Editor’s note: Since this interview was recorded additional information has come out about the law enforcement response to the shooting, including that children called 911 from within the school. “The on-site commander, the chief of the school district’s police department in Uvalde, Texas, believed at the time that [the shooter] was barricaded inside and that children were no longer at immediate risk, giving police time to prepare,” Reuters reports, adding that Steven McCraw, director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, called that “the wrong decision.”
New reporting reveals that there was an hourlong gap between the Robb Elementary School shooter’s first shots in the vicinity of the school and when he was killed by law enforcement. (The Daily Signal does not name the shooter in order to keep the focus on the victims.) Now questions are swirling about law enforcement’s decisions, and whether they were the right ones.
Steve Bucci, a visiting fellow at The Heritage Foundation and a security expert, unpacks what needs to be investigated and what are the most important questions to get answered. (The Daily Signal is the news outlet of The Heritage Foundation.)
Read a lightly edited transcript, pasted below, or listen on the podcast:
Katrina Trinko: There are more details emerging about the terrible school shooting at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas, on Tuesday. To be clear, there’s still a lot we don’t know. But we do have some additional information now.
And here to discuss it is Steve Bucci, a visiting fellow at The Heritage Foundation. Steve has an extensive background in security. He’s a former top Pentagon official and a former Army Special Forces officer. And he’s also written about school safety extensively for The Heritage Foundation. Steve, thanks for joining me.
Steve Bucci: Again, it’s my pleasure to be here, but not my pleasure to have to, once again, talk about this subject.
Trinko: Yeah, no, it’s not enjoyable. It’s a terrible tragedy. So, I do want to be clear that we’re still learning, investigations are still ongoing. We’re going to discuss a lot of information in this interview, but please know that information is changing as more developments come out.
But on Thursday, Victor Escalon, who is a regional director for the Texas Department of Public Safety, gave a briefing to the media about the timeline of the shooting at Robb Elementary. So one revelation, and this is according to The Wall Street Journal, is that the shooter—who I’m not going to use his name because we want to remember the victims, not the murderer here at Daily Signal—the shooter was shooting outside the school for 12 minutes before he entered.
Steve, what are your thoughts about that revelation? Was that potentially a time that the shooter should have been stopped?
Bucci: Well, certainly if law enforcement had been there at that time, they could have engaged him outside. This is the thing. He shot his grandmother, drove the vehicle to the street the school was on, came out of the vehicle and started shooting at some people outside of a funeral home, which was across the street from the school. And then he turned to the school, apparently fired at the building. Not sure what effect he was trying for there. But then eventually hopped the fence onto the school grounds and then went into an unlocked back door. That’s really the key.
I mean, it would’ve been nice to take advantage of that time when he was still outside the school building, but unfortunately, there weren’t any responders there at that moment to take advantage of that better situation than when he went in.
Trinko: We’ve also learned that the police did not shoot the murderer until he’d been inside the school for around an hour. So I’m going to read a long quote here from The Wall Street Journal. And again, this is based off the media briefing with Victor Escalon about that timeline.
The Journal reports that the shooter, as you said, “shot his grandmother Tuesday morning and used her truck to drive to Robb Elementary School, crashing the vehicle into a nearby ditch at 11:28 a.m. … [The gunman] then began shooting at people at a funeral home across the street, prompting a 911 call reporting a gunman at the school at 11:30. [The shooter] climbed a fence onto school grounds and began firing before walking inside unimpeded at 11:40.” And that’s the 12 minutes we just discussed.
[The Journal article continues,] “The first police arrived on the scene at 11:44 and exchanged gunfire with the shooter who locked himself in a fourth grade classroom. There, he killed the students and teachers. A Border Patrol tactical team went into the school an hour later around 12:40 p.m., was able to get into the classroom and kill the shooter.”
Now, I know that was a lot of numbers I just threw at you, and I’m certainly not a security expert, but … it breaks my heart to hear that first 911 call was at 11:30, but the shooter wasn’t killed or stopped until 12:40. What are your initial thoughts regarding this timeline?
