How police officers should have reacted to the Texas elementary school shooting

Law enforcement in Uvalde, Texas is facing the ire of a grieving community as officers there admitted Friday that key decisions made during the time of the elementary school shooting were wrong. Fred Fletcher, retired Chattanooga police chief and former police commander in Austin, Texas, joins Williams Brangham to help us better understand some of the policing protocols used in school shootings.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Meantime, veterans of law enforcement are weighing in now on the controversial actions taken by those police officers during the shooting.

    William Brangham has more on that.

  • William Brangham:

    That's right.

    I mean, as just — as we just heard from Amna, those officials are being harshly criticized for not acting sooner to confront the shooter and to potentially save some of those children, actions that they now admit were wrong.

    To help us better understand what police should and shouldn't do in these awful circumstances, I'm joined by Fred Fletcher. He's the retired police chief of Chattanooga, Tennessee. And he also spent many years as a police commander in Austin, Texas.

    Fred Fletcher, thanks for being here tonight.

    You have heard the timeline that investigators have laid out; 19 armed police officers are in the school, outside the rooms where that shooter is locked in two rooms with some young students. And there is this punishingly long wait before they go through that door and confront him.

    I mean, as a former police chief, as someone who has trained a lot of police officers, what is your reaction to this?

  • Fred Fletcher, Former Chattanooga, Tennessee, Police Chief:

    I feel a great deal of grief, and my heart breaks for Uvalde.

    And when I think of those 29 minutes, in particular, that lapsed between the officers stacking up outside that door, shots being fired and them finally breaching the door, that grief is compounded with a great deal of anger and some shame that we as a community have allowed this violence to continue on our children.

  • William Brangham:

    I mean, the officials today said that the local commander on the scene felt that this was a barricade situation, where the shooter was simply holed up on his own and that there wasn't a threat to others, rather than an active shooter situation, where there was a threat.

    What do you make of that distinction that they are making?

  • Fred Fletcher:

    I agree with Director McCraw. It was the wrong decision, period, and there's no excuse for that.

    I can't say it better than Director McCraw did, that an active shooter has demonstrated they have no intention other than taking lives. And we know, certainly since Columbine in the late '90s, that active shooters are only going to stop when we intervene and we stop them.

  • William Brangham:

    I mean, I know…

  • Fred Fletcher:

    And, as first responders — go ahead, William.

  • William Brangham:

    No, no, please, Fred, continue.

  • Fred Fletcher:

    I was just going to say, we have an obligation to have a bias towards action.

    Police officers regularly run towards gunfire, and we train in active shooter preparation to engage, engage, engage to draw the attention, emotion, energy, and fire from the shooter, so that we put ourselves between violence and the neighbors we're sworn to protect.

    We have to have a bias towards action. And those decisions need to be left to the men and women who are on the scene who have the information, not to a commander who is off the scene and receiving delayed information.

  • William Brangham:

    I mean, one of the most haunting aspects of this, this horrendous circumstance, is that we know that, while those officers are outside the room, that there are children inside that room calling 911, saying: We can hear the police out there. Could you please tell them to come in?

    I mean, that seems that there's a tremendous breakdown in communication, that that was not relayed to those officers outside that room.

  • Fred Fletcher:

    Clearly, there are many questions about communication and passing of information.

    That's why we need to train, empower and trust the officers who are on the scene of the violence to make the decisions to protect our neighbors, that they need to know that they are empowered and they are supported in intervene in engaging and taking that bias towards action, so that they can engage a shooter, a violent perpetrator, and keep them from harming our neighbors.

  • William Brangham:

    You said that that should be the bias in all of police training.

    Is that what police officers are trained? If you go through active shooter training, is this a nationally understood issue that, in those cases, you don't wait for backup, you don't wait for the SWAT team, that you have to act? Is that what they're taught?

  • Fred Fletcher:

    Absolutely.

    We're literally taught and we teach that, whether there's one or 100 of you, you move to the sound of gunfire, and you place yourself between violence and the innocents. That's our job. That's our fundamental obligation. It's the way we train, and it's the way we deploy.

  • William Brangham:

    And what if there are circumstances where there — we understand that there were a lot of wounded children in there. We also understand that police were trying to evacuate — or at least that's what they were telling parents that were being restrained outside, that there was evacuations going on as well.

    How are police supposed to prioritize those in the midst of these circumstances?

  • Fred Fletcher:

    Not an uncommon situation, William.

    Again, the bias is towards engaging the threat. You stop the threat because you have a perpetrator who has demonstrated a desire to kill as many people as possible, so that the number one priority is always engaging the threat, intervening, and eliminating the threat.

    Often, you're able to do multiple things at once if you have enough resources. You can evacuate, you can stage, you can treat simultaneously. But in any active situation, a bias in intent, a priority has to be given to finding, engaging and eliminating that active, violent threat to our neighbors.

  • William Brangham:

    As you well know as a former police chief, we are a nation that is awash in these high-powered, lightweight, very, very dangerous semiautomatic rifles.

    Officers in that hallway had to know what they were up against. And this is not to try to excuse anything about their actions. But do you think that that concern that they may be up against weaponry that is perhaps even more powerful than what many of them were themselves carrying, do you think that that factored into this as well?

  • Fred Fletcher:

    I think that, if police officers are going to be deterred and intimidated by violent perpetrators carrying weapons of war, than we as a community should commit ourselves to doing something so that people can't kill our children with these weapons of war.

    I'm ashamed that we as a community, that our elected officials have sat on the sideline as children from Sandy Hook to today in Uvalde are killed by these weapons of war, when we know there are commonsense reforms supported by a majority of Americans that can have an impact on the availability of these weapons to kill our children.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, that is former police chief Fred Fletcher.

    Thank you very much for being with us tonight.

  • Fred Fletcher:

    Thank you.

Listen to this Segment