The harsh criticism leveled at the response by law enforcement to the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde May 24, 2022 brings to mind the response by officers to the first mass school shooting in the nation at The University of Texas Tower in Austin August 1, 1966.
The comparisons, and contrasts, are striking.
Though separated by almost exactly 56 years, the extent of both events was horrendous. Both were carried out by lone gunmen, who were killed by lawmen. In Uvalde, 18-year-old Salvador Ramos killed 19 students and two teachers, wounding 17 others.
In Austin, 25-year-old Charles Whitman shot and killed 15 people, wounding 31 others, after stabbing to death his wife and mother the night before.
Both events lasted more than an hour. Many law enforcement officers were involved at both locations. While there were other similarities, let’s focus on one stark difference – the response by law officers.
In Uvalde, many armed-and-armored local and state officers with high-powered weapons, waited and waited inside the school -- apparently deciding what to do, maybe awaiting orders to storm the classroom where the killing was occurring. One investigative report said as many as 376 law enforcement personnel were on the scene, though not all went inside the school. Frantic 911 calls were begging for help. Yet, the killing continued inside a small classroom. And many officers waited just steps away from the carnage.
Contrast that with what happened on the UT campus.
A few unarmored Austin police officers carrying only handguns, a rifle and a shotgun entered the Texas Tower – on their own, individually, without being ordered to do so.
They were even joined by a civilian who asked to be deputized and was handed a rifle after going to the top of the Tower.
Bear in mind, these men didn’t know how many shooters were involved but they had seen dead bodies and wounded students all around the campus, they were hearing continuous gunfire, ambulance sirens were wailing as they hauled victims to Brackenridge Hospital. And yet, these few men kept going, climbing over dead bodies near the top of the Tower, to confront the gunman. However, in Uvalde, lawmen waited an inordinate amount of time in the school hallway.
Think about what was going on in Austin in 1966. It’s difficult to describe the extreme courage it took for these few men to climb out onto the open UT Tower deck where they knew the killer lurked above. But they kept going. Until they were face-to-face with the gunman, just steps away. Two officers fired simultaneously as the killer turned to aim his weapon at them. They killed Charles Whitman.
Fifty-six years ago. (Long before SWAT teams. Long before too many mass shootings that have resulted with regular police training exercises to deal with similar events.) These were just individuals, acting on their own without orders and without a plan, doing what they felt they needed to do.
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