Devastated Uvalde families demand answers on police response

Days after the elementary school massacre in Uvalde, Texas, devastated families continue to demand answers, after officials admit they did not act quickly enough. Brian Higgins, a professor of disaster management at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a former SWAT team commander and police chief in New Jersey, joins Geoff Bennett to discuss.

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  • Geoff Bennett:

    It is good to be with you. We begin tonight with the elementary school massacre in Uvalde, Texas, where 19 children and two teachers were killed by an 18-year-old gunman on Tuesday. The devastated families continue to demand answers after officials there admit they didn't act quickly enough.

    Steven McCraw, Director, Texas Department of Public Safety: From the benefit of hindsight where I'm sitting now, of course, it was not the right decision. It was a wrong decision, period. There's no excuse for that. But again, I wasn't there, but I'm just telling you from what we know. We believe there should have been an entry as soon as you can. When there's an active shooter, the rules change.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    On Friday, Texas officials provided an updated timeline of the shooting which revealed that students and teachers started calling 911 more than an hour before law enforcement breached the classroom to take down the gunman.

    Joining me now to talk about the police response in Uvalde is Brian Higgins. He's a Professor of Disaster Management at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and a former SWAT Team Commander and Police Chief in Bergen County, New Jersey. Thanks so much for joining us.

    Brian Higgins, John Jay College of Criminal Justice: Thank you for having me.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    And, you know, we learned yesterday that before the U.S. border agents, before those federal agents entered the classroom and killed the gunman, that there was a group of at least 19 law enforcement officers who stood in that hallway outside the classroom and took no action, they effectively waited. And the commander on the scene who was the Uvalde School District Police Chief, he decided that it was no longer an active shooter situation despite the gunman being inside that classroom, despite kids still being alive and calling 911. And despite sounds of sporadic gunfire, what is your reaction when you hear that?

  • Brian Higgins:

    So the definition of an active shooter situation is when someone is actively engaged in shooting victims. So that's what we have here. But even if it wasn't an active shooter situation, and we had purely a hostage and barricaded situation, there are still tactics that are employed. So if you had a barricaded subject who had hostages, and those hostages are injured, or in immediate danger, that's when you step up your timeline to enter the target.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    And there is reporting by NBC News that that federal agents are those border patrol agents who were initially told by local police to wait and not enter the school that they decided after about 30 minutes to ignore that initial guidance and go and find the shooter. Again, more than an hour had passed since that gunman had arrived at that school. How does that strike you, that the federal agents ultimately ignored the word from the local law enforcement there?

  • Brian Higgins:

    So as we've seen in the last several days, more information comes out every time there's a press briefing. And there are two elements in these briefings that stick out. One, they seem to correct information from the previous press briefing, and then they add more information. I think we need a very in depth investigation. But on the surface, what that's telling me is, the decision to stand down was obviously wrong, and that other officers on the scene took it upon themselves to act anyway. And you have not just officers of a lower rank, but of a completely different agency, who still decided to do what they thought was best for those victims.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Based on what you know, about situations like this, with local police, would they have had the training, would they have had the tactical gear to take down a gunman with two assault rifles, with two AR platform rifles? I mean, what accounts for their waiting do you think?

  • Brian Higgins:

    You know, we'll have to wait for the investigation. But even if they were outgunned and didn't have the best equipment at the time, the fact that matter is we expect our law enforcement to be that all those terms we give them, the thin blue line, the last line of defense, they are there to protect us and if need be, they need to put themselves at risk to save children, children at the ages of two to fourth grade, I believe that is their responsibility when they swore an oath.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Well, a question about that, because it strikes me that prosecutors if it gets to that point, they'll have to make a decision about whether the Uvalde School District Police Chief Pete Arredondo, in his decision and the officers in action, whether that constituted a tragic mistake, or criminal negligence. What does accountability look like to you?

  • Brian Higgins:

    Well, I think the investigation will reveal a lot of that. What we'll have to see is, what did that individual know, if he knew there were victims in there, if he heard gunshots, and again, this is not been confirmed by law enforcement or anybody in authority yet. But if that individual knew that you had victims who were severely injured, if you did hear that there were shots still being fired, then as a law enforcement officer either knew or should have known that his actions were definitely and directly contributing to the injuries there.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    In the couple of minutes that we have left, I want to ask you about the quality of the information that we're getting from Texas officials because they've changed their statements about that mass shooting, at least 12 times at the Wednesday press conference, for instance, the Director of the Texas Department of Public Safety said that a brave resource officer engaged with the gunman three days later, that same public information officer said that the resource officer wasn't even on the school grounds at the time. And there's still questions about the police response. To what do you attribute that? Of course, there's sort of a fog of war element that comes into play here. But, yeah, give us a sense of, from where you sit, what accounts for the lack of the quality information coming from that — from the Texas officials there?

  • Brian Higgins:

    So when we train incidents like this, and they're all crisis incidents, and in a situation like this, we're talking about active shooter. It's not just the training, we think about where we give officers guns and a plan and they practice. There's a full scale element to this where we — where agency should practice the initial 911 call, several different iterations of this scenario leading up to the shooting, as the shooting unfolds, and then elements like this, where we have a barricade maybe hostage situation. And then there is this after the shooting where we practice or should practice public information and how that's done.

    The current environment we're in where social media really plays in, what happens is people just put information out and if you don't do anything, there's a vacuum. And so officials really faced this difficult position of waiting until they have enough information while combating false information. But I think a long in depth investigation, we'll see. If you look at when officers prepare for a press briefing any official, it's almost an investigation. What information do you have? Have you vetted that information? And have you proven that is correct.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Brian Higgins, Professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, thanks again for your time and for your insights.

  • Brian Higgins:

    Thank you.

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