May 31, 2022

The Uvalde police response.

The Uvalde police response.

Scathing criticism is mounting on how law enforcement responded to the shooting.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

First time reading? Sign up here. Would you rather listen? You can find our podcast here.


Today's read: 11 minutes.

The Uvalde police response is called into question. Plus, a question about whether democracy is in danger in the U.S.

A Texas law enforcement official explains a new timeline of what happened. Screenshot: CNN

Memorial Day.

I know everyone who reads Tangle expresses their patriotism in different ways. Some of you are fierce critics of our military; others are its most ardent defenders; many are some combination of both. Assuredly, many of you are veterans of the military yourselves.

No matter where you land, though, it's worth understanding what yesterday is really (supposed to be) about: Honoring the fallen. Memorial Day is a somber occasion to remember the men and women who have died while serving in the military. Veterans Day, November 11, is about celebrating and recognizing everyone who has served in the military. Many Americans often conflate the two or aren’t aware of the difference.

If you’re interested, I found this 2011 piece about Memorial Day both moving and informative.


Quick hits.

  1. European Union leaders said they have an agreement to cut Russian oil imports by 90% before the year is out. (The deal)
  2. U.S. average gas prices hit $4.62 per gallon on Sunday, another new record and 52% higher than a year ago. (The new high)
  3. President Biden published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal explaining his plans to fight inflation and making the case for his economic achievements. (The op-ed, paywall)
  4. Former Trump aide Peter Navarro was subpoenaed by a grand jury for testimony and records related to January 6. (The subpoena)
  5. A bipartisan Senate working group is meeting on Tuesday to discuss a legislative response to the mass shootings in Uvalde and Buffalo. (The talks)

Our 'Quick Hits' section is created in partnership with Ground News, a website and app that rates the bias of news coverage and news outlets.


Today's topic.

The police response in Uvalde. On Sunday, the U.S. Justice Department announced it was going to launch an investigation into the police response to the shooting at Robb Elementary School.

Officers have faced criticism from parents, politicians and officials after reports they chose not to immediately storm the school and engage the active shooter who killed 21 people, including 19 children. The account of events from police and law enforcement has at times been contradictory and unclear, including initial reports that a gun battle took place outside the school and that the shooter wore body armor, both of which appear to be inaccurate. Border patrol, local Uvalde police and the county sheriff's department were all at the school shortly after the shooter arrived, but were ordered not to storm the classroom where he had barricaded himself. The delay in confronting the shooter — who was inside the school unimpeded for more than an hour — has become the center of the story.

Pedro Arredondo, the chief of the Uvalde Police Department (which oversees all eight of Uvalde's schools), told law enforcement on the scene to hold off on storming the classrooms, according to state police. Meanwhile, inside, children were calling 911 as the shooter barricaded himself inside a classroom. Officials had previously said an armed school resource officer confronted the shooter as he arrived, but Victor Escalon, a regional director for the Texas Department of Public Safety, said that account was also incorrect.

One mother on the scene whose children were inside the school says she was handcuffed by police for disturbing their investigation as she urged them to enter the building. Eventually, she convinced officers to remove her handcuffs, then scaled a fence, entered the school on her own, found her two children and removed them, according to The Wall Street Journal.

"The chief’s decision — and the officers’ apparent willingness to follow his directives against established active-shooter protocols — prompted questions about whether more lives were lost because officers did not act faster to stop the gunman, and who should be held responsible," the Associated Press reported.

Charges against law enforcement in school shootings are rare but not unprecedented. Former Broward County Deputy Scot Peterson, the school resource officer from Parkland High School who was accused of hiding during the shooting, is going on trial in September. A group of Parkland parents also reached a $127 million settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice after suing the FBI for failing to stop the gunman, despite explicit signs his attack was imminent.

Below, we'll take a look at some arguments from the right and left about the police response, then my take.


Agreed.

On this story, there is significant consensus on the left and right — both of whom criticize the actions of police and officers in charge at the scene. Across the political spectrum, professionals and commentators are wondering about the current training tactics for active shooter situations and whether they need to be updated or if the officers on the scene failed to follow them.


What the right is saying.

  • The right said there is reason to be outraged.
  • Many insisted that police must rush toward danger.
  • Others said the response looked incompetent, cowardly, or both.

National Review's editorial board called it the "Uvalde outrage."

