UNITED STATES NEWS

Families of Uvalde school shooting victims file $500 million federal lawsuit against Texas state police

May 22, 2024, 7:00 PM

Javier Cazares, center, stands with families of the victims in the Uvalde elementary school shootin...

Javier Cazares, center, stands with families of the victims in the Uvalde elementary school shooting during a news conference, Wednesday, May 22, 2024, in Uvalde, Texas. The families of 19 of the victims announced a lawsuit against nearly 100 state police officers who were part of the botched law enforcement response. The families say they also agreed a $2 million settlement with the city, under which city leaders promised higher standards and better training for local police. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

(AP Photo/Eric Gay)

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The families of 19 of the victims in the Uvalde elementary school shooting in Texas on Wednesday filed a $500 million federal lawsuit against nearly 100 state police officers who were part of the botched law enforcement response to one of the deadliest school shootings in U.S. history.

The families said they also agreed to a $2 million settlement with the city, under which city leaders promised higher standards and better training for local police.

The lawsuit and settlement announcement in Uvalde came two days before the two-year anniversary of the massacre. Nineteen fourth-graders and two teachers were killed on May 24, 2022, when a teenage gunman burst into their classroom at Robb Elementary School and began shooting.

The lawsuit, seeking at least $500 million in damages, is the latest of several seeking accountability for the law enforcement response. More than 370 federal, state and local officers converged on the scene, but they waited more than 70 minutes before confronting the shooter.

It is the first lawsuit to be filed after a 600-page Justice Department report was released in January that catalogued “cascading failures” in training, communication, leadership and technology problems that day.

The lawsuit notes that state troopers did not follow their active shooter training or confront the shooter, even as the students and teachers inside were following their own lockdown protocols of turning off lights, locking doors and staying silent.

“The protocols trap teachers and students inside, leaving them fully reliant on law enforcement to respond quickly and effectively,” the families and their attorneys said in a statement.

Terrified students inside the classroom called 911 as agonized parents begged officers — some of whom could hear shots being fired while they stood in a hallway — to go in. A tactical team of officers eventually went into the classroom and killed the shooter.

“Law enforcement’s inaction that day was a complete and absolute betrayal of these families and the sons, daughters and mothers they lost,” said Erin Rogiers, one of the attorneys for the families. “TXDPS had the resources, training and firepower to respond appropriately, and they ignored all of it and failed on every level. These families have not only the right but also the responsibility to demand justice.”

A criminal investigation into the police response by Uvalde District Attorney Christina Mitchell’s office is ongoing. A grand jury was summoned this year, and some law enforcement officials have already been called to testify.

The latest lawsuit against 92 Texas Department of Public Safety officials and troopers also names the Uvalde School District, former Robb Elementary Principal Mandy Gutierrez and former Uvalde schools police Chief Peter Arredondo as defendants. The state police response was second only to U.S. Border Patrol, which had nearly 150 agents respond.

The list of DPS officials named as defendants includes two troopers who were fired, another who left the agency and several more whom the agency said it investigated. The highest ranking DPS official among the defendants is South Texas Regional Director Victor Escalon.

The Texas DPS told The Associated Press that the agency would not comment on pending litigation.

The plaintiffs are the families of 17 children killed and two more who were wounded. A separate lawsuit filed by different plaintiffs in December 2022 against local and state police, the city, and other school and law enforcement, seeks at least $27 billion and class-action status for survivors. And at least two other lawsuits have been filed against Georgia-based gun manufacturer Daniel Defense, which made the AR-style rifle used by the gunman.

The families said the settlement with the city was capped at $2 million because they didn’t want to bankrupt the city where they still live. The settlement will be paid from the city’s insurance coverage.

“The last thing they want to do was inflict financial hardship on their friend and neighbors in this community. Their friends and neighbors didn’t let them down,” Josh Koskoff, one of the attorneys for the families, said during a news conference in Uvalde on Wednesday.

The city of Uvalde released a statement saying the settlement would bring “healing and restoration” to the community.

“We will forever be grateful to the victims’ families for working with us over the past year to cultivate an environment of community-wide healing that honors the lives and memories of those we tragically lost. May 24th is our community’s greatest tragedy,” the city said.

But Javier Cazares, the father of slain 9-year-old Jackie Cazares, noted that the announcement — which was made in the same Uvalde Civic Center where the families gathered to be told their children were dead or wounded — was sparsely attended.

“On the way over here, I saw the sticker, which I see everywhere, ‘Uvalde Strong.’ If that was the case, this room should be filled, and then some. Show your support. It’s been an unbearable two years. … No amount of money is worth the lives of our children. Justice and accountability has always been my main concern.”

Under the settlement, the city agreed to a new “fitness for duty” standard and enhanced training for Uvalde police officers. It also establishes May 24 as an annual day of remembrance, a permanent memorial in the city plaza, and support for mental health services for the families and the greater Uvalde area.

The police response to the mass shooting has been criticized and scrutinized by state and federal authorities. A 600-page Justice Department report in January catalogued “cascading failures” in training, communication, leadership and technology problems that day,

Another report commissioned by the city also noted rippling missteps by law enforcement but defended the actions of local police, which sparked anger from victims’ families.

“For two long years, we have languished in pain and without any accountability from the law enforcement agencies and officers who allowed our families to be destroyed that day,” Veronica Luevanos, whose daughter Jailah and nephew Jayce were killed, said Wednesday. “This settlement reflects a first good faith effort, particularly by the City of Uvalde, to begin rebuilding trust in the systems that failed to protect us.”

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Families of Uvalde school shooting victims file $500 million federal lawsuit against Texas state police