For nearly 20 months after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, government agencies on the local, state, and federal levels released little information about their investigations into the attack, and the catastrophic, delayed response from nearly 400 law enforcement officers. That changed two weeks ago, when the Justice Department published a damning report on the massacre, using hundreds of pages to describe police failure after police failure.
The Justice Department review provides a thorough look at what went wrong that day. But other agencies, including the Texas Department of Public Safety, have yet to release many of their findings. Lexi Churchill and Lomi Kriel, reporters with the ProPublica-Texas Tribune investigative unit, have been filling in the gaps. They’ve helped uncover details about the flawed medical response to the shooting; obtained audio of emergency calls that show the extent of law enforcement officers’ confusion; revealed wide variability in reports analyzing how police responded to mass shootings; and, in their most recent investigation, shed light on the solemn fact that students are often better prepared for a shooting than police. I spoke with them about the new Justice Department report, the recently called grand jury evaluating whether officers who responded to the shooting can be criminally charged, and what they’ve learned after nearly two years of accountability reporting on the Uvalde massacre. Our exchange is below.
Sunny Sone: In December, you two reported on after-action examinations of law enforcement responses to mass shootings. How does the recent Justice Department report on the Robb Elementary attack compare with the reviews you examined?
Lexi Churchill and Lomi Kriel: We analyzed dozens of public after-action reports following mass shootings for our investigation into the Uvalde massacre. Few were overtly critical, and only two (requested by state lawmakers) explicitly condemned officers’ inaction to stop a shooter. The Justice Department had separately probed two previous mass shootings, including the 2016 Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando. In that report, the DOJ found that Florida officers, who waited three hours to take down the shooter, mostly followed best practices, but that the agencies should update their training and policies.
By contrast, the Justice Department’s 600-page probe into the Uvalde shooting was scathing. It found “cascading failures of leadership, decision-making, tactics, policy and training.” The report was far more critical than others we reviewed, finding that officers from all agencies failed. It also offered some of the strongest recommendations we have found in such public reports. While many since the 1999 Columbine school shooting have recommended officers take active shooter training and practice with neighboring agencies, this is seemingly the first to say officers need this training every year.
Other investigations have yet to be released to the public, including one from Texas DPS, which has done an excellent job of keeping its records out of the public eye. Tell me a little about what it was like to do accountability reporting on Uvalde in that information environment.
Lexi and I began reporting on Uvalde on Day One. Along with our colleagues at the Texas Tribune, we filed dozens of public records requests to better understand how the response went so wrong and eventually joined other media groups in suing the state to obtain those records. That lawsuit is ongoing.
Separately, we obtained a massive trove of investigative records, containing more than two terabytes of information. We teamed up with “FRONTLINE” to go through the trove early last year. It was an overwhelming task. Many of the records were in an array of file types, which we needed experts to help us access. They were not ordered in any understandable way and, in many cases, body camera footage had incorrect timestamps that we had to fix using other records. We manually transcribed hundreds of hours of body cameras and investigative interviews in order to not risk such sensitive information being shared with the public against the families’ wishes.
Reporting in an environment where authorities declined to answer almost any questions was incredibly challenging, but because we gained unprecedented access to such a comprehensive investigative file, we were able to bypass, to an extent, the lack of any transparency.
The Uvalde Leader-News reported that a grand jury was recently impaneled to examine if criminal charges should be brought against law enforcement officers who responded that day. What do you think we should look for or expect from this process?
Despite the DOJ report, our investigation and accompanying FRONTLINE documentary, many questions remain. Among the most important is if the grand jury decides that any officers should be held criminally accountable, and what that might look like.
We know, for example, that in Florida last year, school resource officer Scot Peterson was found not guilty of seven counts of felony child neglect, three counts of culpable negligence, and one count of perjury for his inaction at the 2018 Parkland mass shooting. We don’t know yet what charges the Uvalde district attorney may seek. The grand jury’s investigation will likely center around if victims might have survived given a faster response, but how it will evaluate that isn’t clear. Last year, the DA parted ways with a doctor who sought to do just such an inquiry.