"Throughout the week, the official accounts of what happened on that fateful day kept changing — first the shooter was confronted outside the school, then he wasn’t," the editors said. "First the shooter quickly entered the school, then he lingered outside for about ten minutes. First the shooter was pinned down in one classroom by law enforcement, then he barricaded himself inside. There is always confusion in the aftermath of a horrific event like a mass shooting, but members of the public were correct to ask whether they were getting the whole story.

"Perhaps the most egregious detail from [Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve] McCraw’s account is that as many as 19 police officers were gathered in the school’s hallway or nearby shortly after noon, but, McCraw said, they made 'no effort' to breach the classroom door — leading to this mind-boggling exchange: CNN correspondent Shimon Prokupecz: 'What efforts were the officers making to try and break through either that door, or another door to get inside that classroom?' McCraw: 'None at that time. The on-scene commander at the time believed that it had transitioned from an active shooter to a barricaded subject. . . . The on-scene commander considered a barricaded subject, and that there were no more children at risk. Obviously, based upon the information that we have, there were children in that classroom that were at risk, and it was in fact still an active-shooter situation, not a barricaded subject.'

"Keep in mind," the board said, "the 'barricade' was a locked door."

In City Journal, James A. Gagliano said "police must rush to the sound of the guns."

"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," Gagliano wrote. "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… 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.

"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," Gagliano said. "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."

In The Federalist, John Daniel Davidson said a picture is emerging of "extreme cowardice."

"During this time, about 78 minutes, as many as 19 police officers were reportedly in the hallway outside the classroom, while multiple students inside the classroom called 911 begging for the police to be sent in. But none came," Davidson wrote. "At the news conference, Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw said the on-scene commander mistakenly believed that the shooter had barricaded himself in the classroom and that ‘there were no kids at risk,’ which is just a euphemism for believing that all the kids in the classroom had already been killed. Pressed on this by reporters in a series of tense exchanges, McCraw at one point said, 'From the benefit of hindsight where I’m sitting now, of course it was not the right decision. It was the wrong decision. Period.'

"Who made that decision? McCraw said that the on-scene commander was the chief of police of the Uvalde school district, a man named Pete Arredondo. Chief Arredondo was not at the press conference, and no one has heard from him since Tuesday," Davidson said. "How Chief Arredondo could have possibly concluded that there were no children at risk and that this was not an “active shooter situation,” while 911 calls were coming from kids inside the classroom with the shooter, is perhaps the central question that needs to be answered."


What the left is saying.

  • The left has criticized the conflicting reports from law enforcement.
  • Some criticize police training for the failures.
  • Others pointed to a culture of selfishness in many police departments.

In MSNBC, Hayes Brown laid out all the conflicting reports.

"Did the shooter and an armed school safety officer exchange gunfire outside the school? A spokesperson for DPS told The Washington Post on Tuesday that they did and that the school officer was wounded; the department also confirmed to NBC’s 'TODAY' show on Thursday that the school safety officer was armed. But DPS Director Steve McCraw walked back the gunbattle detail Wednesday, and Escalon went further Thursday, telling reporters that there 'was not an officer readily available, armed,' which sounds a lot like a hedge," Brown wrote. “DPS initially tried to justify law enforcement’s inability to bring down the shooter quickly by saying he wore 'body armor.'

"The next morning, the agency acknowledged that it wasn’t body armor but a tactical vest that could be fitted with ballistic protection. That’s a major difference. Officials initially said that once the shooter was inside, he immediately barricaded himself inside a classroom and began shooting. McCraw said Wednesday that police pinned the shooter inside the classroom," Brown wrote. "Meanwhile, there are reports that some officers went into the school during the attack to retrieve their own children, even as other desperate parents were being detained outside in handcuffs."

In The New York Times, former FBI agent Katherine Schweit said "I created the FBI's active shooter program" and "the officers in Uvalde did not follow their training."

"In the past two years, the Uvalde school district has hosted at least two active shooter trainings, according to reporting by The Times. One of them was two months ago," Schweit said. "Current protocol and best practices say officers must persistently pursue efforts to neutralize a shooter when a shooting is underway. This is true even if only one officer is present. This is without question the right approach. We need to understand why that protocol was not followed in Uvalde. I am still confident the F.B.I.’s focus on training to this standard was right, but I’m less confident in its execution. The officers who responded may have been unprepared for conflict, which can lead to fatal results. Law enforcement officers need to be mentally prepared before they arrive on the scene, so they can respond immediately.