Bucci: Well, the first part that could have been crucial is when that 911 call went in, when he was still outside the building, that someone at 911 or the person reporting it should have said, “Hey, he’s right outside of school.”
That school should have immediately been notified and had everybody go into lockdown right then. Normally, if there’s any kind of criminal activity that close to a school, they lock down the facility completely.
Now, maybe it wouldn’t have helped because that back door, the point of entry that the shooter used, was supposed to be locked already. At that point in the school day, that door should have been locked and people should have been going in the one door at the front where they checked IDs and that sort of thing. But it was left open. So possibly, if 911 tried to call them, they could have gone into lockdown, that might have helped.
Now, once he gets into the school, and then shortly thereafter is followed in by police, and they engage him. But then he ducks into that classroom and barricades the door. Now, if they had been in lockdown, he should not have been able to get into that classroom. The door should have been locked. Somehow that door was either unlocked, or maybe he knocked on the door, they didn’t know who he was and they opened it. We don’t know that part yet.
But somehow he got entrance into that fourth grade classroom and then barricaded the door so that the policemen who were there felt they couldn’t breach it.
Now, I don’t know, and again, this is more stuff that’s going to come out as we have more of these press conferences and stuff and investigation, what actions did they take to try and breach that door? Did they have the capability? Could they have gone back and gotten a breaching device from a car, something?
But at that point they apparently were told, “Back off.” A more qualified team, in this case, the Border Patrol tactical team—their technical name is BORTAC. They’re like a SWAT team that’s part of the Border Patrol … a bunch of them live [around Uvalde], and a lot of the kids in the school were their children …
So they were told to back off and wait for the BORTAC guys to get there. That’s a problem for me.
We’ve seen this before. I give you a little history. After the shooting in Columbine, when we were still under the protocol that if somebody went in a building and took hostages, everybody stood down, you got the trained hostage negotiators would come, they’d surround the building, they’d do all this stuff and try and talk the person out. Because prior to that, that was generally how the scenario would play out.
After Columbine, because there, the two young men just went into the building and just started shooting people, it was determined that in these situations, the best course of action is to immediately go into the facility and confront the shooter with who you have.
That’s not ideal. It’s very dangerous for the law enforcement people who do it, but it was determined that is the best way to do it. Over the years since then, we’ve seen it kind of go back and forth, and, in some cases, police have gone right in and confronted the person. In other situations, they haven’t.
The Pulse Nightclub shooting in [Orlando] is one that comes to mind, where a very similar set of instructions were given to the first responders that got there. “Hey, he’s inside. Stand down until SWAT gets there, and let them do it.” That’s a mistake. That is a violation of protocol, and it leaves the victims at incredible risk for way too long.
Trinko: Along the lines we’ve been discussing, one of the most upsetting details emerging from this shooting is reports … And there’s some videos on social media. I’m not 100% sure they’re authentic, but they’ve certainly been making the rounds … that there were parents outside the school begging people to go in or to be allowed to go in themselves.
The timeline on all this isn’t exactly clear if it was after the shooter was shot or before, but there is one dad, Javier Cazares, whose daughter Jacklyn was sadly one of the victims, a little fourth-grade girl. And … her dad, Javier Cazares, told The Associated Press that he suggested to others waiting that maybe they should go into the school since no one else was. He said, “Let’s just rush in because the cops aren’t doing anything like they are supposed to.”
What are your thoughts on this? And yeah, what can parents do, if anything, in, God forbid, anyone ever faced the situation?
Bucci: This is a tragedy here in this regard, on top of the tragedy in general. Normally, when there’s an incident, and the professional responders arrive, the civilians stay out. If a building is on fire and the father wants to run in to rescue their kids, the firemen don’t let them do that. The firemen go in and get the kids because they’ve got the equipment. They don’t want to create more casualties by well-meaning people who have a connection but no expertise or experience to get involved.
