Discover more from The Freemen News-Letter
Uvalde: Frozen Response and Waiting for the Cavalry
As details get clearer on the police response in Uvalde, hard questions need to be asked about over-reliance on special units & if their funds & training would be better directed towards line units.
Last week, the tragic circumstances of the Uvalde, Texas shooting leaked out little by little until the shocking and horrendous details came cascading out, painting a law enforcement response that not only stood in stark contrast to the initial information we received from official sources but flabbergasted and angered both professionals in law enforcement across the country and ordinary citizens alike.
Investigations into the police response are ongoing, but already we have a pretty clear picture of what went wrong. The first officers on the scene engaged as they were trained, and in accordance with the active shooting doctrine embraced by most agencies across the country. They charged into the building and exchanged fire with the shooter.
But then, after sustaining injuries, officers fell back. It still remains unclear if this initial withdrawal was ordered by the incident commander, if they fell back to regroup and then were ordered to hold their positions by the incident commander, or if they elected to hold position on their own and waited for an order to re-engage that never came.
Regardless, all of these scenarios seem to violate Uvalde’s own active shooter doctrine, which clearly states that an “officer’s first priority is to move in and confront the attacker. This may include bypassing the injured and not responding to cries for help.” In active shooter training I’ve personally undergone in both the Utah police academy and as a former Deputy Sheriff, it was very clearly communicated to me that this kind of response involves moving past both wounded civilians and fellow officers alike. The shooter must be confronted and stopped before any other considerations should come into play.
As a specific example of this training, I was once part of a fireteam in an active shooter response training scenario that involved one of our team members getting shot in the leg. I dragged him into a nearby room, propped him at an angle where he could defend his position, told him to render self-aid, and then proceeded to continue moving with my fireteam towards further engaging the shooter. It was an eye-opening training moment that conditioned us to understand our duty, and first and foremost consideration, was to confront, engage, and neutralize the shooter.
In an active shooter situation, there is simply no excuse for ever disengaging from the shooter for longer than the time it takes to regroup and coordinate further sustained engagement. Every minute, every second, that an active shooter is not forced to engage with law enforcement is more lives lost.
In Uvalde, we don’t know when the proper active shooter response broke down and we don’t yet fully know when or why the specific orders were given by the incident commander to hold position. But we do know that the incident commander believed the situation had transitioned from an active shooter to a barricaded suspect.
This transition in response can indeed happen, and there are scenarios where it is a plausible and appropriate decision. For example, if a shooter retreats to a single entrance empty bathroom it can make sense to pivot to a barricaded suspect strategy, cordon off the shooter from civilians, and turn efforts towards evacuating civilians before re-engaging and inviting return fire from the shooter.
However, the hinge point of such a transition lies in the certainty, certainty, that a shooter has been contained and that no further loss of life can ensue from breaking off active engagement with the shooter. Given the circumstances of the situation in Uvalde, I cannot fathom how this certainty could have been reached.
The incident commander in Uvalde, as far as we can tell, simply assumed everyone in that classroom was dead and chose to wait for special units and special equipment to re-engage the shooter at a later time. How long the incident commander would have been willing to wait, we do not know, since the information we now have is that a Border Patrol tactical unit finally chose to assault the room and take out the shooter without a direct command to do so.
What was found inside the classroom was a devastating indictment of the decision to wait. Children shot multiple times to the point that they couldn’t be immediately identified. Children alive and hiding in piles of their classmate’s bodies. Children covering themselves with the blood of their classmates and playing dead.
The apparent indecision and failure to engage and preserve life is further compounded by reports of 911 calls coming repeatedly from the classroom and other adjacent rooms throughout the time when law enforcement was disengaged from the shooter, letting dispatchers know there were still people alive in that room, begging for the officers that they could hear outside their room to come in and save them. Early reports claimed this information was not relayed to the scene, but new information is casting doubt on those early reports.
But regardless if such information was not relayed to the incident commander, it again makes little sense to assume that no one was still alive in that room. So, what exactly was that incident commander thinking?
