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One year later, trust in police remains frail in Uvalde

A Texas Department of Public Safety officer stands in front of crosses with the names of victims of a school shooting, at a memorial outside Robb Elementary school, two days after a gunman killed nineteen children and two adults, in Uvalde, Texas, U.S. May 26, 2022.
Marco Bello
A Texas Department of Public Safety officer stands in front of crosses with the names of victims of a school shooting, at a memorial outside Robb Elementary school, two days after a gunman killed nineteen children and two adults, in Uvalde, Texas, U.S. May 26, 2022.

One year since the Uvalde school shooting, community trust in law enforcement and public officials has not improved.

Most recently, Uvalde parent Adam Martinez was banned from Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District (UCISD) property in February for questioning a new police hire. His son, Zayon, now 9 years old, survived the Robb Elementary shooting. He was in second grade at the time.

“He wasn’t in that particular building but he was on lockdown, and some of the children that were playing at the playground — when the gunman first came I think he shot towards the playground area — so some of those kids went into his class, and they were there for a while,” Martinez explained.

Martinez said that after the shooting, he couldn’t stand to be around law enforcement.

“Well, when it first happened, it's almost like you can't even be around them," he said. "It just got you so upset seeing those pictures of them just with their guns, but not really doing anything for so long. You look at them like they're cowards."

David Thomas, a professor of forensic studies at Florida Gulf Coast University, explained that this is an expected response from Uvalde community members. Thomas is also a veteran police officer and a licensed mental health counselor (LMHC) who specializes in active shooters and relations between police and minority communities.

He said that the relationship between local police and the Latinos has been historically fraught, and after an event like the Robb Elementary shooting, the trust in local police is further strained.

“Let's face it, minority communities don't have the greatest trust in policing," Thomas said. "But when that system fails to do what it's supposed to do, then there's no trust. If I lived in that community, I would not trust local [law enforcement]. And if I left my community — [to] go outside of my community to do something — I would feel much more comfortable.”

The sentiment was echoed by Brett Cross, father of Uziyah “Uzi” Garcia, one of the 19 children lost on May 24. Cross said he’s “not anti-cop,” but when it comes to local law enforcement, his trust in them has been shattered.

“I don't have any respect or trust in the law enforcement in this area. I don't trust our city cops. I don't trust the DPS that was here. I don't trust our sheriffs. But outside of that, I don't have any qualms with cops, per se. I think the system is screwed up and it needs to be adjusted,” he explained.

Parents aren’t the only community members with distrust in law enforcement. Martinez’s son Zayon is currently attending school remotely because he’s not ready to return to in-person school.

“Especially with all the failures that happened. We want to have more confidence in the school district before we do that, but ultimately, we leave it up to him,” Martinez said.

Martinez added: “I think one of the times I told him that they're going to have more police officers trying to make him feel better. And he said, 'It doesn't matter. They're not going to go in.' That's what he said. He has every reason to think that.”

 Adam Martinez (right) and his son Zayon, a survivor of the Robb Elementary shooting
Kayla Padilla
Texas Public Radio
Adam Martinez (right) and his son Zayon, a survivor of the Robb Elementary shooting

Martinez’s ban from school property represented a broader distrust in local officials too. He attended Uvalde City Council meetings to get answers about what occurred on May 24.

In February 2023, Martinez learned about a rehire who was deemed ineligible by the Uvalde County Sheriff’s Office. At the meeting, he approached UCISD Police Chief Joshua Gutierrez with his concerns, and as a result, he was banned from school property for two years.

“I really wanted to make sure they knew that this guy was not eligible for rehire, according to the sheriff's standards. And he asked me to sit down, and I didn't sit down, and he ended up banning me,” Martinez explained.

Thomas said that this response to Martinez’s concerns only weakens trust in public officials and paints Martinez as an antagonist.

“As opposed to being an advocate. It makes him somebody that becomes an antagonist. Every time he has an opportunity to say something negative in public about the agency or about the training or about the skill set, then he becomes that person,” Thomas added.

He said that an appropriate response to a distrustful and hurting community like Uvalde is not retaliation but rather listening to the feedback from community members.

“To me, it would mean that a chief would sit down with a community and have a conversation. 'What do they need to feel safe? How do we regain your trust?' We never sit down and ask people, 'what do they need? What are your expectations of us?' ” Thomas said.

Haunted by failed police response

Uvalde is a small town with a heavy law enforcement presence, including the Department of Public Safety (DPS), U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CPB), the Uvalde Police Department (UVD), and the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District Police Department (UCISD PD).

In the months after the Robb Elementary shooting, Uvalde law enforcement garnered international criticism and anger after footage of their delayed response became public. Pete Arredondo, chief of the UCISD PD, bore the brunt of the criticism for his commands to wait for more assistance.

Inside the school, an 18-year-old gunman massacred students and teachers with an AR-15 rifle and injured many others. Seventy-seven minutes after entering the school, the gunman was finally killed by a CPB tactical team.

The July 2022 Interim Report from the Texas House of Representatives explained that there were 376 officers present at the school on May 24, including 149 U.S. Border Patrol Agents, 91 DPS officers, and officers from neighboring counties.

A memorial for Uziyah "Uzi" Garcia at his family home
Kayla Padilla
Texas Public Radio
A memorial for Uziyah "Uzi" Garcia at his family home

Police protocol requires approaching an active shooter, even if there’s one officer on scene. According to the International Association of Chiefs of Police, “immediate action at the scene is necessary when such actions are deemed reasonable to prevent further injuries or loss of life.”

Seventy-seven minutes to kill an active shooter is an unusual amount of time, said Katherine Schweit, a former Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) special agent who created the FBI’s active shooter training.

