As Uvalde students return to school, DPS officers face further scrutiny

Five Texas Department of Public Safety officers have been referred to the agency’s inspector general’s office.

By Rhonda Fanning & Alexandra HartSeptember 7, 2022 12:34 pm, ,

On Tuesday, students returned to school in Uvalde, a small town shaken to its core after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School on May 24.  That same day, it was revealed that the investigation into law enforcement’s response to the shooting is having major ripple effects within the Texas Department of Public Safety. Five DPS officers have been referred to the agency’s inspector general’s office for an investigation into their actions on the day of the shooting; two of them have been suspended with pay.  

A determination is being made as to what, if any, discipline may be imposed, and whether criminal referrals might be made to the DA.

Tony Plohetski, an investigative reporter with the Austin American-Statesman and KVUE, joined Texas Standard to share more about the latest developments.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: Let’s begin with the scene and the sentiment in Uvalde as kids returned to classrooms for the first time. What was the atmosphere like?

Tony Plohetski: Well, certainly leading up to the first day of school, there was a lot of anxiety among many of the parents in that community, many of them actually exploring alternatives to sending their kids back to school. So, for example, we know that about 150 students were enrolled in virtual learning. That’s something that the district offered. We also know from talking to parents that some of them enrolled their kids in other schools or even in private schools in the area.

But at the same time, there was also a spirit among some residents of the community who were ready and eager to try to get back to some sense of normalcy, if that can ever really be achieved. We know that, for example, Uvalde had its first home football game on Friday night, and that was a moment when people were at least, you know, able to suspend their grief for some period of time and again try to get back to some sense of routine in that city.

» Texas Standard special report: ‘The end of last year will be with us’: Are Texas schools any safer since the Uvalde shooting?

A big part of the delay in the start of Uvalde schools, compared with what other districts across the state were doing, was to put new safety measures in place. Are they talking about what those measures are? And were they able to get them done in time for the start of school?

They have described in some detail what those measures are: We’re talking about things like fencing, cameras, locks on doors. And while the district was able to do some of those things, parents also reported that they were surprised that additional steps that were supposed to be in place were not in place. And so I think that that created anxiety as well or intensified anxiety that was already there. The parents expressed disappointment that something that they thought that they could count on, they could not count on with regard to security reforms.

But I also want to say that at the same time, with regard to faith and confidence in local law enforcement, one of the things that parents had been pushing for was the ouster of the school district police chief. And we saw that happen, of course, last month. And so what parents have described is that that alone brought a measure of assurance and an increase in confidence as well.

Let’s talk about law enforcement’s response on that day. Five Texas Department of Public Safety law enforcement officers have been referred to the state inspector general’s office; two of those officials have been suspended with pay. Could you tell us more about what’s known? 

Very little is known at this point about that. What we know is that DPS announced in July that they were going to be, of course, conducting a review of all of the actions of all of its officials on the ground that day. Keep in mind that DPS had the second-most officers of any agency that day – with Border Patrol having the most – but again, 91 DPS personnel on the ground. And what DPS confirmed yesterday is that they’ve identified five employees whose actions they are referring to the inspector general of the agency to determine whether or not they violated any policies or any training guidelines and whether or not they should face any sort of disciplinary action, including suspension without pay or termination even. And as you mentioned, we know that DPS confirmed late in the day yesterday that as part of that investigation, two of its employees have been placed on leave with pay for now as this investigation unfolds.

DPS is being rather open-ended about the possibility of criminal referrals among these five. Is there any more known about that aspect?

That remains a possibility, and the district attorney in Uvalde has said that she is considering possible criminal charges against some of the responding officers. Again, through our months of reporting on this topic, what legal experts have said consistently is that that may be very, very difficult. But as we know, that would not necessarily preclude the DA from trying to bring charges and bring indictments at some point in the future.

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