At this time, we can only speculate. And I’m sure, as the investigations progress, we’re going to get a clearer idea of the decision-making, or lack thereof, that occurred during the incident. But what appears to have happened involves two tragic elements that have been known to happen in the maelstrom of combat and police engagement: a frozen response and a “call in the cavalry” mindset.
A frozen response is something that can happen very easily when faced with an unexpected failure in the plan, indecision or uncertainty in a moment that calls for immediate action, and/or a mindset that is more concerned with doing the wrong thing than taking action to do the right thing.
A classic demonstration of a frozen response is dramatized in episode seven of HBO’s Band of Brothers. The episode depicts a winter assault conducted by a company of paratroopers. The attack breaks down as the officer in charge is met with an unexpected development in the plan (he loses sight of one of his platoons). He halts the attack, losing the momentum of their assault and leaving his men exposed to continuous enemy fire with little in the way of reliable cover.
The officer then becomes bogged down in indecision and uncertainty, leaving his company exposed to punishing fire while he fails to lead his men forward out of the kill zone. The company is saved from complete annihilation by the decision of the battalion commander to relieve the failed officer of command and replace him with another officer whose decisive action overcame the frozen response and regained the initiative.
Here’s a clip of the show that includes the frozen response part of the assault (warning: this film clip is for mature viewers):
At this time, I can’t say for sure that this kind of frozen response is what happened in Uvalde, but the information we currently have definitely paints a picture that looks a lot like the clip above. The first wave of police officers received grazing wounds, their initial assault on the shooter was stymied and they fell back, and the shooter locked the door and made a sustained police assault far more difficult to organize and employ. The response froze.
And a big part of what kept the response frozen seems to be both the impulse to “call in the cavalry” and quite possibly the administrative fear of doing the wrong thing instead of seeking to do the right thing. Since this latter possibility is less clear, I’ll only address it briefly.
In the last several years, as law enforcement has faced intense and increasing scrutiny, both political leadership and police administration have grown heavily concerned with the bad press and institutional fallout that can result from law enforcement action. There is a reticence to engage, and even a distrust of line officers to do the right thing or engage in ways that are safe and avoid controversy.
There even seems to be instances where those in charge of ordering a police response fail to do so or are slow to do so in the belief that the police would make matters worse rather than engage to maintain law and order, such as in several cases across the country where protests were allowed to devolve into criminal behavior and police were only ordered to engage at the point where serious effort was required to regain peace on the streets.
Again, we don’t have enough information to know whether this reticence and even distrust in line officers played a part in the frozen response. But given that we are seeing this kind of reticence and distrust across the country, it can’t be ruled out of the conversation. And even if cases can be made for why such reticence and distrust may be warranted, it’s not something that can be allowed to continue. We have to have effective law enforcement response, as the disastrous response in Uvalde may end up demonstrating.
What I do feel far more confident in clearly connecting to the frozen response in Uvalde is the “call in the cavalry” instinct.
In any kind of military or police engagement, there is often the option to request support from other more specialized units. In combat, officers can call for indirect fire, they can request air support, and, at times, they can utilize specialized units for accomplishing specific and unique tasks. In law enforcement, there are numerous specialized units such as SWAT, K9, bomb squads, hostage negotiators, etc. that can be called upon to assist in unique and difficult situations.
In both military and law enforcement situations, access to such multifaceted options is excellent and can make a significant difference in numerous situations. But there is always the danger of an overreliance on specialized units and support options as well as the question of resources committed to such options to the detriment of line unit effectiveness and readiness.
Specific to the Uvalde situation, we need to ask the hard questions.
If a single, untrained 18-year-old with a semi-automatic weapon can paralyze the response of dozens of officers whose firearms, equipment, and training should exceed that of the shooter while the incident commander waits for the arrival of specialized units with special equipment, then are the funds and training being given to these specialized units aiding the effectiveness of police response or have we created an overreliance on units that take time to assemble and coordinate when seconds and minutes matter to the preservation of lives?
If an incident commander believes his line units who are on the scene and able to take action are either unequipped or insufficiently trained to deal with the situation decisively and end the loss of life, then would the funds and training currently being given to specialized units be better spent in equipping and training line units so that they can act decisively and thus avoid the impulse to “wait for the cavalry” and fail to engage?
