US Justice Department plans report on Texas school shooting in 6 months

Flowers, toys and other items left at a memorial to the victims of the Robb Elementary School shooting in Uvalde, Texas, on May 29, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - US Justice Department officials said on Wednesday (June 8) that they planned to conduct a comprehensive, transparent and expedited investigation into the law enforcement response to the school massacre last month in Uvalde, Texas.

The department hopes to produce a report in six months that would identify mistakes and help small departments confront mass shooters, officials said privately - underscoring the urgency of clarifying an increasingly confusing picture of the attack and its aftermath.

Over the past week, Attorney-General Merrick Garland and his top aides have been working out a plan to quickly collect and analyse information after the department was criticised for taking more than a year to release a similar report on the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando in 2016.

The department has tapped a few law enforcement officials from around the country with experience in mass shootings to oversee the review.

They include Mr Gene Deisinger, a former deputy chief at Virginia Tech; Mr Albert Guarnieri, an FBI unit chief; Mr Frank Fernandez, the retired public safety director of Coral Gables, Florida; and Ms Kristen Ziman, a former police chief of Aurora, Illinois.

"The independence, transparency and expertise of the Justice Department can go a long way" in helping to understand what happened and why, Mr Garland said, introducing the members of the new team during a meeting in his office.

"We will be assessing what happened that day," Mr Garland said. "We will be making site visits at the school. We will be conducting interviews with an extremely wide variety of stakeholders, witnesses, families, law enforcement, government officials, school officials, and we will be reviewing the resources" that were available to respond to the attack.

Mr Garland and the associate attorney-general, Ms Vanita Gupta, who oversees the division undertaking the effort, emphasised that the inquiry was not a criminal investigation but an attempt to create a minute-by-minute narrative of the events at Robb Elementary School.

It was meant to offer an impartial accounting that cut through conflicting news reports and statements by those involved in the response to one of the deadliest school shootings in the country's history.

In the past, the Justice Department's Community Oriented Policing Services Office, which performs non-criminal fact-finding investigations intended to improve local law enforcement practices, has used a subcontractor to conduct interviews, review departmental procedures and analyse 911 dispatch recordings and body camera video.

This time that effort will be in-house, which officials believe could save months. Their goal is to produce a report in six months, although it could take longer if the evidence-gathering process proves more complicated than anticipated, department officials said.

At noon on Wednesday, they began requesting information from dozens of officials working in the Uvalde city and county governments, the state of Texas and federal law enforcement agencies, including the Border Patrol, whose tactical team responded to the shooting at Robb Elementary School.

Mayor Don McLaughlin initiated the investigation, officially known as a critical incident review, on May 29 during a phone call with Gupta, according to officials familiar with the situation.

Mr McLaughlin applauded the announcement, saying in a statement that Uvalde's "grieving families and our community deserve answers to all their questions."

In the past, such reviews have been conducted as part of the Justice Department's Collaborative Reform Initiative, which is intended to help police departments review and amend their operations and improve their relationships with local communities.

The programme was recently revamped to increase the training and other services that the department offered to local law enforcement agencies seeking to address policing problems, including bias, the use of excessive force and officer-involved shootings.

The investigation into the Pulse nightclub shooting, in which 49 people were killed, found that the Orlando Police Department acted "in a manner consistent with recognised promising practices under extremely volatile and difficult circumstances."

But the Justice Department recommended that local and federal officials bolster their preparation for such attacks in the future.

The investigation also praised Orlando officials for managing the flow of information and countering misinformation about the attack.

"Control the narrative; do not let unofficial social media control information regarding the incident or the department," the department advised.

That positive assessment is highly unlikely to be repeated in the coming investigation in Uvalde, where state and local officials offered conflicting and contradictory versions of the chaotic response to the attack.

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