'We going in or we staying here?' Chaos, confusion captured on Uvalde police bodycams

Pistol in his hands, Uvalde school police officer Ruben Ruiz pushed his way through the knot of heavily armed police officers waiting around a corner from where his wife was dying on the floor of her classroom.

“She says she’s shot, Johnny,” said Ruiz, imploring Constable John Field to let him through.

Field refused, snaking an arm around the distraught man’s neck, stopping him from trying to rescue his wife. As many as a dozen officers were crowded in the hallway, waiting to be told to make a move.

They didn’t know just how bad the scene would become. But Ruiz did.

From her classroom, Eva Mireles had called her husband. She had been shot, she told him, and she was dying.

That moment between Ruiz and Field is one of many revealed by newly released police bodycam footage showing the police response to the May 24 Uvalde school shooting.

The camera footage provides an up-close view of the actions of the officers who were among the first to arrive that day.

The police response began after a gunman entered Robb Elementary School with a semiautomatic rifle, pushing into two adjoining classrooms and starting a rampage. It did not end for some 77 minutes, when later-arriving federal officers finally breached the classroom door and killed the shooter. In the end, 19 students and 2 teachers died.

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That police response has since drawn wide condemnation. A preliminary report from the state’s House of Representatives, released this week, skewered every level of the law enforcement response to the May 24 shooting, starting with the school district’s police chief, Pete Arredondo. It concluded that some victims might have survived if they had been rescued earlier.

That report took care to note that it found no malice or ill motive by any responding officer. “Instead,” the reporting committee said, “we found systemic failures and egregious poor decision making.”

The bodycam videos, released by Uvalde city officials, identify six officers by name and carry a disclaimer that they have been edited to protect victims and witnesses.

Uvalde city officers arrived at the school urgently, knowing that the children and friends of colleagues, and in some cases their own relatives, were inside.

But from their first moments, the videos show widespread miscommunication among officers about the threat the school faced, what tactics they would use to end the standoff, and even whether anyone was negotiating with the gunman.

The footage shows police calling for reinforcements at the school, with additional firepower, shields, incendiary devices, gas masks – gear they ultimately never used.

It also reveals poignant human moments amid the chaos, as officers shuffle incongruously past cheery school billboards and code-of-conduct signs.

Some moments turn heartwarming as officers attempt to free teachers and students hiding inside classrooms, comforting children even as they urge them to run: “Quickly, sweetheart, quickly.”

Others turn heartbreaking – as when Ruiz, distraught, tried to push through the crowd. Field stopped him and guided him to the exit door, where he was disarmed.

Throughout, the footage shows officers struggling to find their own roles in a situation without a plan.

Officer Justin Mendoza, his chest heaving as he runs onto the school campus, exclaims to his colleagues a question that becomes a haunting prequel to next 70-plus minutes:

“This is f—ed. Hey, are we going in or we staying here? What are we doing?”

EXCLUSIVE VIDEO: Surveillance footage obtained by Austin American-Statesman

VISUAL TIMELINE: Latest details and analysis

More equipment

Through the first 15 minutes on the scene, Sgt. Daniel Coronado repeatedly called for more firepower and protective equipment.

He wanted flashbangs that could stun a gunman. He wanted a mirror to peer around corners and a glass-breaker to help evacuate children who were locked down in other classrooms.

As Justin Mendoza entered the school building, he offered, “I’ve got a rifle. Who’s got a rifle up there?”

Fellow Officer Jesus Mendoza, a few minutes after entering the school’s west building, hustled back outside to call to a colleague. “Hey Saucedo,” he shouted, “they need your rifle!” The other officer handed off the weapon. “It’s hot,” he warned before he flipped on the rifle’s safety switch, then “OK. Safe safe safe.”

Jesus Mendoza carried the gun back inside and handed it to another officer.

Throughout early minutes, officers discussed protective shields.

Once inside the school hallway, Justin Mendoza’s video captured another discussion.

“Somebody get those shields,” one voice called.

