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Uvalde Shooting Victims’ Families Sue Texas DPS Officers

The families of Uvalde shooting victims sue Texas DPS officers for waiting to confront gunman.

A Texas Department of Public Safety police vehicle sits outside of Dalton Elementary School as students wait outside their classroom on the first day of school in Uvalde. (Evan L'Roy/The Texas Tribune)

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Relatives of 17 children killed and two kids injured in Texas’ deadliest school shooting are suing Texas Department of Public Safety officers who were among hundreds of law enforcement that waited 77 minutes to confront the gunman at Uvalde’s Robb Elementary, lawyers announced last week.

“Nearly 100 officers from the Texas Department of Public Safety have yet to face a shred of accountability for cowering in fear while my daughter and nephew bled to death in their classroom,” Veronica Luevanos, whose daughter Jailah and nephew Jayce were killed, said in a statement.

The legal action against 92 DPS officers came days before the two-year anniversary of the shooting in which an 18-year-old used an AR-15 to kill 19 students and two teachers in two adjoining fourth-grade classrooms.

Relatives of most of those students killed and two who were injured also announced last week that they are suing Mandy Gutierrez, who was the principal at Robb at the time, and Pedro “Pete” Arredondo, who was the school district police chief, for their “inaction” that day.

The families’ attorney also announced that the city of Uvalde will pay them $2 million to avoid a lawsuit. Additionally, the city will provide enhanced training for current and future police officers, designate May 24 as an annual day of remembrance and work with victims’ families to design a permanent memorial at the city plaza, among other things.

A DPS spokesperson declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.

During a press conference in Uvalde, an attorney for the families, Josh Koskoff, said the state's failure to prevent the deaths began long before the shooting occurred. He said Texas failed to provide small communities like Uvalde with enough resources to train their officers.

“You think the city of Uvalde has enough money, or training, or resources? You think they can hire the best of the best?” Koskoff said. “As far as the state of Texas is concerned, it sounds like their position is: You're on your own.”

Koskoff also hinted that the families could also sue state and federal agencies, but did not name which ones. He also said the families are negotiating an agreement with the county, which would also avoid a lawsuit.

Javier Cazares, the father of one of the victims, Jacklyn Cazares, said it had been an “unbearable two years” since the massacre that took his daughter.

“There was an obvious system failure out there on May 24. The whole world saw that,” Cazares said. “The time has come to do the right thing.”

The family's lawsuit will likely need to overcome a judicial doctrine called qualified immunity, which shields government officials, including law enforcement officers, from liability in lawsuits. Overcoming that immunity will require establishing that the officers violated a constitutional right.

“We think that this situation where kids, after all, are required to lock down in their classrooms, their freedom is constrained,” Koskoff said. “In this situation we feel like qualified immunity is not applicable.”

State Sen. Roland Gutierrez, a Democrat who represents Uvalde in the Legislature, filed a bill last year that sought to end qualified immunity. Like several other pieces of legislation filed in response to the massacre, that bill failed to pass.

Koskoff, who has also represented the families of children killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting in Connecticut, said city officials had also failed to hold their officers accountable but praised the city for working with the families to implement changes aimed at preventing another tragedy like the 2022 shooting.

Hundreds of law enforcement officers from scores of local, state and federal agencies have been heavily criticized for waiting more than an hour to confront the gunman, which conflicted with training that instructs them to confront a shooter if there is reason to believe someone is hurt. The U.S. Justice Department’s investigation of the massacre concluded that the delay likely caused some deaths and that failures in leadership and training contributed to law enforcement’s ineffective response.

Koskoff noted that law enforcement outnumbered the gunman 376 to 1.

“On paper, it should have been no contest. So what happened?” Koskoff said. “Maybe it just turns out that if a kid has a military weapon, the military weapon — the AR-15 — and you get access to it easily, maybe it's not that simple to stop a kid like that. Of course, they didn't give themselves a chance, these 376 officers.”

In the settlement with the city of Uvalde that families’ lawyers announced May 22, local officials will implement a new “fitness for duty” standard for Uvalde police officers, to be developed in coordination with the Justice Department and provide enhanced training for current and future police officers.

“For two long years, we have languished in pain and without any accountability from the law enforcement agencies and officers who allowed our families to be destroyed that day,” Luevanos said. “This settlement reflects a first good faith effort, particularly by the City of Uvalde, to begin rebuilding trust in the systems that failed to protect us.”

In a written statement, city officials called the 2022 shooting the “community's greatest tragedy.”

“We will forever be grateful to the victims’ families for working with us over the past year to cultivate an environment of community-wide healing that honors the lives and memories of those we tragically lost,” city officials said.

An investigation by a Texas House committee found “systemic failures and egregious poor decision making” by nearly everyone involved in the response.

That panel’s 77-page report revealed that a total of 376 law enforcement officers descended upon the school in an uncoordinated manner, disregarding their own active shooter training.

The majority of the responders were federal and state law enforcement –– 149 U.S. Border Patrol and 91 state police –– whose responsibilities include responding to “mass attacks in public places.” The other responders included 25 Uvalde police officers, 16 sheriff’s deputies, and five police officers with the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District as well as neighboring county law enforcement, U.S. marshals and federal Drug Enforcement Administration officers.

The myriad of law enforcement mistakes stemmed from an absence of leadership and effective communications, according to the House report. DPS fired at least two officers who responded to the shooting.

A trove of recorded investigative interviews and body camera footage obtained by ProPublica, The Texas Tribune and FRONTLINE showed that officers failed to set up a clear command structure and spread incorrect information that caused them to treat the shooter as a barricaded suspect and not an active threat — even as children and teachers inside the classrooms called 911 pleading for help. No single officer engaged the shooter for more than an hour despite training that says they should do so as quickly as possible if anyone is hurt.

Following intense criticism of their response, several law enforcement officers resigned or were fired in the months following the shooting. Arredondo, the school district police chief at the time, was fired in August 2022.

About 72% of the state and local officials who arrived at Robb Elementary before the gunman was killed received some form of active shooter training throughout their law enforcement careers. But of those who received training, most had taken it only once. After the shooting, Texas mandated that officers receive 16 hours of active shooter training every two years.

A Uvalde County grand jury is currently considering potential criminal charges against responding officers. The county’s prosecutor declined to comment this week on the status of those proceedings.

DPS is fighting the release of records from its investigation into the shooting. In the aftermath of the massacre, agency leaders carefully shaped a narrative that cast local law enforcement as incompetent.

Koskoff criticized DPS for deflecting blame away from state police.

“As if they didn’t know how to shoot somebody?” he said.

Pooja Salhotra contributed to this story.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2024/05/22/uvalde-shooting-texas-dps-lawsuit/. The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

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