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Ruben Navarrette: The police's response to the Uvalde massacre is finally coming to light, and it's ugly

From the commentary: The heroes that day were certainly not the cops. The cops were cowards. The real heroes were teachers, two in particular who placed themselves in the line of fire. ... Sooner or later, the whole truth will come out. And hopefully, those who betrayed their oath — and then tried to cover it up — will be judged and held accountable.

Family members who lost a sibling place flowers outside Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, on Wednesday, May 25, 2022.
Family members who lost a sibling place flowers outside Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, on Wednesday, May 25, 2022.
Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times/TNS
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SAN DIEGO — Here's a riddle: How many local, state, and federal law enforcement officers does it take to screw up the response to a deadly mass shooting at a Texas elementary school full of Mexican American kids?

Ruben Navarrete column logo
Ruben Navarrete column logo
Kit Grode / Tribune graphic
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Answer: 376.

That is the total number of law enforcement officers that arrived at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, on May 24 — the day of the massacre — according to a damning 77-page report by a Texas House Committee.

Tragically, for 73 agonizing minutes, those officers didn't do much of anything but stand around and talk about who was in charge.

That was more than enough time for 18-year-old gunman Salvador Ramos to kill 19 children (ages 9 to 11) and two teachers.

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The Texas Tribune cheekily described the law enforcement contingent at the school as "a force larger than the garrison that defended the Alamo."

Yet don't expect Disney to lionize this feckless bunch of keystone cops, who represented as many as seven different law enforcement agencies. The small army included the five members of the Uvalde School District Police Department but also 149 U.S. Border Patrol agents, 91 agents and state troopers from the Texas Department of Public Safety, 25 officers from the Uvalde Police Department, 16 deputies from Uvalde County Sheriff's Department, and a spattering of U.S. Marshals and agents with the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.

All those cops showed up at the scene with all their toys. They brought body armor and automatic weapons. Too bad, so many of them seem to have left behind their courage and common sense.

Of the 376 officers at the scene, exactly five — a handful — were under the command of Uvalde School District Police Chief Pete Arredondo.

Nevertheless, the Mexican American Barney Fife became the convenient fall guy for the botched police response. It was all Arredondo's fault, we were told through first-rate political spin and blame-shifting by the White men who run — and have always run — law enforcement in the Lone Star State.

The chief spinner was Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw, who took to heart what cops tell suspects during interrogations about how "the first to talk is the first to walk." In testimony to a Senate committee on June 21, McCraw laid the blame squarely on Arredondo and dismissed the suggestion that his state troopers should have taken control of the situation.

Never mind that there were nearly 100 of McCraw's officers on the scene and that their sworn duties include responding to "mass attacks in public places."

These folks may not be very good at saving the lives of children, but they are mighty skilled at saving their own skin — not to mention their jobs and pensions.

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According to body-cam footage released a few days before the report, some officers playfully fist-bumped one another. One stopped by a hand sanitizer dispenser to ward off germs. When gunshots rang out, officers who had gathered in the hallway scurried away like scared rabbits.

So much for Texas bravado.

The law enforcement response amounted to an "obvious atmosphere of chaos" marked by "multiple systemic failures." The cops on the scene lacked clear leadership, basic communications and a sense of urgency to take down the gunman, the report said. Once it was clear that Arredondo couldn't lead his way out of a paper bag, it was incumbent on any of the hundreds of officers on the scene to step forward and fill that void. No one did.

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On that terrible day, all of the bravery was inside classrooms 111 and 112, and a lot of it was squeezed into tiny little bodies. Students between the ages of 9 and 11 risked their lives to discreetly dial "911" multiple times, pleading for police to help as their classmates lay dying.

The heroes that day were certainly not the cops. The cops were cowards. The real heroes were teachers, two in particular who placed themselves in the line of fire. Forty-eight-year-old Irma Garcia and 44-year-old Eva Mireles — according to the accounts of survivors — courageously stood between students and Ramos. Their message to the gunman was one of defiance. If he wanted to harm the children, he'd have to kill them too. He did.

The old saying goes that victory has a thousand fathers but defeat is an orphan. Apparently, in Texas, the same goes for humiliating debacles.

Sooner or later, the whole truth will come out. And hopefully, those who betrayed their oath — and then tried to cover it up — will be judged and held accountable.

Ruben Navarrette can be reached at ruben@wctrib.com.

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© 2022, The Washington Post Writers Group

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