And then a decision to do nothing. “Wait Javi, just wait,” someone in the hallway said.

Another officer remarked, “There’s no active shooting, stand by. Someone can be hurt, so stand by.”

“We all want to get in there, Javi,” the voice in the hallway said, again. “We all want to get in there, trust me.”

The House report subsequently noted that four different ballistic shields arrived between 11:52 a.m. and 12:21 p.m., although only one of them was rated to provide protection from the shooter’s high-powered rifle fire.

By then, other officers were discussing tactics such as CS gas. “Do y’all have CS? CS gas? To gas him out?” one arriving Border Patrol agent asked.

Later, as seen in Justin Mendoza’s video, a uniformed officer rushed into the school carrying a crate of gas grenades. Then someone asked, “We don’t have gas masks?”

“No,” another responded.

“Do you have y’all’s masks?” a third yelled down the hallway.

Voices on the police radios called for flash-bang grenades. “We’re definitely going to need some flashers, some flashbangs, if we have them,” one person said.

As the gear piled up, an officer in heavy camouflage gear asked, “The subject? No one knows where the kids or anything else is at?” Another replied, “Yeah, there’s a student in there talking.” 

Over and over, officers tested keys that wouldn’t open classroom doors, and put out calls for someone to deliver a Halligan tool or other device for breaking down doors. But the House report would later note that no one called the school principal, who had a master key.

Soon, the school was inundated with gear and firepower, much of it just outside classrooms 111 and 112.

A helicopter arrived around 30 minutes into the saga, providing air surveillance while the beat of its blades overhead added to the chaos.

Shortly before noon, Justin Mendoza’s video showed officers set up in the hallway with a protective shield.

“You don’t want to make entrance?” an officer asked.

Another responded: “We’re waiting. We’ve got a negotiator and we’re waiting for more shields.”

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More officers

As the gunman opened fire in a classroom, some of the officers stationed just outside in the hallways shuffled backwards, rifles and guns still raised.

One of them, Sgt. Eduardo Canales, head of Uvalde’s SWAT team, put a hand up to his face, then pulled it back down. A small drop of blood appeared on his middle finger. As he continued raising his hand to feel his head, more blood appeared.

“Am I bleeding?” he asked the other officers.

Canales’ body cam recorded no response from his fellow officers, just a faint voice in the background saying ”my wife’s classroom” as Canales ambled outside to inspect his injuries.

He was bleeding from his ear, he soon discovered, although neither he nor the officers in the recorded footage could tell how he got the injury. Later, investigators would conclude he had been hit by fragments when the gunman shot through the wall.

“We gotta get in there. He’s shooting, we’ve got to get in there,” Canales said, barely a minute into the recording.

Within seconds, he was on the phone with an unidentified person, asking for help.

“This guy is actively shooting. Just giving you guys a heads up because the more help the better,” Canales said.

As minutes ticked by, no officers entered the classroom, but others continued to call for more backup.

In the first hour, Coronado repeatedly called for other agencies, including Border Patrol and the Department of Public Safety.

And officers swarmed to the school – 376 of them in all, from law enforcement departments across the state at all levels, according to the later report.

There were so many that Coronado advised new arrivals that reinforcements weren’t needed inside the school, but they could assist with perimeter crowd control.

Bodycam conversations indicate a sniper was positioned for a potential shot through a window.

Over the phone, Arredondo advised, “Something to think about if you get a shot.” Coronado joined in, “We need to get a visual on him first.”

School police repeatedly told others they were waiting for a Border Patrol tactical team to go after the shooter.

“Are we just waiting for BORTAC? What’s going on?” asked one officer in Justin Mendoza’s video footage..

“I’ve got BORTAC on the way,” another officer responded. “I need an (officer in command) out here, I need someone to make calls.”

Yet, when BORTAC arrived nearly an hour into the standoff, they found a reason not to immediately launch the assault.

When one officer asked if the federal team was ready to go., Coronado answered, “We’re good.” But then he added, “We don’t have a key. He probably has it barricaded anyway.”

