Police in the US are not legally required to protect people. Uvalde proves this.

19 children and two teachers were shot dead in Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, while police idled outside for over an hour despite pleas from desperate parents

June 05, 2022 by Natalia Marques
Memorials for the victims of the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School (via: VOA)

On May 24, as many as 19 police officers idled outside Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, as a mass shooter gunned down 19 children and two teachers, for well over an hour. Not only did police not intervene to stop the shooting, but according to witnesses, police also handcuffed, pepper-sprayed, or otherwise brutalized the parents of the children, who, after witnessing police inaction, tried desperately to get inside the school themselves. Videos taken by parents have been circulating on social media, and millions across the US and the world have heard parents’ pleas for action. “Y’all keep fighting with us, go fight that motherf-er!” one can be heard saying in one such video after an officer shoves an onlooker.

Police lies

The day after the shooting, on May 25, Texas officials were already spinning a narrative to the media about the bravery of police officers who engaged the gunman. Only a few days later, information would emerge that would prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that this narrative was false. 

Texas Governor Greg Abbott said on May 25, “[Police] showed amazing courage by running toward gunfire for the singular purpose of trying to save lives.” This turned out to be false. Police officers were instructed by Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District Police Chief Pedro Arredondo to hold off on entering the two adjoining classrooms that the shooter was barricaded in. Students trapped inside the school with the shooter placed several calls to emergency services, pleading for police to help, as cops stood idle a few feet away.

Also on May 25, Steve McCraw, director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, said that the shooter was confronted immediately by a school police officer when entering the school, in which “rounds were exchanged.” This also turned out to be false. The shooter entered the school unobstructed by police. In fact, a Uvalde school district police officer arrived at the scene before the gunman entered the school, did not notice the 18-year-old carrying an assault weapon, and drove past him. 

Police had also claimed initially that a teacher had left the back door to the school propped open, through which the shooter entered. Reportedly, security video footage proves this to be false.

Ineptitude and inaction leads to death

As the police’s official version of events began to unravel, shocking facts emerged from media and witnesses alike.

There is reason to believe that the police had barricaded the shooter in one classroom full of children, after which they stood outside, refusing to engage. “Bottom line, law enforcement was there, they did engage immediately, they did contain him in a classroom,” said McCraw on May 25. Every single victim was shot in that very same classroom.

In the days following the shooting, witnesses began sharing shocking accounts. Angeli Rose Gomez was one of numerous parents urging police to enter the school as the shooting was taking place. “The police were doing nothing,” Gomez told the Wall Street Journal. “They were just standing outside the fence. They weren’t going in there or running anywhere.”  

Gomez claims that US Marshals soon put her in handcuffs for “intervening in an active investigation.” She also claims to have seen police brutalize parents, tackling them to the ground or using tasers and pepper spray. The videos circulating on social media depict some of this violence, inflicted upon a majority-Latino community by what appears to be largely white police officers. 

Gomez eventually convinced police to remove her handcuffs. As soon as she was set free, Gomez moved away from the crowd, then sprinted inside the school, grabbed her two children, and left. 

Some parents were not as lucky. Local parent Javier Cazares, concerned with police inaction, proposed the idea of rushing in with several bystanders. “More could have been done.” Cazares told Associated Press. “[Police] were unprepared,” he added. His daughter, Jacklyn Cazares, was one of the victims, fatally shot while police waited outside.

Based on a CNN interview with a Texas Department of Public Safety officer, some are speculating that police officers got their own kids out of the school, while they made no moves to rescue other children. In the interview, the officer is asked “We’ve heard that some law enforcement officers actually went into school to get their kids out, can you talk about that?” The officer responds: “There was some police officers, families trying to get their children out of the school, because it was an active shooter situation.” 

Blood loss is the number one cause of death during a mass shooting event. It is unclear how many children lay dying, bleeding out, or were shot while police loitered outside the school for over an hour.

There is also evidence that the police’s ineptitude actively caused injury. As a child witness recounted to San Antonio local news station KENS 5, “When the cops came, the cop said: ‘Yell if you need help!’ And one of the persons in my class said ‘help.’ The [shooter] overheard and he came in and shot her.”

Eventually, it was federal Border Patrol agents who entered the school and fatally shot the gunman. But not before being told to wait by Uvalde police. Border Patrol Tactical Unit (BORTAC) agents arrived far sooner than previously known, only around half an hour after the shooting first began. They were told to wait, and did so for about an hour before finally entering the adjoining classrooms in which the gunman had been barricaded.

In the end, it was two teachers, Eva Mireles and Irma Garcia, who sacrificed their lives shielding their students from a mass shooter. The same cannot be said of Uvalde police, who had been trained on active shooter situations two months previously. As a police training manual reads: “A first responder unwilling to place the lives of the innocent above their own safety should consider another career field.”

No legal obligation to “protect and serve”

The Uvalde Police Department has a part-time SWAT team. It is unclear if this team was mobilized for the Robb Elementary School shooting.

