurate information he had first been provided by police. At a press conference two days after the massacre, Abbott lamented his “telling the public information that had been told to me” and later learning that “the information I was given turned out to inaccurate.” The governor was “absolutely livid about that.” Most damning was his charge that he had been “misled.”
While initial reports following the confusion and chaos of such events are often incomplete, inaccurate, and flat-out wrong, on Friday, the director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, Colonel Steven McCraw, conceded the painful truth that responding law enforcement had waited far too long to interdict the shooter. The timeline that Texas DPS provided shows that an initial contingent of three Uvalde police officers made entry to Robb Elementary School at 11:35 a.m., through the same door that the gunman had entered two minutes earlier. A brief exchange of gunfire was said to force their retreat. Nine minutes after police withdraw (11:44 a.m.), additional Uvalde and school police arrive and request tactical teams, special equipment, snipers, body armor, and hostage negotiators.
Seven minutes later (11:51 a.m.), more police arrive on the scene at Robb Elementary. By 12:03 p.m., 19 officers are positioned in the hallways around the gunman’s barricaded position within rooms 111 and 112. Children trapped inside continue frantically to dial 911, pleading for rescue. A full 80 minutes passes between the first 911 call from the school and the moment when a tactical team of Customs and Border Patrol agents outfitted with ballistic shields (they had arrived at 12:15 p.m.), secures a custodian’s classroom key, makes dynamic entry, and confronts shooter as he emerges from a closet firing his Daniel Defense DDM4 AR-15-style rifle. At 12:50, the shooter is confirmed dead. Two CBP agents suffer bullet grazings.
Why the delayed response? Citing the benefit of hindsight, Colonel McCraw described the decision to wait as “the wrong decision, period.” Cops are fallible human beings. Yes, they make mistakes. The stakes are considerably higher, however, when lives hang in the balance of decision-making that often occurs within an information vacuum. Yet for two decades, law enforcement professionals have talked about the modifications that the profession made to tactical-response protocols following the April 20, 1999, Columbine mass shooting, where an after-action review indicated an interminably long 47 minutes had transpired between the first shots from Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold and law enforcement officers’ entry into Columbine High School. It has been more than 23 years since those painful lessons were learned. Yet it appears we must relearn them.
Post-Columbine, some high-profile examples of law enforcement interdiction of active shooters that came under critical scrutiny include:
Sandy Hook Elementary School, Newtown, Connecticut (December 14, 2012). After murdering his mother at home, 20-year-old Adam Lanza kills 26 victims at the nearby elementary school, including 20 children between six and seven years of age and six adult staff members. Though law enforcement faced initial criticism for its delayed (six-minute) response, a review by the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association determines that their actions were appropriate, as chaos at the scene led to impression of “exterior threats,” which later turned out to be a worried parent.
Pulse Nightclub, Orlando, Florida (June 12, 2016). An ISIS-inspired attacker murders 49 people and wounds 53 during a mass shooting that turned into a hostage situation. Gunman advises police that he has improvised explosive devices. Standoff lasted three hours, as gravely wounded victims awaited rescue. Police response is roundly criticized.
Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Parkland, Florida (February 14, 2018). Teen gunman slaughters 14 students and three adults. An available, armed school-resource officer, Broward County Sheriff’s Deputy Scot Peterson, refused to enter the school after hearing the gunfire and is still facing 11 charges, including felony child neglect.
The FBI’s definition of an “active shooter” describes “one or more individuals actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a populated area.” In a just-released report, the bureau designated 61 incidents in 2021 as active-shooter attacks; 30 attackers were ultimately apprehended by law enforcement, 14 were killed by police, 11 took their own lives, four were killed by armed citizens, one died in a motor-vehicle accident, and one remains at large. According to the FBI, between 2000 and 2013, 66.9 percent of active-shooter incidents ended before police arrived; 69.8 percent ended in five minutes or less, and 36.5 percent ended in two minutes or less. The era of 1970s Dog Day Afternoon-style hostage standoffs is over. While police negotiators continue to play a critical role, the criminal paradigm shift to mass-murderers armed with high-powered rifles requires an evolution from painstakingly slow and methodical “law enforcement clears” (employing ballistic shields) to addressing the exigency in a more deliberate, committed, and rapid fashion.
Dynamic-entry tactics have existed for years. I was trained on them while serving on an FBI SWAT team and while assigned to the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team throughout the 1990s; I headed the FBI’s Crisis Management Program in New York City during the 2000s. Dynamic-entry tactics incorporate the constructs of speed, surprise, violence of action, and a failsafe breach (either mechanical or explosive). These tactics require additional training and resources and introduce additional risks to officers, but this is where we are today. Threats evolve. Law enforcement must counter them, no matter the cost in resources or the imperiling of our own lives. We simply must rush to the “sound of the guns.”
