Uvalde police chief fired for fumbled response to worst

The Uvalde school district fired police chief Pete Arrendondo on Wednesday, making him the first officer to lose his job over the hesitant and fumbled response by law enforcement at a Texas elementary school as a gunman killed 19 students and two teachers in a fourth-grade classroom.

In a unanimous vote held after months of angry calls for his ouster, the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District’s board of trustees fired Arredondo in an auditorium of parents and survivors of the 24 May massacre. His firing came three months to the day after one of the deadliest classroom shootings in US history.

Arredondo, who has been on leave from the district since 22 June, has come under the most intense scrutiny of the nearly 400 officers who rushed to the school but waited more than an hour to confront the 18-year-old gunman in a fourth-grade classroom, even as parents outside reportedly begged them to take action.

State police and a damning investigative report in July criticized the police chief of the roughly 4,000-student school district for failing to take charge of the scene, not breaching the classroom sooner and wasting time by looking for a key to a likely unlocked door.

Arredondo was not in attendance at the school board meeting but through his attorney released a blistering and defiant 17-page letter that lashed out at state officials, defended the police response to the 24 May massacre and accused the school board of putting his safety at risk by not allowing him to carry a weapon to the meeting, noting that he has received death threats.

“Chief Arredondo will not participate in his own illegal and unconstitutional public lynching,” his attorney, George Hyde, wrote in the statement.

When news broke that Arredondo would not be attending the meeting, some in the auditorium, including parents of victims, screamed, “Coward!” and “What about our children?”

Arredondo’s attorney wrote in the statement that he was being treated as a “fall guy” and “sacrificial lamb”. Hyde accused the school district of not being prepared for an attacker and described the actions taken by Arrendondo and hundreds of other officers on the scene as “reasonable”.

Heavily armed law enforcement personnel arrived at the school within minutes of the attack, but police did not breach the classroom and confront the gunman for more than an hour, a response that has been widely criticized as a failure to enact the “active shooter” protocols developed in the wake of the 1999 Columbine school shooting.

As the meeting began, news broke of a statement from Uvalde CISD police chief Pete Arredondo in which he said he would not be attending the meeting. Audience members, including parents of the victims, broke into chants screaming “coward.” pic.twitter.com/V2wNCZ8Lef

— Acacia C (@acacia_coronado) August 24, 2022

But Arredondo’s attorney argued that a more aggressive law enforcement approach to the shooter inside the classroom could have resulted in a “gunfight with officers” and a hail of bullets that might have left “20 or 30 children across the hall” dead, including some potentially killed by police bullets.

“Chief Arredondo did the right thing,” he wrote.

The school district itself had made deadly mistakes before the shooting, the police chief’s attorney argued: “If the district erected 6ft fences around the school leaving only one entrance/exit, it could have been different. If school employees did as they were told and kept their doors always locked during periods of instruction, as the district policy dictates, it could have been different.”

Hyde called Arredondo “a leader and a courageous officer who with all of the other law enforcement officers who responded to the scene, should be celebrated for the lives saved, instead of vilified for those they couldn’t reach in time.

Hyde did not immediately respond to a request for a comment in response to the news of Arredondo’s termination.

Uvalde school officials have been under mounting pressure from victims’ families and members of the community, many of whom have called for Arredondo’s termination. Superintendent Hal Harrell had first moved to fire Arredondo in July but postponed the decision at the request of the police chief’s attorney.

Among those at Wednesday’s meeting was Ruben Torres, father of Chloe Torres, who survived the shooting in room 112 of the school. He said that as a former Marine, he took an oath that he faithfully executed willingly, and did not understand why officers did not take action when leadership failed.

His daughter, being very young, “is having a hard time handling this horrific event”, Torres said.

Arredondo’s firing was “the first victory” for victim’s families, said Nikki Cross, who lost her 10-year-old nephew in the shooting, at the meeting. “They need to fire the rest of them next.”

The Texas department of public safety, which had more than 90 state troopers at the scene, has also launched an internal investigation into the response by state police.

As is typical after school shootings in the United States, officials have moved to further fortify school buildings against attack, rather than pass sweeping gun control laws.

New measures to improve school safety in Uvalde include “8ft, non-scalable perimeter fencing” at elementary, middle and high school campuses, according to the school district. Officials say they have also installed additional security cameras, upgraded locks, enhanced training for district staff and are improving communication.

However, according to the district’s own progress reports, as of Tuesday no fencing had been erected at six of the eight campuses where it was planned, and cameras had only been installed at the high school. Some progress had been made on locks at three of eight campuses, and communication improvement was marked as half complete for each campus.

School officials have said the campus at Robb Elementary on Old Carrizo Road will no longer be used. Instead, campuses elsewhere in Uvalde will serve as temporary classrooms for elementary school students, not all of whom are willing to return to school in-person following after the shooting.

School officials say a virtual academy will be offered for students. The district has not said how many students will attend virtually