Similarly here, you don’t send unarmed civilians into the firefight because you’re going to create more casualties. This is a strange situation because, as I stated, that apparently … And we’re still sorting all this out, so we let’s not hang anybody yet … the law enforcement who were there were told wait until the BORTAC experts got there.
In hindsight, that was clearly kind of a bad command decision by someone, and we don’t know who. It wasn’t that the law enforcement that were there did not want to go in, did not want to help, but they were instructed to stand down and wait for people with more firepower, more breaching capability, the ability to get through that barricaded door into the room where the shooter was committing his crimes.
It’s a sad thing because there were little kids in there being shot at that time, so I understand the parents’ desire to go in there and try and help. I don’t think they would’ve helped. I think it would’ve potentially caused more casualties, but that is going to be a point of investigation that’s going to get a ton of focus and should because of this delay.
In the perception of these grieving parents, these guys are standing around doing nothing. Well, they can’t send all the cops in. You can’t all get through one door. So there were law enforcement watching the door, making sure this guy didn’t go anyplace else, but the fact that maybe they could have utilized those assets more effectively to maybe approach the room through the windows, I don’t know. I’m not familiar with the school facility itself, but that’s going to be where the investigation is going to go now.
It’s going to continue focusing on the shooter, his motivations, that sort of thing, but there’s going to be an enormous microscope down on who made the decision to tell those initial responders to wait, why was that made, and the only thing we have now is that same official from that region made a comment. And he said, “Well, we couldn’t tell him to go in there because our guys might have gotten shot.”
That’s going to be a tough one to sell when little children are at risk, and I can’t imagine that most of the other officers that were there were all that happy about having to get that order either. So, a lot more to come on that, a lot more investigation, but that’s going to be the big question right now.
Trinko: We’ve also learned that it appears that the shooter, I think, shot everyone who died, the 19 kids and two adults, in one classroom. Is that surprising that a school shooting would largely take place in one classroom? Is that normal?
Bucci: No, it’s not. In fact, that’s probably one of the first times that’s happened, which may tell you that some of the protocols that the school had were working. The other kids were locked down in other rooms. They apparently were safe. The exact timing of that lockdown is one of the key things. As I said, why was this guy able to get into that one classroom?
Now, I understand why he didn’t go to others because there was law enforcement outside the door that had engaged him, and he was trying to keep them out. So, he had no ability, at that point, to move around the school. That’s a positive thing. Unfortunately, he’s got an entire fourth-grade class full of kids and teachers in there with him, so that’s the sad thing and the difficulty here in dealing with it.
Why they were not able to breach that room, I don’t know. I can’t believe that this young man was that good at locking down the doors. I don’t know. He may have used the barricade procedures that the classroom had to keep people like him out to keep the police out, but, again, we don’t know that yet.
We’ve got to get all of the information from the investigation, and, as we know, this information seems to come out progressively as the officials get more and more info and we get more and more enlightenment on the decisions made.
Trinko: For those investigating now, looking at the response to this terrible shooting and how it was handled, what do you see as being the most important information that they should be trying to verify to determine right now? What questions should they be trying to answer?
Bucci: Well, obviously, motivation and why this guy targeted this school, that kind of thing. So the shooter-related part of the investigation. The next thing that needs to be checked is why was that back door open and how did this guy know the back door was open? Because from what I’ve seen on the few clips, it seems like he hopped the fence and went right to that door. He didn’t go around checking other doors and only found that one open. So somehow, that tells me maybe that door was always open and this kid has seen it before if he did a reconnaissance of it and noticed that. So we need to know that.
And then once he was in there, we need more … on that initial engagement by those first law enforcement that arrived to see what happened that allowed him to get inside that classroom. Why wasn’t that door locked to keep him out of the specific classroom and then what did he do to barricade himself in there? Why were those initial officers unable to get through that door to engage him quickly and minimize the casualties?
And then finally, who made the call to tell those guys, “OK, stop trying to get in there. Just keep him in that room and wait for BORTAC”? That in hindsight was probably the most egregiously bad decision because it allowed him to just at his will kill off those children and the teachers.
