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In interview, Steve McCraw says he wishes DPS had taken over response to Uvalde shooting

 Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw.
Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT News
Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw.

It’s been nearly four months since a gunman walked into Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, killing 19 students and two teachers in the deadliest school shooting in Texas history. And even though there were nearly 400 officers at the school, law enforcement waited over an hour to confront the shooter in the connected classrooms.

A Texas House Committee investigation into the shooting released in July criticized responding authorities for failing to take control of the scene earlier. The report focused on the actions of local police, particularly now-fired school district police Chief Pete Arredondo.

One of the first to criticize Arredondo was Texas Department of Public Safety Chief Steve McCraw. DPS was one of the first agencies to investigate the Uvalde tragedy, and at a press conference days after the shooting, McGraw called Arredondo’s decision to wait to confront the shooter “the wrong decision, period.”

Now, DPS – which had more than 90 officers on the ground at Robb Elementary – is under internal review for its own role in the Uvalde shooting response. Last week, five of its officers were referred to the agency’s inspector general’s office for an investigation into their actions the day of the shooting, two of them suspended with pay. Two more officers have since been referred.

USA Today has published an extensive report on all of this, based on exclusive interviews with McCraw. Enterprise reporter Andrea Ball, who co-wrote the article, joined Texas Standard to share more.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: What was Steve McCraw’s path to becoming chief of Texas DPS?

Andrea Ball: So after his career in the FBI, McCraw came back to Texas as the head of the Department of Homeland Security; quite a bit of that work was focused on the border. In 2009, the FBI had been going through some leadership changes. And [Gov. Rick] Perry knew of McCraw’s work and said, “hey, you want to come and take care of all this stuff we got going on?” And, you know, he had already been involved in DPS as a trooper and a narcotics officer. So he felt like that was his first home. And he says he was happy to go there.

This is a very public role; it can often be a very political role. Is his tenure significant, or is it kind of hard to compare apples to oranges?

You know, the two people before him had some serious issues. One was there when the governor’s mansion was set on fire; the other one had some personal allegations made against him by employees. One of them I think lasted a year. And so his tenure – I don’t have an extensive list of the tenure of people before him – but it’s been, you know, almost 14 years. And that job is very complicated in the fact that you are a cop, but you are surrounded by and answer to politicians.

Now, you got to think about this guy in the sense that he has worked for the FBI undercover; he has worked on the [Olympic Park bomber] Eric Rudolph case; he worked on 9/11 stuff. The guy has his master’s in psychology and sociology. He had to survive in D.C. during some big times. This guy knows how to maneuver in a political environment. And I think that’s what’s significant to me, just speaking with him, is that whatever he considers himself externally, you can see the guy knows how to survive.

Let’s get back to May 24, the day of the Uvalde shooting. What was McCraw’s role in the decision-making that day?

That is, you know, very unclear at the moment, because when I spoke to him at first, we didn’t talk about Uvalde. The very first interview we had, Uvalde was off the table because they still had their internal investigation going on. So I spent 70 minutes talking to him about him. The second interview was pretty short; it was on Friday. And, you know, I had just gotten in to speak with him real quick, and that was about 27 minutes or something like that.

And so I don’t know every detail. I do know he was in his office at the time. He got a call. He’s like, “Hey, I got to get my people on the ground. Everybody start looking at stuff. You know, start figuring out who is this person that may be shooting, what has happened? What information are we getting from the locals? Let’s get our own crime scene folks there.” And then eventually he gets there – and he’s in Austin and Uvalde’s like 3 hours away – so basically, he’s remotely trying to get his hands on the information. And as he said to me, the first 3 to 4 hours of a scene, you get a lot of wrong information. And he’s hoping it’s wrong because he’s hearing it’s bad. And unfortunately, it wasn’t wrong.+

» Texas Standard special report: ‘The end of last year will be with us’: Are Texas schools any safer since the Uvalde shooting?

 So you did get to talk to McCraw in later interviews about the Uvalde response. What did he say when you asked why his agency didn’t take over?

He basically just said, “I wish we had.” And if you speak with McCraw for a while, you will realize the guy loves to talk, but he’s wonderful at the pivot. You know, he knows how to answer what he needs to answer and get away from what might be dangerous. And as people may or may not realize, these interviews do not happen with, you know, me and McCraw hanging out at his house, having a beer. You know, you’re in an office with two handlers there ready to drag you out the minute things go sideways.

And so it was a very quick interview where we didn’t have the opportunity to say, hey, you know, you just told me that your guys in the hallway thought that this was just a standoff. And I say, but there were gunshots going off while your guys were in the hallway. And there’s a pivot. He answers what he thinks he can. He answers what he really believes – but it’s not all that he knows or all that he believes. We get a portion. So that’s basically what he says: “I wish we had. In retrospect, I wish we would. And in the future, we will.”

McCraw has said he’d resign if DPS troopers are found to be culpable in the delayed response to the shooting. Did he say that to you? 

He did say that to me. He also said that to CNN. But I did ask him that. And he said, “look, man, that’s not my job. I do not own this job. I work for the governor. And yeah, I mean, I’ll go if I need to go. If I think that we did wrong, I’ll go.”

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Copyright 2022 KUT 90.5. To see more, visit KUT 90.5.

Rhonda is the newest member of the KUT News team, joining in late 2013 as producer for KUT's new daily news program, The Texas Standard. Rhonda will forever be known as the answer to the trivia question, “Who was the first full-time hire for The Texas Standard?” She’s an Iowa native who got her start in public radio at WFSU in Tallahassee, while getting her Master's Degree in Library Science at Florida State University. Prior to joining KUT and The Texas Standard, Rhonda was a producer for Wisconsin Public Radio.
Glorie G. Martinez