Almost five months after the Uvalde massacre, as the horror and confusion recedes for the general public, it’s easy to lose grasp of certain slippery truths, such as this one: Steve McCraw, the longtime director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, has the authority under Texas law right now to release information that could shed light on what happened on May 24, 2022, at Robb Elementary School, when a lone gunman murdered nineteen children and two teachers. Instead, the state’s top lawman has wrapped a cloak of secrecy around the actions of his agency, even as he continues to pin the blame on former school district police chief Pete Arredondo, one of nearly 400 law enforcement agents, including 91 DPS officers, who responded that day.
McCraw often says he wants you to know the truth about Uvalde. He says he yearns for citizens to have the answers to questions such as: Why did those nearly 400 law enforcement officers—more Texans than died at the Alamo—dither for 77 minutes while a gunman stalked the classrooms amid his dead and dying victims? Was Arredondo actually in charge that day? And who was responsible for the misinformation early on about the “amazing courage” of the police on the scene?
The DPS chief acknowledges that he has the authority to release mountains of information—documents, unedited body-camera footage, audio recordings—that dozens of media organizations and at least 92 individuals have sought through lawsuits and open-records requests. He agrees that he has broad discretion under Texas law to illuminate a police response he has repeatedly called an “abject failure.” And he readily admits that full transparency would be a salve to widespread mistrust of law enforcement by Uvalde residents. “I look forward to releasing all the information, all the evidence . . . because the public is in the best position to look at [it] and determine for themselves,” McCraw said in September.
But, sorry, he won’t do it anytime soon. Don’t blame him, though. He’s just following orders. Well, not orders, but a stern request. As McCraw keeps explaining, the district attorney for Uvalde County, Christina Mitchell Busbee, has asked government officials to keep everything secret until a criminal investigation of the police response is wrapped up, a process that could take years and may result in no prosecutions.
Until that far-off day, the public will just have to make do with the contradictory, incomplete, inaccurate, and at times blatantly self-serving statements proffered by everyone from Arredondo (who didn’t take his police radios into the school because one of them had a “whiplike antenna” that would hit him while he ran) to Governor Greg Abbott (who promised “transparency” in the Uvalde investigation but has ordered the release of little more than some notes that he claims show he was misled early on about the “heroic” police response). Occasionally, however, there are leaks—all of which curiously seem designed to direct attention away from DPS and toward the bumbling school cop.
To release even a scintilla of information, Busbee maintains, would contaminate the investigation, allowing suspects to change their stories or lawyer up. “There’s no way for anybody to make a determination that the release of this information will not be harmful unless you have already decided that there will be no criminal charges,” she said during a hearing on a lawsuit filed by state senator Roland Gutierrez, a San Antonio Democrat. Her position is that the Texas House shouldn’t have released a public report excoriating “systemic failures” in the police response; the Texas Senate shouldn’t haven’t held public hearings; the Uvalde mayor shouldn’t have released edited body-camera footage from seven Uvalde police officers, which helped reporters piece together a more complete timeline; and the law-enforcement experts at Texas State University shouldn’t have studied the police response and released their analysis to the public. If Busbee had her way, we would know even less than we do.
McCraw seems to speak out frequently for a man so committed to obliging the DA. And he does so with a high degree of what politicians describe as message discipline. Again and again, his public statements insist that Arredondo alone was responsible for the “abject failure” of law enforcement. For example, McCraw testified in June at the Texas Senate hearing, which aired live on C-SPAN, that Arredondo was “the only thing stopping the hallway of dedicated officers from entering room 111 and 112.”
To bolster his case, McCraw presented a timeline of the May 24 events that he said was corroborated by “frame-by-frame video evidence.” But a New York Times investigation published last week, which relied in part on the video footage released by the Uvalde mayor, found that McCraw’s One Bad Cop story is a fable. The Times reported that McCraw “miscast Mr. Arredondo’s role and omitted actions, and inactions, by other officers, especially D.P.S. troopers and federal agents, who were involved earlier or more centrally” than the DPS director had acknowledged. Gutierrez had a word for McCraw’s account: “lies.”
It has been evident for some time that McCraw is willing to selectively reveal evidence—even if it’s faulty—when it serves him. He who controls the information controls the narrative.
Most Texans are probably not familiar with the Texas Public Information Act, but it is one of the bedrocks of open government in Texas. Passed by the Legislature in 1973 during a brief flourishing of good-government reform after the Sharpstown corruption scandal, the TPIA was designed as a more-robust version of the federal Freedom of Information Act. The preamble of TPIA provides an admirable statement of principles, reading in part: “The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created.”