Your most recent investigation, “Someone Tell Me What to Do,” centered on a startling revelation: Far more states mandate active shooter training for schools than they do for the officers who are expected to protect them. It was an incredibly powerful piece. If readers were to leave the story with just one takeaway, what do you hope that would be?
We learned that this can happen to any community at any time. In the absence of gun control, that means communities should be prepared. It became clear to us in our reporting that the officers in Uvalde were not. This is a community of 15,000 people, 90 miles from San Antonio, which had one homicide the year before the shooting. Officers there were not adequately trained to confront a mass shooter with an assault rifle. But the problems lay not only with local law enforcement. Hundreds of Border Patrol agents and Texas Department of Public Safety officers also responded to Uvalde and, as our investigation found, did not take charge either or quickly confront the shooter despite mounting evidence that he had victims with him.
This lack of preparedness extends across the country. While 37 states have laws mandating that schools conduct active shooter drills, most of them annually, no states require officers to complete this training every year. Texas’ mandate is the strongest, but it only came about after Uvalde. More than two decades after Columbine was supposed to improve law enforcement’s response, our reporting found many officers remain woefully unprepared.
The lead photo is from a story published in collaboration with The Guardian. Find that piece here.
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What to Know This Week
Wayne LaPierre is officially no longer chief executive of the NRA. His resignation went into effect on Wednesday, one day after wrapping up his testimony in the New York corruption trial against him, the NRA, and two other (current and former) top officials. [CNN]
As Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s standoff with the federal government over the installation of razor wire at a park along the southern border escalates, so do fears that the dispute could turn violent: Right-wing lawmakers, media, and self-appointed participants of an armed convoy to the site have referenced “civil war” and the possibility of a “force-on-force conflict.” [VICE/The Texas Newsroom/WIRED]
Maine Governor Janet Mills called for a number of gun safety measures during her State of the State address. The proposals represent a departure from the state’s historically permissive firearm laws. [Portland Press Herald]
In Michigan, legal proceedings are underway to hold the parents of a school shooter criminally responsible for their son’s attack. What precedent could these historic trials set? And what does accountability look like after a tragedy? [1A]
Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson said he supports ending a program that places uniformed police officers in dozens of the city’s public schools, following years of student-led calls to remove officers from schools to stem discriminatory policing and research showing that school-based police are not proven to prevent shootings. [WBEZ]
In the late 1990s, as the nation recovered from a decade of record homicides, more than 30 cities sued major firearms companies in an effort to slow the tide of guns flooding their cities. Only a lawsuit brought by the city of Gary, Indiana, survived — and gunmakers have spent the years since trying to get it dismissed. Now, in a last-ditch effort to quash the suit, the industry is turning to an influential ally: state lawmakers. [IndyStar and ProPublica]
Zackary Sullivan, 19, was starting to see his hard work pay off. An auto enthusiast, Sullivan had started a car detailing business in his hometown of Concord, New Hampshire, last summer, and after just a few months, the venture had grown enough to expand to a brick-and-mortar location. It opened on January 1, the Concord Monitor reported, just two weeks before Sullivan died of a gunshot wound. He was reliable and caring, friends and family said, someone who would always lend a hand. His mother remembered a time Sullivan ended up ahead of her at a toll booth on the road; Sullivan paid her way, one of the many small ways he helped lighten her load. He graduated from high school one year early, and was remarkably driven. “I’ve never met a kid his age that was as mature as him and just had the work ethic and passion that he did,” a friend said. “He still inspires me to this day to work harder and be a better person.”
“Now old enough to drink, Gary’s lawsuit is the last of its kind. The Indiana Supreme Court has continuously affirmed Gary’s right to bring this lawsuit. It’s not frivolous.”
— Jody Madeira, a law professor who teaches a course on the Second Amendment, during a hearing on an Indiana bill that would ban cities from suing firearm manufacturers, dealers or trade groups, in IndyStar and ProPublica