The fog of war in Uvalde

The interim report on the shooting in Uvalde, Texas faults the responders with treating the incident as “barricaded subject” scenario, where they should have treated it as an “active shooter” scenario.

Here are some excerpts from the report (emphasis mine)

Instead of continuing to act as if they were addressing a barricaded subject scenario in which responders had time on their side, they should have reassessed the scenario as one involving an active shooter. Correcting this error should have sparked greater urgency to immediately breach the classroom by any possible means, to subdue the attacker, and to deliver immediate aid to surviving victims. Recognition of an active shooter scenario also should have prompted responders to prioritize the rescue of innocent victims over the precious time wasted in a search for door keys and shields to enhance the safety of law enforcement responders.

Interim report, p8

An offsite overall incident commander who properly categorized the crisis as an active shooter scenario should have urged using other secondary means to breach the classroom, such as using a sledgehammer as suggested in active shooter training or entering through the exterior windows.

Interim report, p8

Although the encounter had begun as an “active shooter” scenario, Chief Arredondo testified that he immediately began to think of the attacker as being “cornered” and the situation as being one of a “barricaded subject” where his priority was to protect people in the other classrooms from being victimized by the attacker

Interim report, p52

Here’s how Chief Pete Arredondo described his mental model of the situation in the moment:

We have this guy cornered. We have a group of officers on … the north side, a group of officers on the south side, and we have children now that we know in these other rooms. My thought was: We’re a barrier; get these kids out — not the hallway, because the bullets are flying through the walls, but get them out the wall – out the windows, because I know, on the outside, it’s brick.

[T]o me … once he’s … in a room, you know, to me, he’s barricaded in a room. Our thought was: “If he comes out, you know, you eliminate the threat,” correct? And just the thought of other children being in other classrooms, my thought was: “We can’t let him come back out. If he comes back out, we take him out, or we eliminate the threat. Let’s get these children out.”

It goes back to the categorizing. … I couldn’t tell you when — if there was any different kind of categorizing. I just knew that he was cornered. And my thought was: “ … We’re a wall for these kids.” That’s the way I looked at it. “We’re a wall for these kids. We’re not going to let him get to these kids in these classrooms” where … we saw the children.

[W]hen there’s a threat … you have to visibly be able to see the threat. You have to have a target before you engage your firearm. That was just something that’s gone through my head a million times … .[G]etting fired at through the wall … coming from a blind wall, I had no idea what was on the other side of that wall. But … you eliminate the threat when you could see it. … I never saw a threat. I never got to … physically see the threat or the shooter.

Interim report, pp 52 –53

The report goes on to say:

Chief Arredondo’s testimony about his immediate perception of the circumstances is consistent with that of the other responders to the extent they uniformly testified that they were unaware of what was taking place behind the doors of Rooms 111 and 112. They obviously were in a school building, during school hours, and the attacker had fired a large number of rounds from inside those rooms. But the responders testified that they heard no screams or cries from within the rooms, and they did not know whether anyone was trapped inside needing rescue or medical attention. Not seeing any injured students during their initial foray into the hallway, Sgt. Coronado testified that he thought that it was probably a “bailout” situation.

Chief Arredondo and other officers contended they were justified in treating the attacker as a “barricaded subject” rather than an “active shooter” because of lack of visual confirmation of injuries or other information.

Interim report, p53

(Aside: A “bailout” situation refers to human traffickers who try to outrun the police. They commonly crash their vehicles and then flee. These bailout situations were so common in Uvalde that they led to alert fatigue(!). See p6 of the report for more details).

Of course, it’s impossible to know the true state of mind of the officers at the time. And, as the report notes, video camera evidence suggests that officers eventually believed there were people who had been injured by the shooter:

For example, later in the incident, Sgt. Coronado’s body-worn camera footage recorded that somebody asked, at 12:34 p.m., “we don’t know if he has anyone in the room with him, do we?” Chief Arredondo responded, “I think he does. There’s probably some casualties.” Sgt. Coronado agreed, saying “yeah, he does … casualties.” Then at 12:41 p.m.: “Just so you understand, we think there are some injuries in there.”

Interim report, p54, footnote 164

But even the report suggests that the issue was around fixation, as opposed to the officer lying about what he believed in the moment.

This “barricaded subject” approach never changed over the course of the incident despite evidence that Chief Arredondo’s perspective evolved to a later understanding that fatalities and injuries within the classrooms were a very strong probability.

Interim report, pp 53–54

My claim here is that we should assume the officer is telling the truth and was acting reasonably if we want to understand how these types of failure modes can happen.

Instead of assuming that Chief Arredondo made a mistake, if we assume he came to a reasonable conclusion in assuming the shooter was a “barricaded subject”, then we can better appreciate the ambiguous nature of incidents in the moment. In order to understand the challenges that people like Chief Arredondo faced, we need to put ourselves in his place, and imagine what our understanding would be like if we only saw the signals that he did.

This isn’t the last time a responder is going to reach the wrong conclusion based on partial information, and then get fixated on it. If we simply label Chief Arredondo as “acting unreasonably” or “being a coward”, then we might feel better when he gets fired, but we won’t get better at these sorts of failure modes. We must assume that a person can act reasonably and still come to the wrong conclusion in order to make progress.

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