Disgrace in Uvalde: Change police chain-of-command culture

The slaughter of 19 young children and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, as dozens of police officers stood by, paralyzed by their obedience to the chain of command, was unconscionable.

In a Texas state Senate hearing this week, Col. Steve McCraw, director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, denounced the actions of police on the scene an “abject failure.” The police response to this tragedy demonstrates how the power of established police culture can lead officers to suppress the most basic of all human instincts – protecting young, vulnerable children – rather than challenge a senior officer giving a horribly wrongheaded order.

The June 2020 murder of George Floyd had been the most egregious example of a police culture that indoctrinates and perpetuates the belief that junior officers must follow the lead of senior officers, no matter how outrageous their actions are.

There is still much we don’t know about how events unfolded in Uvalde. But we do know that information was available to officers at the scene that children and teachers were trapped in a classroom with the gunman, and some were grievously wounded needing immediate medical care and still at risk of being executed.

No matter how long the public waits for answers, there are no additional facts that can possibly justify the decision to stand by outside the classroom and wait… as children begged to be rescued.

Leaders in local government and law enforcement cannot stand by and wait for years of investigations and litigation before taking action to prevent this leadership disaster from happening again.

Many years ago, the medical and aviation industries recognized that predictable human dynamics led medical professionals and pilots to go along with fatally flawed direction from those with seniority. After thousands of avoidable deaths, both industries developed aggressive programs to change the cultural impediments that prevented those with lower seniority from intervening to save lives. Volumes of research demonstrate the success of these cultural changes. Similar programs designed specifically for law enforcement are currently available.

Police culture remains deeply rooted in the established practice of following the chain of command – no matter what – just as once practiced in medicine and aviation.

We must confront this cultural problem honestly and urgently now, in every venue that influences police culture and practice. Failing to do so leaves us all with some degree of culpability if another tragedy is compounded by good officers accepting bad direction from a senior officer with flawed judgment. The officers who followed outrageously bad orders from senior officers in Minneapolis and in Uvalde are not bad apples or monsters. They are the product of a culture in need of change.

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