On Tuesday, KVUE and the Austin American-Statesman published a video of police in the hallway at Robb Elementary School during the massacre that killed nineteen children and two adults. In a widely shared screenshot from that footage, one officer, standing in the hall, looks at his phone, which has the logo for the murderous Marvel superhero the Punisher on the lock screen, an image that has frequently (and controversially) been co-opted by police. On social media, the officer was quickly cast as this week’s symbol of the failures of the leisurely police response in Uvalde and contemporary policing more broadly. “That cop in Uvalde having his lock screen be the punisher logo and him being scared to take on an active shooter is truly the perfect encapsulation of how cops see themselves vs who they really are,” said one user, whose post has been retweeted 51,000 times.
On Wednesday, state representative Joe Moody, an El Paso Democrat, shared an additional detail about the officer who appeared in the video: he is the husband of Eva Mireles, a teacher who was murdered along with more than a dozen of her students. “I’d not planned to speak publicly until the report was released,” Moody tweeted, “but I couldn’t say nothing seeing this man, who’s lost everything, maligned as if he was indifferent or actively malicious.”
In the weeks immediately following the shooting, Mireles and her husband, the officer Ruben Ruiz, were part of the story of Uvalde, and Ruiz’s plight was told sympathetically—as an officer on the scene who attempted to enter the classroom before being detained and disarmed by his fellow officers, as his wife lay dying a few feet away. Moody affirmed that account, and the video does not contradict it. (After Ruiz announces to the other police on the scene that his wife had been shot, he leaves the frame, and doesn’t return.) Now Ruiz has once again become a large part of the story of Uvalde, as a symbol of the inexplicably meek response from law enforcement. That he has become the center of both narratives—the desperation of families in the face of police inaction and one of the faces of that very inaction—speaks to the problem of trying to turn one individual into a symbol of systemic failures.
What happened in Uvalde isn’t just a tragedy. It was a failure of courage and a failure of leadership, at multiple levels, from responding law enforcement agencies, many of which claimed unearned praise in the immediate aftermath of the event and then tried to pass blame onto others once the praise was no longer forthcoming. It was the failure of officers on the scene to stop the massacre for 77 minutes, the failure of our laws to prevent the shooter from obtaining the weapon he used, and the failure of political imagination from state leaders to provide solutions beyond the assumption that more police and armed personnel is the way to prevent a massacre—despite direct evidence to the contrary. But the attempt to find one man who can exemplify those failures ignores the humanity of the individual who, it appears, unlocked his phone to learn that his wife had been shot, and then quickly disappeared from view.
It’s natural to look for an individual to blame when something terrible happens. There’ve been plenty of individuals blamed in Uvalde—most especially school district police chief Pete Arredondo, who was the commander on the scene and has been the focus of much of the ire of elected officials. But those seeking a new villain and declaring that it’s the police officer with the Punisher logo on his phone are sharing a photo of a man on the day his wife was murdered, and blaming him for failures committed by his leaders and fellow officers.
Picking one man to blame, removing the context of his situation, and attempting to turn him into a symbol of the wider problem gives cover to the systemic forces that are at the heart of the problem. To create real accountability in Uvalde, we need to focus on the systems that failed. An individual’s story is always more complicated than it seems.