In this context, one of the most damaging and frankly nauseating explanations offered by police in the wake of the Uvalde attack came in response to a question from CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Thursday. Blitzer’s guest, Texas DPS lieutenant Chris Olivarez, made the stunning admission that “if they [police] proceeded further without knowing where the suspect was at, they could have been shot, they could have been killed.” For those who understand the business of hostage rescue, that statement made us wince. Cops are certainly not “machines”—they are human beings like everyone else—but they must master the process of managing their fears in the face of danger. Franklin D. Roosevelt said it best: “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the assessment that something else is more important than fear.” If we cannot assume those risks, then who will save helpless innocents?
Why were parents in Uvalde left imploring police to go save their children? The DPS’s McCraw attempted to explain the hour-long reticence of police engagement as the product of a shifting scene and a decision by the on-scene commander that the “active shooter” situation had shifted into a “barricaded subject” scenario. What this decision fails to consider is the stark distinctions between “active shooter,” “hostage,” and “barricaded subject, no hostages” situations. Only in the last instance—or one where a trained negotiator reasonably assesses that the attacker’s intentions have shifted—should police abandon immediate interdiction posture. In the Uvalde scenario, armed with the knowledge that the shooter was bent on indiscriminate killing and had already caused numerous casualties—presumably with some grievously wounded, with the clock ticking for them to receive definitive trauma care and have any chance of survival—cops simply had to embrace a higher level of acceptable risk.
The era of patiently awaiting arrival of homogenous, highly trained tactical-resolution teams outfitted with special equipment and superior training is over. To borrow Martin Luther King’s exhortation, police in Uvalde should have recognized “the fierce urgency of now.” I say this while appreciating the benefit of hindsight and understanding the pervasive chaos and confusion attendant to all such crisis incidents. Still, we should know better by now. The model has changed.
Paradigm evolutions occur in all facets of law enforcement. The Los Angeles “Watts riots” in 1965 and Charles Whitman’s murderous shooting spree at the University of Texas in 1966 led to the modern construct of Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams. The murder of two FBI agents by bank robbers on April 11, 1986, in the “FBI Miami Firefight” led to wholesale tactical changes inside the bureau; semiautomatic pistols replaced traditional revolvers as agent-issued sidearms. Fresh experience drives modernization.
Yet we continue to forget or ignore the abundant lessons of previous incidents and abandon the “best practices” that result from examination of them. Uvalde did not involve a lone, outgunned officer. In their 2015 textbook, Active Shooter, Kevin T. Doss and C. David Shepherd advise: “If only one officer first arrives at the site of the active shooting, will that officer immediately enter the structure to engage the shooter? The answer is not consistent across the United States; some police departments do not believe in a ‘solo officer’ response and may even prohibit officers from entering the building with fewer than a predetermined number of officers from the same department or agency to form an entry team.” While this directive is debatable—and I disagree with it—there were 19 available officers armed with twenty-first-century training who should have been allowed to confront the Uvalde attacker. I submit it was a clear mistake not to.
So, what now? I offer three recommendations going forward.
Adhere to the lessons that have already been learned. Responders advance to “sound of the guns” by applying dynamic-entry principles of “shoot, move, and communicate.” Ensure interoperability between responding agencies. Train together. Ensure preparedness for worst outcomes. Avoid a mindset that “it can’t happen here.” It can—and it might.
Resist the current “noise” about stripping police of funding, equipment, and proactivity. Those who feel that the comparative rarity of these crisis incidents justifies denial of military-style gear and equipment (armored vehicles, semiautomatic weaponry, and ballistic clothing/equipment) should analyze incidents like the North Hollywood shootout (1997), the San Bernardino attack (2015), and the Las Vegas music festival shooting (2017).
Local law enforcement must gather and retain institutional knowledge of likely targets. As FBI Senior SWAT Team Leader, I required SWAT operators to conduct site surveys of all cultural, historical, well-populated, and infrastructure targets. Homefield advantage may serve as a margin of victory when having to assault a committed attacker. Understand the domain. Identify points of contact and secure master keys or key cards to access secure spaces.
While I have great respect, affinity, and empathy for the officers thrust into this nightmarish situation last week in Texas, these criticisms are suggested in earnest. I do not offer these recommendations as a panacea or a one-size-fits-all solution. They will certainly not prevent the next school shooting. But I humbly submit that, if practiced rigorously, they may ultimately alter outcomes.
Photo by CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP via Getty Images