A few minutes later, Arredondo reiterated: “We’re ready to breach. Door’s locked.” He began testing a set of keys to see if they’d open a classroom door.

Ten more minutes went by. On the phone, Arredondo told someone, “We’re having a problem getting in the … room…. Yes, sir…. Yes, sir.”

For 40 minutes, Arredondo was consumed with finding a master key he thought he needed to open the classroom door. The House report would later conclude the police chief was so fixated on this task that when Coronado warned Arredondo to stay out of the hallway to avoid potential gunfire, the chief snapped, “Just tell them to f—ing wait.”

But wasting those precious minutes on keys was a mistake because it delayed the breach of the classrooms, the House committee concluded.

Worse, no one had checked to see if classrooms 111 or 112 were locked. Later testimony revealed officers largely assumed the doors were locked because of school lockdown policy. But Room 111 had probably been unlocked the entire time.

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No plan

In the footage from officer Jesus Mendoza, police gather outside the school’s main entrance, seemingly uncertain how to proceed. Another officer remarks, “You want to go in there?” Then he adds a rejoinder: “Nah, what if he comes around?”

Officers captured in body camera footage repeatedly asked one another about a plan but seemed unsure of the responses. And they shared tips that turned out to be wrong.

About 17 minutes after Jesus Mendoza arrived at the school, after he had followed a line of other officers into the hallway beneath the “Biblioteca” sign dangling from the ceiling, he stood near a group around the corner from the shooting scene.

Another officer pushed past him, remarking, “Hey, Pete’s in the room with him.” A few minutes later, another remark, seemingly also about Chief Arredondo: “He’s going to be incident commander right now.”

The House report later found that many officers were told similar news.

Through much of the first hour, officers were confused about whether children were in classrooms with the shooter. Yet, early on, a dispatcher announced that class was in session at the time of the assault.

Coronado heard the news and gasped, “Oh, no. Oh, no.”

The misinformation was heightened by uncertainties and fears – particularly the possibility that more than one shooter was involved in the assault.

After helping dozens of children escape classrooms through broken windows, Coronado fretted to another officer, “I don’t know if there are two shooters or not.” Still, he went into the school and began checking classrooms for more assailants, urging colleagues, ““Cover me. Cover me.” As he opened one door, Coronado called out, “Uvalde police,” then aimed a flashlight beam through the darkened classroom, which was empty.

​​Throughout the 77-minute incident, the flow of misinformation left officers confused about what they were facing: an active shooter or a barricaded subject.

Despite the early gunfire, Arredondo believed that they had cornered the shooter. As he would later tell the House committee, he had checked room 110, which had a light on but was empty. That’s when Arredondo made a desperately wrong assumption: that the other classrooms might be empty, too.

That meant, he thought, that they had the shooter cornered, he told the House committee. And his priority was to protect the kids in the other classrooms.

As seen on the bodycam video, Coronado and other officers tried to initiate contact by yelling out to him in English and Spanish.

“Sir, if you can hear me please put your firearm down,” an officer shouted “We don’t want anybody else hurt. … Responde, por favor.”

Ten minutes later, after learning the shooter’s identity, the officer called out again: “Mr. Ramos, can you hear us? Mr. Ramos, please respond… Please don’t hurt anyone. These are innocent children.”

It is unclear whether the shooter ever answered.

Heart-wrenching moments

Outside the school, Uvalde Police officers tried to guide rescue workers and frantic parents, even though the officers themselves knew next to nothing about what was going on inside.

“Has he been neutralized?” one officer on the edge of the perimeter asked another officer in a pickup truck before letting him through a closed-off street adjacent to the school.

The officers in the camera footage pieced together what was going on inside the school from periodic updates from a dispatcher, who at one point said police had one shooter “in custody.”

Uvalde police Officer Javier Martinez repeated this to another officer and a father standing in the middle of a closed off intersection. But the news did nothing to change the frazzled expression on the face of the father, who explained that he had not one, but two children at the school.

