Texas police accused of bungling the response to a mass shooter in an Uvalde school where 19 children and two teachers were killed aren’t likely to be held liable in a civil court, benefiting from broad immunity granted government entities.
The law enforcement response is under intense scrutiny. According to the timeline provided by Steven McCraw, director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, 19 officers were in the school for almost an hour before police entered the classroom where the gunman was and killed him. Students had been calling 911, begging for help while the shooter was still active.
“I certainly think the police activity, or nonactivity, was awful but I don’t think there is any recourse in suing the police officers,” David Crump, law professor at University of Houston, said in an interview Friday.
According to the Doctrine of Sovereign Immunity, a government isn’t liable to its citizens for their injuries. The Texas Torts Claims Act grants permission to sue in certain limited circumstances, but according to legal experts interviewed, those wouldn’t apply in the Uvalde school shooting case.
“The police were doing what police do,” Dick DeGuerin, a criminal defense attorney in Houston, said in an interview. “They may have been terribly negligent in how they did it. But it’s got to be more than negligence, it’s got to be a policy fault” for civil liability to stick in court.
Dan Cogdell, another criminal defense attorney in Houston, agreed with DeGuerin.
“Unless the Uvalde Chief of Police has a written policy that says, ‘Wait an hour before you go in and rescue the kids,’” the parents won’t win in a wrongful-death liability suit, Cogdell said.
Neither the Uvalde police nor McCraw responded to requests for comment, made after regular business hours.
Cities have settled cases where individual police officers were accused of wrongdoing. Minneapolis paid $27 million to settle a civil lawsuit filed by the family of George Floyd, who choked to death when an officer knelt on his neck. Floyd’s murder fueled nationwide Black Lives Matter protests.
According to The Washington Post, more than $3.2 billion has been spent over the past decade to settle claims of police misconduct at 25 of the nation’s largest police and sheriff’s departments.
“The civil rights act requires an almost intentional deprivation of civil rights which I think is unlikely because of the police inaction” in Uvalde, Crump said.
There, the incident commander, chief of police of the school district, made the decision not to try to break into the classroom where the shooter was barricaded because it was believed that no children were at risk at that time, McCraw said at a news conference Friday.
The incident commander then made the decision to wait for more tactical officers to arrive before trying to get into the room to confront the gunman. Officers entered after they got a key from the janitor, he said.
“Clearly, there was kids in the room, clearly they were at risk,” McCraw said. “It was the wrong decision.”
Texas DPS’s calling out the local police mistakes likely creates a liability for them, DeGuerin said. But that’s something to be expected, he added.
“Everybody is pointing their fingers away from themselves, trying to lay the blame on anybody and everybody except the culture,” he said, referring to the gun culture. “That’s where the blame sits.”
Cogdell said there are no state or federal statutes that currently peg liability on local cops, other first responders or local government officials in a mass-shooting situation.
“They’re literally going to have to change the law; the Texas Legislature or Congress are going to have to get involved” and create wrongful-death statutes that address these situations, he said. “They’re not going to be able to write around it just because we’re looking at a more sympathetic situation here.”