So all those aspects of it have to be … We need to know exactly what really happened, what were the thought processes, and then disseminate the information and use it to hopefully improve procedures, practices at every school in America going forward.
So none of this should stay in the shadows. It needs to get out everywhere, not with a focus on trying to punish people. The only criminal here is the shooter, but we’ve got to get to the truth, because that’s the only way we can do it better the next time. Because sadly, there’s likely to be a next time and we clearly need to do it better than we did this time.
Trinko: Speaking of preparation, it looks like the school district in Uvalde was actually very aware of school shootings. I assume all school districts at this point have plans, but NBC News ran an article recently that detailed what Uvalde had done to try to make sure their schools were safe.
NBC reports that the Uvalde district had “doubled its security budget in recent years … it had adopted an array of security measures that included its own police force, threat assessment teams at each school, a threat reporting system, social media monitoring software, fences around schools, and a requirement that teachers lock their classroom doors according to a security plan posted on the district’s website.”
Now, of course, just like everything else, there’s a lot we don’t know. We don’t know whether this plan was followed to the letter at Rob Elementary. But what’s your thoughts on what we know about Uvalde’s preparation for something like this and what questions need to be asked now?
Bucci: Well, that whole plan needs to be reviewed again to see if in fact it was sound. And then the key thing, and this is a human factor, is you could have the best plan in the world [but] If you don’t execute it, if you ignore parts of it, it can fall apart pretty quickly.
From the most recent reports, doors were unlocked on the outside. Having a fence around the building is great, but if you could just climb over it, like apparently this kid did, that keeps the elementary school kids inside, it doesn’t keep a bad guy out. And then if the doors are supposed to be locked inside the building in the classrooms all the time, how did this kid get in? Once he was in the building, we know the back door was unlocked and the police engaged him and moved down the hallway and then went into this classroom.
Why was that door open for him to get in there? Did the teacher just happen to open it to take a kid to the bathroom? We don’t know, but if they’re supposed to be locked, that’s a problem. Now having the assessments and all that, that’s great—as long as those assessments were done by qualified people.
I’d have to look at what the money was spent on. A lot of people seem to like to buy big fancy cameras and things like that, which is great for getting information after the fact, [but] is less useful in defending the building in the moment.
And then the last part is they said they had their own police force, which I guess they have security guards that they have acquired somehow. Were those volunteers? Were they paid? How well were they paid? Did they have actual law enforcement experience? Or are they just people who have a blue uniform and a gun belt? I don’t know, were they armed at all? But it doesn’t appear from the latest reports that there were any armed security people on the school grounds at the moment this happened. So perhaps what they’re labeling a school police force is a couple of guys who cruise around and visit the different schools at different times and they just didn’t happen to be there at that school at that moment.
All that stuff needs to be evaluated and then adjusted to plug any holes that were there. I’ve seen that myself. I do school evaluations. I provide security for the school that my grandchildren go to.
And I have to tell you, it’s tough when you tell everybody, “Look, you can only go in and out of this one door and you have to wear your badge and you have to check in and out each time you go.” That’s kind of inconvenient for the teacher whose classroom is at the far end of the building and decides, “Well, I need to go outside to get something from my car, so I’ll just prop open the door near me, go to my car, and then come back.” And at that moment that door’s propped open, the school is vulnerable, because there’s nobody manning that door.
Human desire for convenience and an ability to convince ourselves that these things will never happen here is very powerful and it leads to breaches in security that sadly bad people oftentimes exploit.
So you can have the best plan, but it’s got to be executed properly and everybody has to play by the rules or the plans worth goes way down.
Trinko: So unfortunately, politics have already been injected into this tragedy and debates are starting. Some gun control advocates are suggesting that Uvalde shows that you need to ban guns, not just make schools more secure.