"Repetitive training builds practice and confidence. Big gatherings for training every few years are more expensive and less effective for muscle memory. Instead, departments should consider more virtual tabletop exercises they can run through in an afternoon. Have officers walk through schools and talk with one another about how they would respond. Require officers to check all their gear before they begin a shift," she wrote. "We also need to re-evaluate how we advise students and teachers to react when an active shooter enters a school. After Sandy Hook the federal government adopted the run, hide, fight model, which instructs students and teachers to run first if they can, then hide if they must and, finally, fight to survive. Today schools, at best, are giving lip service to the first part of that mantra, to run. Most schools that train for a shooting urge students, teachers and other staff members to lock out or hide from a shooter but almost never to run for their lives if they can."

In The American Prospect, Ryan Cooper criticized the "cowardly" culture in policing today.

"What it illustrates is simply the cowardly culture of American police in action," he wrote. "Contrary to the chest-thumping rhetoric of police unions, they are neither trained nor legally expected to protect citizens in danger. In the pinch, they frequently put their own safety above those they are charged with protecting—even elementary school kids. As an initial matter, it should be emphasized that this school had done everything that conservatives and experts from the school safety consulting industry recommend. To comply with a 2018 Texas law passed in response to a different school shooting, the 'district adopted an array of security measures that included its own police force, threat assessment teams at each school, a threat reporting system, social media monitoring software, fences around schools and a requirement that teachers lock their classroom doors,' report Suzy Khimm and Jon Schuppe at NBC News.

"It didn’t work, and neither did police on the scene rush in to stop the killer. Now, of course this is the polar opposite of approved police tactics these days. After the Columbine shooting, where police waited outside for hours while a teacher bled to death, police are supposed to dash into the scene as fast as possible. They just didn’t do it. The reason is the powerful fear instilled by other parts of police training, as well as the overall police culture," he wrote. "By and large, cops are taught to be in quaking terror at all times, to view the local citizenry as infested with violent criminals, and to prioritize their own safety above all else. The overwhelming focus is on threats to the police themselves, not the public. There is virtually no time spent on diplomacy, de-escalation, or remaining calm under fire."


My take.

I think it's human nature to want a villain.

There seems to be momentum growing to blame the police chief overseeing the officers on the scene, and it very well may be that he failed at his job — perhaps egregiously so. But as I wrote last week, using the words of Noam Blum, "Nothing is monocausal. There are just parts of our society that are unfathomably broken and they occasionally intersect in unspeakably awful and evil ways."

These kids aren't dead just because of one police chief's actions. Nor are they dead solely because of gun laws, mental health issues, or failure to see obvious signs of a person in crisis. This probably happened because of some awful intersection of many failures.

How the details have evolved is a good refresher of how to treat mass shootings in the first 24-48 hours (or any major news story, for that matter). I broke one of my own rules in writing about the shooting within 24 hours after it happened, before the dust had settled, and ended up parroting two reports that have now been disputed: that the shooter was wearing body armor, and that there was a shootout at the school before he entered. According to Texas public safety officials, both of those accounts were inaccurate. It's almost always true that a few initial details in events like this end up being wrong. This story should serve as the latest reminder.

It also makes me hesitant to criticize anyone now. In the last week alone, our picture of what happened has changed drastically. An investigation hasn't even taken place yet. I suspect much more will come out in the coming weeks, months and years — the officer present at Parkland's 2018 shooting is still yet to stand trial.

From what we seem to know now, there's no doubt serious questions need to be answered. That at least one mom drove 40 miles, scaled a fence, entered the school and got her two children out while police were holding parents back is perhaps the most damning part of the story (if it is true). Worse yet are reports that border patrol agents retrieved their own kids while the shooter was still alive.

Fundamentally, police have chosen a job where they are expected to risk their own lives for the lives of others — especially children. They are supposed to be the "good guys with guns," so on the surface I feel the same angst and frustration many others do as these reports unfold.

Then again, it's hard not to feel for everyone in this story. Former FBI agent Katherine Schweit said training has reduced the number of people killed in mass shooting events over the last few years. But I'm not sure any amount of training can properly prepare a local police chief, or police officer, for the kinds of decisions that had to be made in Uvalde. It's easy to play Monday morning quarterback, but it is impossible to imagine actually being the one making those calls in real time.

