UVALDE, Texas — Most “active shooter” attacks in America end within five minutes. The attack on Uvalde schoolchildren lasted an hour.
That is how long police waited for backup Tuesday instead of moving on the gunman, who sprayed classrooms with bullets, leaving 19 children and two teachers dead.
That revelation, which a Texas law enforcement official provided Thursday, has enraged parents who wonder whether a quicker response could have saved lives.
It has also confounded experts who say the delay deviates from standard police practice, which says officers should do whatever they can, as fast as they can, to stop a shooter’s assault.
“Waiting an hour is disgusting,” said Sean Burke, a recently retired Lawrence, Massachusetts, school resource officer who is president of the School Safety Advocacy Council, which trains districts in how to respond to shootings. “If that turns out to be true, then it is a disgusting fact.”
Authorities have given confusing, piecemeal and contradictory accounts of the attack. Their latest version, delivered at a news conference Thursday, described officers’ pulling back and calling for help — body armor, snipers, negotiators — while the gunman held them off with gunfire from inside the classroom.
Victor Escalon, the South Texas regional director for the state Department of Public Safety, said the 18-year-old gunman walked unimpeded into Robb Elementary School on Tuesday morning 12 minutes after he crashed his grandmother’s pickup and fired shots at people nearby and outside the school. City and school district police officers arrived four minutes later but drew back after the gunman fired on them, Escalon said. The gunman then entered a classroom and opened fire on children and teachers while also firing back at the police.
“They don’t make entry initially because of the gunfire they’re receiving,” Escalon said of the officers. “But we have officers calling for additional resources, everybody that’s in the area, tactical teams: We need equipment, we need specialty equipment, we need body armor, we need precision riflemen, negotiators.”
While they waited for backup, police helped evacuate children from elsewhere in the school, he said.
Uvalde Police Chief Daniel Rodriguez said in a statement Thursday that his officers “responded within minutes” and that one officer was wounded by the gunman. “I understand questions are surfacing regarding the details of what occurred. I know answers will not come fast enough during this trying time, but rest assured that with the completion of the full investigation, I will be able to answer all the questions that we can,” Rodriguez wrote.
Members of the school district’s police department did not respond to a message seeking comment.
Burke and other experts said the decision to wait for help reflected long-outdated thinking about how to respond to mass shootings.
Waiting for specialized tactical units used to be standard practice in responding to shooters. That changed after the shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999, when police waited nearly an hour for a SWAT team to enter the building — during which time 12 students and one teacher were killed.
To save time and lives, police began sending in the first four or five officers to arrive. That standard changed again in recent years to emphasize that officers should do everything they can to interrupt shooters, even if they are alone and without backup.
With mass shootings, time is precious. An FBI study of 160 “active shooter” incidents in the U.S. from 2000 to 2013 found that the majority of shootings in which the duration could be determined ended in five minutes or less, with about half of those lasting no more than two minutes.
Dr. Ronald Stewart, the senior trauma surgeon at University Hospital in San Antonio, who coordinated the hospital’s treatment of four Uvalde victims, said acting quickly to stop bleeding can make the difference in whether a victim survives. Uncontrolled bleeding is the top cause of preventable death from shootings, and it can happen in as little as five minutes, he said.
“You can’t wait until patients go to a trauma center,” he said. “You have to act quickly.”
The gunman at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, went on his rampage in February 2018 for about six minutes before he escaped and was arrested an hour later. The shooter at Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe, Texas, was arrested 30 minutes after his attack in May 2018.
“If you’ve got somebody you think is actively engaged in harming people or attempting to harm people, your obligation as a police officer is to immediately stop that person and neutralize that threat,” said Don Alwes, a former instructor for the National Tactical Officers Association. “We don’t expect police officers to commit suicide in doing it. But the expectation is that if someone is about to harm someone, especially children, you’ve got to take immediate action to make that stop.”
The experts stressed that a lot remains unknown about what happened in the school and why the officers felt the need to call for help instead of figuring out another way to stop the gunman. Escalon did not address those questions. He said most of the shooting in the classroom occurred early on in the siege and then diminished during the time officers called for backup. The gunman did not respond to officers’ attempts to negotiate, Escalon said.
Some public officials cautioned against judging the police response without knowing exactly what happened.
Robert Mac Donald, the police chief of Uvalde from 2010 to 2013, said investigators will need to determine what contributed to law enforcement officers’ inability to stop the gunman once he was inside the classroom.
He said he understands why state investigators may not want to rush to provide a timeline of events if they are still corroborating what happened among the multiple law enforcement agencies that responded.
“The important thing is that these guys get together and release the information,” Mac Donald said. “If mistakes were made, you have to investigate that and let people know what’s going on so it doesn’t happen again.”
U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales, a Republican whose district includes Uvalde, said in an interview before the news conference Thursday that authorities had told him that the attack was at a “lull” when the officers outside began asking for help.
“So they’re thinking, ‘OK, we’ve got it contained,’ and they’re going, ‘How do we get all the children out?’ And that’s when the rest of the school is evacuating. So they kind of feel he’s not in there shooting, and they’re just waiting out, waiting for backup,” Gonzales said.
The first officers at the scene may have been overwhelmed, because of a lack of either training or proper equipment, said Steve Nottingham, a retired Long Beach, California, police lieutenant who trains tactical units. But in that situation, he said, officers need to come up with ways to distract a shooter from the victims — perhaps by breaking through a classroom window.
“You have to start thinking outside the box with something like that,” Nottingham said. “If you don’t interfere with the shooter, you just cause more victims.”
The police should have already developed a plan for what to do in such situations — so they can mobilize quickly — said Randy Braverman, an emergency preparedness specialist who teaches school safety in Illinois.
“They’re going to have to explain why it took an hour. Why didn’t you get in right away? What took so long to get in there?” Braverman said. “They might have a good explanation, but that seems like a long time to wait to get in.
“If he’s killing people, you have to go in,” he added. “So one question is: When were these kids shot?”
Escalon’s account contradicted earlier descriptions of the gunman’s approach to the school, in which authorities said he was “engaged” by a school resource officer. Escalon said that did not happen. “He was not confronted by anybody,” Escalon said.
Law enforcement officials have previously said that the gunman locked the door of the classroom where the massacre took place and that police were unable to open it until a school official brought them a master key. Escalon did not mention that Thursday, saying only that the siege ended after an hour, when a U.S. Customs and Border Protection tactical unit arrived and shot the gunman dead.
Law enforcement officials have told NBC News that the officers and agents stormed the classroom behind a shield, killing the gunman. A Border Patrol agent was injured by gunfire.
The long siege has angered parents of the schoolchildren, some of whom confronted police officers outside the school.
Javier Cazares, the father of a fourth grader who died, recalled rushing to the school after he heard about the attack and joining other parents gathered outside, where they heard gunshots. Feeling the need to do something, Cazares and several other parents questioned whether they should go inside themselves and rescue the young students. More officers arrived and pushed the parents farther from the school.
“From what I saw, they didn’t go in as fast as they should,” Cazares said. “Once they heard those gunshots, they should have been in there quick.”
Frustration and anger about the response has rippled through the city.
Minerva Castro, 59, the mother of a high school student, who has lived in Uvalde for decades, visited a memorial for the dead children Thursday.
“If they would have acted rapidly, maybe it wouldn’t have happened,” she said.
Jon Schuppe and Erik Ortiz reported from New York. Deon J. Hampton and Suzanne Gamboa reported from Uvalde.