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Learning from tragedy: Lessons for police departments from the DOJ’s Uvalde school shooting review

A detailed analysis of the Uvalde incident unveils critical flaws in active shooter response, offering vital insights for law enforcement agencies nationwide


Photo/Jae C. Hong via AP

By Police1 Staff

In a comprehensive analysis of the tragic active shooter incident at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Critical Incident Review (CIR) sheds light on the various systemic failures and oversights in the law enforcement response.

This review, spearheaded by the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, aims to provide a clear understanding of the events, decisions, and actions that unfolded during and after the mass shooting on May 24, 2022.

This article delves into the insights and recommendations from the CIR, with the hope of improving future responses to such catastrophic events.

The executive summary of the report is posted below. The full report can be found here.

Key flaws in the police response to the Uvalde school shooting

The Critical Incident Review of the Uvalde school shooting highlights several key flaws in the police response that can serve as important lessons for other police departments.

Here’s a summary of these flaws and how they can be addressed:

1. Delayed response to active shooter: The initial officers on scene did not maintain an aggressive approach toward the active shooter. Once they encountered gunfire, they retreated and did not attempt to breach the classroom for over an hour. Lesson: Police departments must emphasize the importance of immediate action in active shooter situations, prioritizing the neutralization of the threat.

2. Misidentification of the situation: The incident was mistakenly handled as a barricaded subject situation rather than an active shooter scenario. Lesson: Training should focus on accurately assessing the nature of the threat and adapting tactics accordingly.

“UCISD PD Chief Arredondo was the de facto incident commander on the day of the incident. Chief Arredondo had the necessary authority, training, and tools. He did not provide appropriate leadership, command, and control, including not establishing an incident command structure nor directing entry into classrooms 111 and 112.”
Critical Incident Review: Active Shooter at Robb Elementary School report

3. Failure in command and control: There was a lack of clear command structure and coordination among the various agencies present. Lesson: Establish a unified command quickly and ensure all responding units are aware of who is in command.

4. Communication breakdowns: Ineffective communication led to confusion and misinformation among officers, other agencies, and the public. Lesson: Improve internal and external communication protocols, ensuring all officers have access to working communication equipment.

5. Inadequate pre-incident planning and training: The response reflected a lack of sufficient active shooter training and joint exercises with other agencies. Lesson: Regularly conduct comprehensive active shooter training and multi-agency drills.

6. Equipment readiness and utilization: Officers were delayed in accessing keys and breaching tools, and there was a reliance on specialized equipment that was not immediately available. Lesson: Ensure officers are equipped with necessary gear and trained in rapid entry techniques.

7. Public information management: Public communications were not effectively managed, leading to additional distress for families and the community. Lesson: Designate a public information officer to handle crisis communication and ensure timely and accurate information dissemination.

8. Post-incident management: There were issues with the crime scene management and victim reunification process. Lesson: Develop clear protocols for post-incident management, including crime scene preservation and family reunification.

9. Trauma support: Inadequate support was provided to victims, families and responders. Lesson: Establish protocols for immediate and long-term mental health support.

10. School security coordination: There were gaps in the school security measures and coordination with law enforcement. Lesson: Work closely with local schools to enhance security measures and emergency response plans.

By learning from these flaws, other police departments can improve their preparedness and response strategies for active shooter situations, potentially saving lives and reducing harm in future incidents.

“The MOU between UPD and UCISD PD that was active the day of the incident failed to adequately outline the expectations and authorities for a response to a mass violence event. The agencies failed to exercise the MOU, nor cross-train in preparation for a critical incident.”
Critical Incident Review: Active Shooter at Robb Elementary School report

Training to respond to active shooters

Based on the Critical Incident Review of the Uvalde school shooting, police leaders should review and possibly revise several key elements of their active shooter training:

1. Immediate threat recognition: Training should emphasize the ability to quickly differentiate between an active shooter scenario and a barricaded suspect situation. Officers need to be able to recognize when immediate action is necessary to neutralize a threat.

2. Incident Command System (ICS): Ensure all officers, especially those in leadership positions, are trained in ICS principles. This training should focus on establishing clear command and control in crisis situations.

3. Inter-agency coordination and communication: Training should include scenarios that involve multiple agencies to improve coordination and communication during joint responses. This is crucial for managing complex situations involving numerous responders.

4. Rapid response tactics: Review and reinforce training on rapid deployment and immediate action protocols. Officers should be prepared to engage an active shooter immediately upon arrival, prioritizing neutralizing the threat over waiting for additional resources.

5. Use of equipment and breaching techniques: Ensure that all officers are trained in using standard-issue equipment for breaching and entering, without relying heavily on specialized equipment that may not be immediately available.

6. Decision-making under pressure: Focus on training that improves decision-making skills in high-pressure environments. This includes making quick, informed decisions based on the evolving nature of the incident.

“Personnel from responding agencies rarely trained and exercised in a multiagency environment.”
Critical Incident Review: Active Shooter at Robb Elementary School report

7. Trauma-informed approach: Incorporate training on how to handle victims and bystanders in a trauma-informed way, recognizing the impact of such incidents on mental health.

8. Clear communication protocols: Establish and reinforce protocols for effective communication, both internally among officers and externally with the public and other stakeholders.

9. Scenario-based drills: Conduct regular scenario-based drills that mimic real-life active shooter situations. This should include unexpected elements to simulate the unpredictability of real incidents.

