opinion | The shooting of Uvalde shows America has too many police departments

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The more we know about the police response — or nonresponse — to the massacre at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, the less likely we are to learn from it. Humans have a bias to absorb facts that fit our existing preconceived notions, while remaining largely resistant to new ideas. Hardly anything from Uvalde fits into the world we’ve learned from TV and movies.

Few ideas are more deeply ingrained in the American psyche than the power of a gun. The gun is alpha and omega; it stirs drama by empowering the bad guys, then wrapping it in the hands of the good guys. If weapons pose a problem, the solution is another weapon — or a bigger gun, or multiple guns.

So it messes up our view of the world to see an image of a brightly painted elementary school corridor showing a small army of men packing up guns and larger guns, plus helmets and protective shields—and all these guns accomplishing nothing. Despite being heavily armed, the good guys just stood around. The bad guy was a few feet away, with only a door (unlocked, we learn now) between him and the police. But most of the hour had passed, and little had happened other than bleeding, death and fright.

What’s missing in that aisle is strong leadership and clear communication. The good guys had more than enough firepower, but they weren’t sure what they were getting into. Knowledge is fragmentary and closed. Information from within the classroom, relayed in a desperate call to the 911 operator, did not reach them. Some police officers seemed to have the wrong impression that the gunman was hiding alone. Some people may believe that they are waiting for a door lock, or a crowbar.

Everyone waited for the word “go” from the person they knew was in charge.

All of these failures stem from the same root cause: America has too many police departments.

Putting the various accounts together, we concluded that officers were quickly on the scene from at least four agencies: the Uvalde school district police, Uvalde city police, Uvalde county sheriff and—finally—the US Border Patrol. The Texas Rangers arrived at some point, as did the FBI. That’s six institutions in a city of about 16,000 people.

Anyone who has ever tried to get two bureaucracies to work together efficiently under the best of circumstances can probably appreciate the difficulty of getting four, five, or six bureaucracies to work together under the worst of circumstances.

The proliferation of these jurisdictions is clearly an American problem. According to one rough guess, the United States is home to about 18,000 different police agents. Sweden has one. Canada stretches across a continent, like the United States. Canada is made up of local and provincial governments gathered into a single federation, much like the United States. But Canada has fewer than 200 agencies.

That’s right: the United States has nearly 100 police agents each in Canada.

According to the Texas Law Enforcement Commission, nearly 150 school districts in Texas alone have formed their own police departments since 2010. It’s not hard to imagine the thinking behind this trend. A city department or sheriff’s office may not see the value of placing a full-time officer in elementary school, where a whole year might go by without seeing anything more dangerous than a wedgie. With a dedicated school police department, superintendents and school boards can deploy their troops however they please.

But then the crisis hit, and officers from multiple jurisdictions rushed to commit the ongoing crime. And what do you know? Their radio is not on the same frequency. Or some don’t have radios. The head of one army arrived before the other and started giving orders to people who didn’t know each other. Perhaps all agencies have been trained to deal with crises—the Uvalde school force conducted active shooter training as recently as March—but rarely are the departments trained together.

People who have been taught to follow orders from the chain of command will be confused when the chains are broken and the commanders multiply. People who have learned to cooperate with coworkers will be hampered when they find themselves surrounded by strangers. Urgent details will not be shared with everyone who needs them. Paralysis can occur.

American soldiers long ago coined a word to describe operations under extreme pressure, even in the best of circumstances: “snafu.” That is, politely, “normal situation, everything is chaotic.” In the United States, our passion for creating more — and more — police agencies, fiefdoms, and sinecures makes normal performance extremely unlikely.

That would be a good lesson to learn from Uvalde.

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