In other words, in creating special units and giving them heavy funding and training, have we created a law enforcement culture where line officers don’t think of themselves as the cavalry themselves? And, if this is the case, what kinds of hard decisions should we consider in assuring that officers and incident commanders responding to scenes such as active shooters charge in without hesitation knowing they are equipped and trained to engage immediately, end the loss of life, and take down the shooter?
There’s no doubt that these are difficult questions. SWAT, and similar tactical units, are among the most respected units in American law enforcement, and positions in such units are typically the envy of most line officers. The officers that serve on such units are well-trained and proficient, and have conducted themselves admirably in many, many situations. Such units are clear assets to their departments.
But the unavoidable reality is that in the time it takes to deploy such specialized units, many of the tactical situations that would call for them are either ended or evolve into different scenarios. The majority of SWAT deployments tend to involve barricaded suspects or clearing buildings after a situation’s conclusion. In fact, SWAT’s mission is often expanded in order to justify its costs, and many SWAT units find the majority of their deployments involve serving warrants and raiding houses for fugitives.
The times when specialized unit officers most often make an immediate difference in active shooter and similar situations is when they themselves are the initial responders, either because they were among the initial responding line units or when they were conveniently in proximity to the situation. Specially trained officers make the biggest difference when deploying their weapons and tactics as part of the line unit initial response, and less commonly as members of their team’s full response after initial contact.
These realities force us to consider whether special units such as SWAT should be reformed or even rethought. SWAT specifically was created at a time in the past when line units did not have access to the kinds of firearms and equipment that they have access to now. The creation and initial proliferation in the 1980s of Special Weapons and Tactics teams was articulated on the need for such a unit to respond to calls for assistance from officers often armed only with revolvers and with little to no access to body armor and other protective equipment.
But that former reality is no longer the case. Most police departments have now bridged the special weapons and equipment gap that used to exist between line officers and SWAT units. Most line police officers now have tactical kits that include an AR-15-style rifle, body armor, and a combat helmet. This is exactly what we observed in the Uvalde response, and it leads to very uncomfortable and, indeed, disturbing scenes. We observe the special weapons and special equipment, but not the application of the specialized tactics such weapons and equipment should engender.
In Uvalde, the entire country witnessed dozens of police officers armed and equipped similarly to infantry soldiers paralyzed by a single untrained 18-year-old as they waited for a special unit with specialized equipment to arrive. This should not be an acceptable scenario.
There are many different options available to address this apparent deficiency, ranging from small adjustments to serious overhauls. On the more conservative side, departments could simply rotate more officers through units like SWAT, expanding the impact of the specialized training by assuring more line units are either current or former specialized operators. A more aggressive strategy might be to reconsider the existence of SWAT in some departments, especially smaller departments, and instead devout money and effort to training line units in the kinds of tactics that SWAT now employs.
One idea I’m quite fond of is training line units to operate as Crisis Response Teams, with training and equipment similar to SWAT provided for typical police officers who can employ such tactics at a moment's notice with whoever else is on the scene, or on their own if necessary. Such efficiency would both instill confidence in line units of their ability to react without hesitation and would also help ensure administrators believe in the abilities of their officers and avoid the reticence to commit them to action without the presence of a special unit.
Whether such a program is possible without cutting funding and training for special units is a question that would have to be answered if departments chose such a route. My guess is it would, at the very least, involve some re-budgeting away from special units given limited resources in our law enforcement agencies.
As I’ve said, there are many details we’re still waiting on in order to paint a clearer picture of what went wrong in Uvalde, Texas. However, the picture we have so far pretty clearly paints the realities of both a frozen response and a “wait for the cavalry” attitude either in that specific department’s culture or in the mind of the incident commander.
In considering this observation, I think we would be foolish not to consider whether the considerable assets and time going towards special units, like SWAT, wouldn’t be put to better use ensuring line officers have the training and equipment they need to respond decisively to active shooters and other emergency situations as well as helping to avoid administrative indecision and uncertainty when deploying their officers in such fluid and dangerous circumstances.