Texas

In Uvalde, proximity complicates the responsibility of shooting

UVALDE, Texas – After the massacre at Uvalde’s Robb Elementary School in May, Jesse Rizzo worried about his old friend, Police Chief Pete Arredondo.

Blame for the police’s failed response was placed heavily on Arredondo when Rizzo texted him just days after the shooting: “I’ve been thinking about you and praying for you.”

Two months later, with investigations and body camera footage shining a light on the hesitant and haphazard police response to the killings of two teachers and 19 students, Rizzo continues to worry about Arredondo. He also wants his dismissal.

Rizzo’s complicated feelings for his Uvalde High School classmate capture the kind of mixed emotions that victims’ families and many residents of this close-knit community feel as they channel their grief and rage into demands for change.

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“I care about Pete. I care about his mental well-being. I don’t want a person to start losing it,” said Rizzo, who is a distant relative of a 9-year-old girl who was killed at Robb Elementary. “But I also want to hold people accountable who aren’t doing their jobs right.”

Arredondo, 50, who was one of the first officers on the scene, took much of the blame for not immediately bursting into the classroom and confronting the shooter. He did not respond to repeated requests for comment from The Associated Press.

This week, the Uvalde school board abruptly scheduled a meeting to discuss Arredondo’s firing, only to cancel it days later. As authorities weigh their options, residents are growing impatient with missed calls to hold people accountable for the baffling 77 minutes of inaction by the nearly 400 police officers who responded to the school shooting.

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But the very possibility of his dismissal after months of resistance from local authorities is a demonstration of the growing political influence of the victims’ families.

The tension over how to move forward is evident in the signs that have popped up all over the city. “Uvalde United.” “Uvalde must stand together.” While these signs mean different things depending on who you ask, other signs are more pointed: “Chase Pete Arredondo.”

Family ties and political struggles go back generations in Uvalde, a community where nearly three-quarters of the residents are Hispanic. Local residents were largely in awe of the police before the shooting. Uvalde’s leaders, many of them white, share the pews with their fiercest critics. And accountability may mean looking for a job for your friend, neighbor, or employer.

It’s a city with a “power structure” and “unwritten rules” that make it difficult for many people to speak out, said Michael Ortiz, a local college professor who moved to Uvalde 13 years ago and said tenure allows him to be vocal in a way that is not viable for many of the community’s mostly working-class residents.

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“Somebody’s boss might not like that,” Ortiz said. “They are afraid to even march.”

Since the shooting, parents of the victims, mostly Hispanic, have been fighting to get their pleas heard by the city and school district. Local officials initially resisted the release of information and calls for dismissal. But things are changing.

In a sign of rising political activity, more than 300 people have registered to vote in Uvalde since the shooting — more than double the number during the same period during the last midterm election season. And in July, more than 100 protesters braved 106-degree heat to call for stricter gun regulations — including raising the minimum age to purchase a firearm — and for more transparency from local and state authorities investigating the shooting.

It was the largest local demonstration since 1970, when the school district’s refusal to renew the contract of popular elementary teacher Robb sparked one of the longest walkouts in Texas over demands for equal education for Mexican-American residents. That teacher’s son is Ronnie Garza, Uvalde County Commissioner.

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Garza said the shooting changed the community, uniting people in grief but dividing them over questions of accountability. “We are a desperate people right now. We’re screaming here like this, we’re screaming (on the other side) for someone to listen to us, to come and help us,” Garza said.

Faced with incomplete and conflicting accounts from local and state law enforcement, the families of those killed in Uvalde began to make people listen.

After state lawmakers issued a damning report that found “systemic failures and extremely poor decision-making” by both police and school officials, the Uvalde school board held a special session to hear from parents. Chief Hal Harrell apologized for previously being “too formal” and not allowing the victims’ families to have their say.

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“Trying to find the right timing, the right balance of respect, I didn’t do well,” said Harrell, who is white and spoke in an auditorium named for his father, who was also superintendent.

For the next three hours, grieving parents and community members berated the board, saying that if people were not held accountable, they would lose their jobs. Some told Harrell he didn’t live up to his father’s legacy, while others referenced the 1970 lockout and said they hoped he would do better, prompting applause. People called for all the school police to be fired and jeered at the state troopers standing at the edges of the room.

Rizzo, who was at that meeting, said he couldn’t respect the way the police chief or many other officers he knew handled their jobs that day. “It has consequences,” he said. “I can’t understand why he didn’t just resign.

But the long history between them also pulls Rizzo. In a text he sent Arredondo days after the shooting, he said, “Please be strong and patient.”

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Arredondo replied, “Glad to hear from you, brother. Thank you and please keep praying for the babies.” They haven’t spoken since.

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For more AP coverage of the Uvalde school shooting: https://apnews.com/hub/uvalde-school-shooting

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or distributed without permission.

In Uvalde, proximity complicates the responsibility of shooting

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