The motto of the Uvalde Police Department, as displayed on their badges, is “to protect and serve”. This is a common slogan amongst police departments across the US. 

In practice, it is clear that the Uvalde PD did not protect the teachers and students of Robb Elementary. Parents reportedly had to take matters into their own hands, and if caught trying to protect their own children, were swiftly punished. This may seem like a glaring contradiction.

However, according to US law, there is no contradiction. Although police advertise themselves as servants of the public, the US Supreme Court has ruled that they have no legal obligation to protect citizens. This ruling came in 2005, through the The Town of Castle Rock v. Gonzales case. Grieving mother Jessica Gonzales had sued police in Castle Rock, Colorado for failing to arrest her husband after he violated a court order to stay 100 yards away from her house. Her husband had taken their three children as they played outside of the house, and proceeded to murder all three. 

The Supreme Court ruled against Jessica, stating that, although a protective order did mandate arrest, “a well-established tradition of police discretion has long coexisted with apparently mandatory arrest statutes.” In other words, police had enough “discretion” to choose whether or not to enforce the law to protect someone. 

In 2013, Joseph Lozito sued the city of New York, after he tackled Maksim Gelman, who had just gone on a stabbing spree. Lozito wrestled with Gelman, was stabbed in the head during the struggle, and eventually disarmed Gelman. It was only after Gelman was disarmed that New York City Police (NYPD), who had not helped Lozito up until that point, moved to apprehend Gelman. Based on the The Town of Castle Rock v. Gonzales precedent, the Manhattan Supreme Court ruled against Lozito, because “no direct promises of protection were made” to him. The mission statement of the NYPD reads in part: “In partnership with the community, we pledge to: Protect the lives and property of our fellow citizens and impartially enforce the law.”

Despite inaction, police spin shootings in their favor

If police are not legally required to protect people, it should come as no surprise that in mass violence events like the Uvalde shooting, their responses are inadequate at best. Police inaction during shootings often exacerbates mass death. After the 2016 mass shooting in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, police took three hours to respond while victims bled out on the floor. 49 people lost their lives. During the 2018 mass shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, a report found that the slow police response contributed to the loss of life. Police were also slow to respond during the 1999 mass shooting at the Columbine High School in Columbine, Colorado. 

Despite being consistently poor first responders to mass shootings, politicians, police and media are able to use public fear to spin narratives to the police’s advantage after violent events. After the shooting, Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz advocated for even more police in schools. “We know from past experience that the most effective tool for keeping kids safe is armed law enforcement on the campus,” he said, despite the fact that Uvalde armed law enforcement did not move to keep kids safe for over an hour. 

The same is true for other shootings. On April 12 in New York City, mass shooter Frank James shot 33 bullets into a subway car full of commuters, injuring 29. Immediately, NYPD ineptitude at responding to and preventing this shooting became clear. A police officer responding to the scene could not get his radio to work, and told train passengers to call 911 instead. Despite New York City being one of the most heavily surveilled cities, the NYPD surveillance cameras at all three subway stations where the shooting took place were not working. 

It took police over a day to find the shooter. In the end, it was not even the police who discovered James’ whereabouts, he ended up turning himself in.

By the time of the shooting, the new New York City mayor, Eric Adams, had already flooded the city’s subway with 1,000 new police in the name of public safety. And despite police doing nothing to prevent the shooting and very little in the aftermath, Adams used the shooting as an excuse to call for doubling the amount of police in the subways. This is despite the fact that NYPD perpetuates violence in the subways, from harassing vendors or brutally arresting those who cannot pay the ever-increasing fare. 

Police budgets and the defund movement

Mass violent events like the April 12 shooting help politicians justify massive increases in police spending. Mayor Adams is now proposing the largest NYPD budget to date: $11.2 billion. The city already spends $11 billion on the police, which is higher than the budget of the vast majority of the world’s militaries. Even with this massive budget, the NYPD did not stop the April 12 shooting, and they did little to keep New Yorkers safe afterwards.

The Uvalde Police Department consumes 40% of the city’s budget, and also received a grant of half a million dollars from the federal government. The school district in Uvalde where the shooting took place has its own police force of six officers. Despite being a small town, Uvalde has its own part-time SWAT team. It is unclear if this team was mobilized for the shooting. 

Uvalde is not an outlier in terms of police spending. A Bloomberg analysis of 15 other similarly-sized cities reveals that police account for 32% of city budgets on average. 

In 2020, millions took to the streets in the biggest protest movement in United States history, rebelling against police brutality and igniting conversations about whether or not massive police spending is justified. Many who had witnessed police violence, or ineptitude at dealing with actual crime, were attracted to the slogan “defund the police”. Since then, most city governments have not defunded the police at all, to the disappointment of many activists.

The Uvalde Police Department’s actions and inactions, and its broader implications for the true purpose of policing in the US, are reigniting this debate.