Given that some of the law enforcement on the scene literally had kids inside the school, it’s easier to understand why they may have been paralyzed with indecision. And it’s also difficult to believe they weren't doing everything humanly possible to stop the horror.

Have thoughts about "my take?" You can reply to this email and write in or leave a comment if you're a subscriber.


Your questions, answered.

Q: Many pixels are spilled of late about various "threats to democracy" in the US. They are often tied to election legislation. What do you think of the current democracy threat level? Is this yet more click-baity absurdity?

— Michael, Burnet, Texas

Tangle: I think there is always a threat to democracy. Democracy is in decline globally, and here in the U.S. it has certainly been eroded in some ways. A lot of powerful people want to maintain power, sometimes by any means necessary, and it's up to our checks and balances to ensure that we are always electing our representatives. It's also up to us. As always, though, I think the greatest threat to democracy is apathy of voters (followed by restrictions on their right to vote).

So, is it click-baity absurdity? Sometimes, sure. Comparisons of Georgia's new voting laws to "Jim Crow" were obviously overblown. But Georgia's record turnout this year doesn't mean the state is making voting more accessible — it could even mean the mere threat of voter suppression drove massive turnout, which studies have documented repeatedly (and is why I've said things like voter ID laws often don't diminish turnout).

But there are also fractures. Studies showing a declining democracy in America tend to focus on Trump questioning the 2020 election and crackdowns on civil disobedience. The U.S. is still a "high performing" democracy, according to those evaluations, and it even improved its indicators of impartial administration of elections in 2020.

The "stop the steal" movement obviously concerns me a lot. Politicians suggesting elections are illegitimate when they lose is always a threat to democracy, because democracy fundamentally requires the people to believe their votes are being counted fairly, otherwise they may resort to political violence. It's why films like 2,000 Mules and easily disprovable allegations of election fraud frustrate me so much.

So I guess it really depends what you're talking about. I think democracy in the U.S. is still healthy, but always at risk. I think democracy globally is in retreat, which is genuine cause for concern. And I think the most important defenders of democracy are us, the voters.

Want to ask a question? You can reply to this email and write in (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.


A story that matters.

American schoolchildren didn't just fall behind in reading and math skills during the pandemic. Students are "frozen, socially and emotionally, at the age they were when the pandemic started," according to a new report from The New York Times, based on a survey of school counselors from across the country. The Times interviewed 362 school counselors nationwide. 94% of them said students are showing more signs of anxiety and depression than before Covid-19, and 88% said students were having more trouble regulating their emotions. Nearly three quarters said they were having more trouble solving conflicts with friends. The Times has the story.


Numbers.

  • 20 to 35. The number of seats Republicans are expected to gain in the House of Representatives this year, according to Cook Political's latest midterm forecast.
  • +17.1%. The increase in the median compensation package for a CEO of an S&P 500 company in 2021 compared to 2020.
  • $14.5 million. The median compensation package for that CEO.
  • -4.1%. The decrease in college enrollment in the spring 2022 semester compared to 2020.
  • 52%. The percentage of Americans who say that, in general, they believe the laws covering the sale of firearms should be made more strict.
  • 35%. The percentage who say those laws should be kept as they are now.
  • 11%. The percentage who say the laws should be made less strict.

Have a nice day.

Archaeologists in Egypt said on Monday they have uncovered a trove of ancient artifacts at the necropolis of Saqqara near Cairo. Some of the mummies and bronze statues found date back 2,500 years. Among the treasures were 250 painted coffins with well-preserved mummies inside, including the first ever complete and sealed papyrus document — an ancient material similar to thick paper that was used for writing. The texts are believed to be ancient Egyptian funerary writing. There were also 150 bronze statues of Egyptian deities and instruments in the find, estimated to be from 500 B.C. The Washington Post has the story.


❤️  Enjoy this newsletter?

💵  Drop some love in our tip jar.

📫  Forward this to a friend and let them know where they can subscribe (hint: it's here).

📣  Share Tangle on Twitter here, Facebook here, or LinkedIn here.

🎧  Rather listen? Check out our podcast here.

🛍  Love clothes, stickers and mugs? Go to our merch store!

Subscribe to Tangle

Join 30,000+ people getting Tangle directly to their inbox!

Join the conversation