“I have twins,” he said. The father had already been in contact with one child’s teacher. “But the other one, he had a sub.”

“Did you tell your wife to go to the civic center?” Martinez asked, parroting the instructions officers had given to each parent trying to get to the school.

“Yeah, I did,” the father said, nodding his head and shrugging his shoulders before turning his gaze towards the school.

The two men understood each other. The evacuated students were going to the civic center. But the father couldn’t bring himself to leave.

“I feel the parents,” Martinez told him. “Because I have a kid, too.”

While the body camera footage revealed bad information, the massing of useless equipment and the confusion of the day, it also revealed tense human moments, both inside the school and on the streets outside.

In the hallway, Jesus Mendoza’s camera lingered on a poster outlining the code of conduct and its acronym, ROCK: Respect others. Own our behavior. Choose safety. Know our responsibility.

About 20 minutes after arriving at the school, he and other officers began checking classroom doors along the hallway. They had already passed by and stood outside these doors.

Eventually, they turned back and began rattling handles, finding that either the rooms were empty, or whoever was hiding behind the door was not letting police in.

An arriving officer in a vest with a yellow “sheriff” label asked, “Are there kids in here? Where the kids at?”

Jesus Mendoza replied, “Well, nobody’s opening the door. Which is right. But, um.”

Both men seemed to recognize that lockdown protocol may have dictated teachers not open the doors to them. They knocked on the door, then moved on.

Across the hall, officers went into the boys bathroom, just around the corner from the scene of the shooting.

In earlier security camera footage, one child could be seen in the hallway, peering around the corner as the shooter arrived. When shots started, he fled offscreen.

According to the House report, Special Agent Luke Williams of the Department of Public Safety had ignored an earlier directive to stay outside and fortify the perimeter of the scene. Instead, he walked into the building and started clearing rooms. That’s when he found a boy hiding in the bathroom, his legs tucked out of sight from the floor to avoid being seen. He refused to come out right away. He had been taught to demand to see a badge.

Williams complied, poking his badge under the stall for the boy to inspect.

The body camera footage captured the child emerging from the restroom. As he jogged down the hallway toward the exit, Jesus Mendoza urged him on: “Let’s go boss, let’s go.”

Elsewhere, officers decided to smash windows from the outside to evacuate students.

Justin Mendoza hustled outside the school and began helping pull students through a smashed window, telling them to pull up their legs to fit through.

“You’re being a trooper brother, you’ve got this,” he told one student whose identity is concealed in the video. “Come on, let’s get you out of there.”

Other officers lifted a crying girl through shards of glass. “Quickly, sweetheart, quickly,” one of them told her. “It’s OK baby, it’s OK. Run! Run! Run!”

At the police perimeter, a man in a blue shirt and Houston Texans ball cap stood in front of an officer, wiping tears from his eyes.

“You don’t know what happened in there?” the grandfather asked.

“Right now we don’t have any details,” the officer told him.

The worst details were only beginning to emerge even for officers inside the hallway.

About a quarter before noon, as officers amassed in the hallway, Ruben Ruiz – seemingly not yet fully aware of what has happened – approached Jesus Mendoza. “The classroom he’s in,” Ruiz said, “is my wife’s classroom.”

Some 15 minutes later, Ruiz, now distraught, pushed through the line of officers for the last time. “She says she’s shot, Johnny,” he said, before being turned around and sent back outside.

Nearly another hour went by before officers lined up to breach the classroom door. As officers began to don blue surgical gloves, Justin Mendoza said to another officer, “There’s a kid calling from the room saying there’s victims in there.”

Then he turned to a colleague to ask, “Is it Ruben’s wife?” Getting the confirmation he feared, he swore under his breath: “Motherf—.”

Minutes later, the team breached the door, killing the gunman. Ruiz’s wife, Eva Mireles, was bleeding on the floor. Crews were ready to rush her to a hospital. But it was too late.

Contributing: Andrea Ball and Josh Susong

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Uvalde body camera footage shows police confusion amid Texas shooting

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