It’s an adult law for an adult democracy. The basic operation of the TPIA is this: you ask a government agency—a city, a school district, DPS—for information, and unless there is a clear and legitimate reason for the agency to withhold that information (the blueprints of a nuclear power plant, say), it must promptly turn over the emails, memos, text messages, data sets, or whatever else you requested. In practice, the TPIA has fallen on hard times lately. Legislative action and inaction, faltering enforcement by Texas attorney general Ken Paxton, adverse Texas Supreme Court rulings, and a disturbing trend of agencies reflexively fighting the release of even the most basic information—all have made it much easier for public servants to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know.
In the aftermath of the Uvalde massacre, journalists and citizens turned to the TPIA to help shed light on the incident—a particularly urgent task given the initial avalanche of misinformation followed by a policy of official silence. But almost five months later, DPS, the City of Uvalde, the Uvalde County Sheriff’s Office, and the Uvalde school district have refused to release virtually anything of substance, citing a part of the open-records law that gives discretion to law-enforcement agencies to keep secret records that might interfere with a prosecution or give valuable information to criminals about police activities.
Paxton, as attorney general, is in charge of enforcing the Texas Public Information Act. He is essentially the arbiter of disputes between the public and government. He has sided with DPS and the Uvalde local government, essentially telling McCraw and the others that it’s up to them whether to release anything. So in August, more than a dozen media organizations teamed up to sue DPS and the others—a relatively rare instance of cooperation in an industry known for cutthroat competition. (Texas Monthly is not involved in the suit.)
The lawsuit may offer the only chance of getting the unfiltered truth anytime soon. Unedited body-cam and hallway video footage might, for example, finally answer the question of whether Arredondo truly served as incident commander. It might also show definitively what personnel with DPS, Border Patrol, Uvalde police, Uvalde CISD police, and other agencies were doing during those fateful 77 minutes. “Our whole point of filing this suit is to try to give the families total transparency about what the officers and agencies were doing that day,” said Reid Pillifant, an Austin attorney who represents the media organizations in the lawsuit. “The selective release of information has left the community not knowing who to blame for what happened.”
If the lawsuit fails, one possible scenario is that Busbee ends up not prosecuting any of the cops, or fails to secure a conviction. In either case, the Uvalde records could fall into a legal black hole, never to see the light of day. That’s because a provision in open-records law allows officials to block the release of records when a criminal investigation doesn’t result in a conviction, including in cases in which the suspect dies. (Which explains why it’s often referred to as the “dead-suspect loophole.”) The intent of the law is to protect the innocent, but over the years it has been twisted to shield police from scrutiny in high-profile cases, such as the 2019 death of Javier Ambler while he was in the custody of Williamson County sheriff’s deputies.
It’s possible, then, that the truth about Uvalde died with the gunman, Salvador Ramos.
McCraw has promised to resign if DPS troopers are shown to have “any culpability.” Meanwhile, he counsels patience. The criminal investigation could take years, and the timeline for an internal DPS review of seven officers’ actions is unknown. But it’s hard to imagine McCraw hanging up the badge. Abbott, running for a third term as governor, has stood fast by his man.
McCraw may not be a household name, but he is one of the most important figures in Texas government. He has run DPS for thirteen years, an eternity for the head of a state agency. Over the years, the former FBI agent has transformed DPS from a sleepy, traditional state law enforcement agency into a splashy counterterror, border-security behemoth that has absorbed billions in funding to maintain a heavy presence along the U.S.-Mexico border. If the border is political theater for Republicans, then McCraw is its David Mamet, the author of a million photo ops for politicians who want to pose on souped-up Rio Grande gunboats or do an occasional tour of duty in Del Rio for Fox News.
No scandal ever seems to do lasting damage to the Texas GOP’s favorite bureaucrat. Not a DPS sniper killing unarmed immigrants from a helicopter. Not a failure to find the person or persons who set fire to the Governor’s Mansion in 2008. And not his agency’s well-documented habit of juking the stats to make the border operations look like something more than state troopers writing a lot of speeding tickets.
Whatever the intention of McCraw’s information blockade, the effect is clear enough. Uvalde has largely faded from the public conversation. Accountability for authorities (up to and including McCraw and Abbott) has mostly been postponed and may never come. And the governor, running for a third term, gets to boast about busing migrants from Texas to northern cities instead of having to explain one of the worst school shootings in American history. Secrecy pays.