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Investigators piece together the police response to the Uvalde school shooting


To gain a better understanding of how investigators are looking into all this, we turn to Alex del Carmen in Fort Worth, Texas. He's a criminologist and police trainer. He's also associate dean at the School of Criminology at Tarleton State University. I asked him how investigators start to piece together what actually happened.

ALEX DEL CARMEN: Basically, what they're going to do is they're going to start reviewing all of the audio-related records, right? So whether it's a cell phone call, a dispatch call or a radio transmission among officers, they're going to be able to find out what it is that somebody said to the other person related to the actual timeline of the incident. In addition to that, they're going to be looking at the social media components as well that could be used as a piece of evidence. And then the final component of this is likely going to be interviews of the police officers that were actually called to the scene.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, some of the accounts from the school said first responders failed to rush into the classrooms because they believed it was a barricaded subject versus an active shooter. So can you explain the difference between a barricaded subject and an active shooter and how that determination is used by police when deciding what to do?

DEL CARMEN: So essentially the rules of engagement, universally - when somebody is barricaded, police officers are asked to evacuate the area but at the same time call a tactical unit. Tactical units like a SWAT team - they're all essentially prepared and trained in order to handle these situations. However, when an active shooter is on site and we know that this individual is highly capable and motivated to take out lives and that every second counts to save a life, law enforcement is asked to charge to the scene, neutralize the suspect and simply take over the scene. Right? So in this particular situation, information is absolutely crucial.

MARTÍNEZ: And I'm guessing, I mean, if it's an active shooter, you might be able to hear gunfire, but if it's a barricaded subject, how do you know that it's just only a barricaded subject?

DEL CARMEN: Now, typically, what would have happened in a case, say, of a bank - you know, that somebody robs a bank - the 911 calls will come in and say, you know, we're being held hostage here. There would have been verbal threats made by the hostage-taker. So there would have been a clear confirmation visually, auditorially (ph) and, at the same time, through the evidence coming out of the crime scene that, in fact, this would have been a hostage situation. So law enforcement is trained to identify, determine, analyze and respond based on what they hear and see.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, what kinds of factors will investigators be looking at when they examine how law enforcement responded to the emergency?

DEL CARMEN: They're going to be looking at whether or not the response was adequate as far as the timing is concerned, whether or not they actually had adequate equipment in order to respond to the scene. And then finally, they're going to look at whether or not the leadership in place knew what they were doing, whether or not they actually took charge of the event, they gave proper instructions and law enforcement responded and in fact saved lives - right? - versus actually having additional bodies that would have been removed from the crime scene.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, the Department of Justice says it will also review the police response to the Uvalde shooting. What could we learn from a federal investigation that maybe we would not learn from state investigators?

DEL CARMEN: So what's likely going to happen is the Justice Department - they're going to be showing up to the scene, looking at all the records that the local law enforcement folks will, but at the same time, they're going to have a different aim. Their investigation is going to focus on whether or not, you know, lives could have been saved. And the second big question is, what can we do in the future to prevent these incidents? What are the, quote-unquote, "best practices" that we can actually put into play, given the very, very unique scenario in Uvalde, Texas?

MARTÍNEZ: And is it fair to say that the more local an investigation gets, the more bias somehow can creep in, and if it's at a federal level, there's less of that?

DEL CARMEN: You know, the theory is that at the federal level, you're going to have folks that have no affiliation, family members or relatives to the area, and therefore, they're going to be able to have a more objective perspective. But I would argue that, perhaps more importantly, the feds oftentimes have resources and have tools that the local authorities - even the state authorities - don't have. And then secondly, when the report comes out, being that it is a federal report, it is likely going to have a much wider audience than something that would have been created here in Texas.

MARTÍNEZ: You know, wondering what have you been thinking about as we find out what we're being told about the investigation and all the details that seem to be changing in the last few days?

DEL CARMEN: I'm always careful, having been a criminologist of 25 years, to criticize law enforcement from the standpoint of, you know, we weren't there, and Monday morning quarterbacking is very easy to do. But I will say that the flow of information - although it typically is somehow fluid and limited in the first few minutes or hours, I think this was an absolute disaster as the information was coming out of the school and being relayed on to the reporters and to the public. They have to make sure the facts come out and that the information is relayed at once. Secondly, and perhaps the bigger part for me is, you know, how can this happen in the year 2022 where we are actually looking at the entire country and scratching our heads and wondering whether or not security protocols should be implemented at schools? I mean, there is absolutely no question that there - it should not be an issue of if, as opposed to when these protocols should be in place so that these incidents can be prevented in the future.

MARTÍNEZ: Alex del Carmen is associate dean at the School of Criminology at Tarleton State University. Thank you very much.

DEL CARMEN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.