“The Robb Elementary school shooting was quite an anomaly because we have really no other record of a shooting situation where a shooter is static in a location with victims within that room. And yet law enforcement is, for whatever reason, unable to get in there, except for we saw similar activities in the Orlando Pulse nightclub shooting,” she explained.

Thomas said that as a former police officer, seeing the response time to the shooting was jarring. He said that the miscommunication between law enforcement didn’t matter because they were trained to encroach on the active shooter no matter the situation.

“But tactically, if I've been trained, then I should know how to proceed. So ... you go to work every day with the idea in the back of your mind that you may get injured and you may not return,” he added. “But that is the choice that you have made, and other people shouldn't perish in it as a result of your inaction.”

Schweit added that the police were properly trained and prepared, but their execution failed.

“Every officer is prepared, and they're training for all kinds of things that are incredibly uncommon. And that's their job, to be ready, to have their equipment ready and to go and respond. And they did just that. They just stopped at the doorway,” she said.

Martinez said that when he arrived on the scene the day of the shooting, it appeared “chaotic.”

“It just seemed like many of the police officers were worried about securing the perimeter instead of going in. I remember telling one of them, 'Hey, why don't you go in?' And they said, ‘It's because we're trying to deal with y'all,’ ” he recalled.

Cross said that seeing footage of the police response upset him.

“I don't care that there was orders from Pete Arredondo to stay down and not go in. How do you as a person, knowing that there are children dying, not do anything? Unfortunately, we should have had parades for fallen heroes instead of funerals for our kids,” he said.

Martinez added that the police made a lot of excuses.

“But then that other guy that came in from out of town, he went right in there. After a few minutes, he took care of business. And I think that's what they should have done. So we just feel like they're not going to protect and serve us like the motto goes,” he said.

Cross agreed with Martinez.

“In this area it's all the same. Once we get out from these neighboring counties where the DPS were and more Border Patrol is, it goes away a bit. But in this area, I don't trust it at all,” he added.

Thomas said that internally, an inadequate response by police typically impacts a police department in a few ways: 1) some officers will leave because they realize this job isn’t for them, or suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and be unable to carry out their jobs; 2) other officers will carry on their duties as usual; and 3) further training needs to occur incessantly until the police are comfortable in their abilities to fulfill their role as protectors of the community.

“But the police need to understand that trust is earned. It's not a right of passage,” he explained. “It's not because you have a badge and a gun, but it is something that is earned, and they have ruined that.”

Tensions between police and community

On May 15, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) demanded that the UCISD lift its ban against Martinez. He is only allowed to pick up his daughter from school. He was told that after one year, the decision will be reviewed.

FIRE said it will proceed with litigation if the ban is not lifted. The school district did not respond to TPR's request for comment.

“The district can’t ban people from public property because it doesn’t like what they have to say. If UCISD doesn’t do the right thing and lift the ban, we’ll see them in court,” said FIRE attorney Josh Bleisch in a statement.

Martinez said that he’s served as a voice for the community, and other parents have asked him to bring their concerns to the table.

“I think about the history of the brown people and African-Americans that were oppressed, what they went through, what my parents went through, not being able to go places. And you just get a little taste of that,” he explained.

  A downtown memorial for the nineteen teachers and two students lost on May 24.
Kayla Padilla
Texas Public Radio
A downtown memorial for the nineteen teachers and two students lost on May 24.

In 1970, Uvalde made headlines after a student walkout and a weeks-long student boycott. They were upset that a bilingual teacher’s contract wasn’t renewed by a white principal. This came after years of school staff punishing students for speaking Spanish.

Though relationships between police and Latino communities may not be written explicitly in the history books, Thomas said, generations of mistrust has been passed down by word of mouth.

“But the one thing that I can assure you is that relationship that has been discussed from generation to generation and handed down from generation to generation as to why not to trust the police,” he added.

Martinez said that Police Chief Danny Rodriguez told him that the Uvalde law enforcement “have everything they need now” to react to another crisis, referring to shields, weapons, and equipment.

But as to whether he trusts in their ability to carry out their duty, Martinez said he hopes the community's reaction to the Robb Elementary Shooting response would create a different result.

“You would hope that they would do the right thing and this would change their mind," he added. But I don't think the confidence is there 100% to say that 'Yeah, I think they would go in there next time.' ”

In October, Cross and Uvalde families celebrated the suspension of the entire UCISD Police Department after efforts to hold them accountable finally paid off.

Homer Delgado was recently appointed assistant police chief. Cross said he hasn't interacted with him yet.

“I will say that it does take a serious amount of guts to come into this community after what happened and try to change things. So I applaud them for that. But I hope he does change things. I hope he doesn't fall into the same old good old boy system that has been controlling Uvalde forever.”

In a news conference held on May 22, 2023, two days before the one year commemoration of the Robb Elementary shooting, Uvalde Mayor Don McLaughlin apologized to families for the lack of answers.

“This week is a tough week. We can’t even imagine the pain that the families are feeling [after] one year, and we realize that you still don’t have the answers that you need. And it’s frustrating to all of us. For that I apologize,” he said.

Thomas said that as a Black man, he understood how seeking professional help may be perceived in the Latino community, but he encouraged everyone — both residents and officers — affected by the tragedy to ask for help if and when they need it.

“I think there's going to be a new normal in their lives with that loss. But the only way you function with that new normal is going to be through therapy, to stand there and beat on your chest,” he said.

Thomas reiterated that the failed response from law enforcement should have never occurred, and now, law enforcement owed it to the community to help them heal.

“That department has something to prove to that community, and help the community heal," he explained. "If they don't reach out and sit down and have frank conversations and take the whacks upside the head, and deal with that effectively and have counselors ready to sit with the people and talk to them, then that department is probably going to be not trusted and [will be] undervalued for years."
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Kayla Padilla