10. Multi-disciplinary approach: Include training that involves not just law enforcement, but also other emergency responders, school officials, and mental health professionals, to prepare for a coordinated response.

11. Review of policies and procedures: Regularly update and review active shooter response policies and procedures to ensure they align with best practices and lessons learned from past incidents.

12. Leadership and command training: Provide specific training for officers in leadership roles on how to effectively command and control resources during an active shooter event.

13. After-action review processes: Train leaders in conducting thorough after-action reviews following training exercises and real incidents to continuously improve response strategies and tactics.

14. Community engagement and preparedness: Include training on engaging with the community to improve preparedness, awareness, and trust, which are crucial in the aftermath of an incident.

15. Mental health and resilience training: Address the mental health and resilience of officers responding to such traumatic events, ensuring they have the support and resources needed to cope with the aftermath.

By reviewing and updating these aspects of their active shooter training, police leaders can enhance their department’s preparedness and response capabilities for such critical incidents.

Active shooter response policies

Based on the Critical Incident Review of the Uvalde school shooting, police leaders should thoroughly review and potentially update their policies for active shooter response in several key areas:

1. Active shooter protocol clarity: Ensure the active shooter response policy is clear and unambiguous, emphasizing the priority of immediately neutralizing the shooter to save lives.

2. Incident Command System (ICS) integration: Incorporate the principles of ICS into active shooter response policies, clearly defining roles and responsibilities for command and coordination during a multi-agency response.

3. Interagency coordination and communication: Establish policies that facilitate effective coordination and communication with other responding agencies, including mutual aid agreements and joint response protocols.

“The extent of misinformation, misguided and misleading narratives, leaks, and lack of communication about what happened on May 24 is unprecedented and has had an extensive, negative impact on the mental health and recovery of the family members and other victims, as well as the entire community of Uvalde.”
Critical Incident Review: Active Shooter at Robb Elementary School report

4. Rapid deployment and engagement: Reinforce policies that mandate rapid deployment and engagement with the active shooter, emphasizing the urgency of immediate action over waiting for additional resources or specialized teams.

5. Use of force guidelines: Review and clarify the use of force guidelines specific to active shooter situations, ensuring they are in line with best practices and legal standards.

6. Training requirements: Specify the training requirements for officers in active shooter response, including frequency and type of training (scenario-based drills, tabletop exercises, etc.).

7. Equipment and resource accessibility: Develop policies that ensure quick access to necessary equipment for active shooter scenarios, including firearms, body armor, breaching tools, and medical kits.

8. Communication with public and media: Outline protocols for communication with the public and media during and after an active shooter event, designating spokespersons and ensuring accurate and timely information dissemination.

9. Victim assistance and triage: Include guidelines for assisting and triaging victims during active shooter events, ensuring swift medical attention and support.

10. After-action reviews and continuous improvement: Mandate after-action reviews for all active shooter incidents and training exercises, using these reviews to continually improve response strategies and tactics.

11. Mental health and resilience support: Include policies for providing mental health and resilience support to officers and responders involved in active shooter incidents.

12. School and community collaboration: Develop policies for collaborating with schools and community organizations in active shooter preparedness, including joint drills and information sharing.

13. Regular policy review and updates: Establish a regular schedule for reviewing and updating active shooter policies, incorporating lessons learned from incidents and evolving best practices.

14. Accountability measures: Implement measures to ensure compliance with active shooter response policies, including regular audits and performance evaluations.

By comprehensively reviewing and updating these policy areas, police leaders can enhance their department’s preparedness, effectiveness and response to active shooter situations.

Continue the discussion

Here are some key questions to ask after reading the Uvalde report:

1. Incident Command structure: How can incident command structures be effectively established in active shooter situations?

2. Active shooter vs. barricaded suspect: What training is required to differentiate between an active shooter and a barricaded suspect scenario?

3. Leadership and decision-making: How can leadership roles be clearly defined and executed in crisis situations?

4. Inter-agency coordination: What steps can be taken to ensure better coordination among various agencies during a crisis?

5. Communication protocols: How can communication be streamlined among responders, command centers and the public?

6. Rapid deployment tactics: What improvements are needed in rapid deployment tactics for first responders?

7. Equipment readiness: How can readiness and accessibility of tactical equipment be ensured in emergency situations?

8. Training consistency: What measures can standardize training across different law enforcement agencies?

9. Active shooter policy review: How should active shooter policies be revised based on lessons from the Uvalde incident?

10. Multi-agency training: What are the benefits and logistics of conducting regular multi-agency training exercises?

11. School safety protocols: How can school safety protocols be reinforced, particularly regarding lockdown procedures and door security?

12. Mental health support: What strategies can be implemented for providing immediate and long-term mental health support to victims, families and responders?

13. Public information management: How can accurate and timely information be disseminated to the public during and after such incidents?

14. Crisis intervention training: What specific crisis intervention skills are needed for law enforcement officers?

15. Post-incident analysis and feedback: How can post-incident analysis be conducted effectively to gather actionable feedback?

16. Victim assistance programs: How can victim assistance programs

be optimized for immediate and effective response?

17. Community engagement and trust: What steps can be taken to rebuild community trust and engagement post-incident?

18. Emergency response protocols: How can emergency response protocols be updated to reflect learnings from the Uvalde shooting?

19. Resource allocation in crisis: How should resources be allocated efficiently during a crisis to maximize effectiveness?

20. Lessons learned dissemination: How can the lessons learned from the Uvalde incident be effectively disseminated and implemented across other law enforcement agencies?

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