I’m going to quote from The Intercept, that’s a liberal publication that makes this case. So they write, “As the number of school resource officers has ballooned over the last two decades, so has the number of school shootings. There is no evidence that police have the ability to stop these shootings from happening.” [Then the article quotes] Alex Vitale, a sociologist at the City University of New York and the author of “End of Policing” [who] “said ‘The idea that a standard armed school police officer is going to stop someone in that situation has proven not to be true time and time again.'” And he also noted that “police and security guards are often the first casualties in mass shooting events.” What do you think about this argument?
Bucci: Well, first, he’s taking a few things that might be truthful in a microcosm and telescoping it about everything. First of all, there have been numerous instances where quick response by either a school resource officer or a responding policemen, or in some cases, volunteers that have ended school shootings before there was mass killings or really tragic level stuff. I mean, anything’s a tragedy when somebody’s hurt, but compared to what happened in Texas … He’s ignoring all those.
There was an incident in Maryland, shortly after the Parkland shooting down in Florida and the officer walked in, he engaged the shooter, didn’t hit him, but the shooter suddenly took his focus off of the school kids he was trying to kill, focusing on the law enforcement guy and it allowed the law enforcement officers to then reengage him and take him down and arrest him.
There’s been numerous results of that. The thing about the school resource officers in particular—remember school resource officers were put into schools originally to talk to kids about drugs, to stop bullying, to help with all those kind of things.
They were not there to be security guards. In most cases, they were older law enforcement officers, probably this is the last year or two before they retired. They were very wise, experienced, nice people, good with the kids and their mindset was not take down the shooter kind of thing.
That’s what happened down in Parkland. That’s what’s happened in several other places that I think this guy is using as his proof for his case. And that’s an old model for school resource officers.
And frankly, there’s been a ton of folks who are some of the loudest advocates for gun control, who are saying actually it’s bad even having policemen with guns in the school at all. They either need to go in there unarmed, or they shouldn’t go in at all. There are several bills in Congress right now put forward by gun control advocating politicians who want to disarm police anywhere on school grounds, how in the world they come up with that one, I don’t know. That’s kind of loony.
So I reject his argument. He’s using limited examples, ignoring anything that’s counter to his position and no offense, but Mr. Sociologist, I’d like to see your creds for security before I really take your opinions that seriously.
Trinko: OK. Well, as you mentioned, of course, the security at Parkland did not intervene and was later fired. And I think as we look at the delays in the police response, there’s a lot of questions swirling about did something similar occur here, but at the same time, but we also know that law enforcement doesn’t really get a fair trial by media in the U.S. So as we’re learning more about this case, what should people be keeping in mind as the news is coming out?
Bucci: Well, first thing is that all that news is almost always incomplete and generally somewhat contrived because they want to have a good narrative to go forward. There’s been a lot of outrage on the TV news from commentators who frankly had absolutely no facts whatsoever. I understand the outrage in a tragedy like this, but if you’re going to go on TV and talk about it, you do have some responsibility to try and gather the facts first and understand that the facts are going to change as we get more and more information.
So I would say, please be patient, let the investigations go forward. You know, it’s not something that’s being investigated by the Uvalde police alone. There’s law enforcement at every level, all the way up to the federal levels, that are all looking into this trying to find out exactly what happened in this specific situation.
And how do the lessons from that situation apply in the larger context for everyone? I think we’re going to find things were not done as well as they could have been.
But before we start, as I say, before we start hanging anybody in the public square, let’s get the full set of information, put a little reason [and] analysis behind it and then decide how we make things better. Law enforcement in my experience, to a humongous extent, they’re fathers and mothers, as well as anybody else—a lot of those Border Patrol agents had kids in that school. It’s not like any of these folks were disconnected, but we need to find out exactly the chain of events, exactly the orders that were given, why they were given, and then make a judgment … [whether] those decisions were sound, or if they were flawed.
If they’re flawed, then we need to make changes that may include making changes in personnel, but let’s let the process play itself out so we do this right, and we fix things rather than just stomping our feet and making things worse.
Trinko: All right, Steve, thanks so much for joining us again.
Bucci: It’s my pleasure. Thank you for having me.
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