Last week, Hidalgo County District Attorney René Guerra asked the Texas Department of Public Safety to temporarily suspend its practice of using airborne snipers to fire at fleeing vehicles. Guerra made the request after DPS trooper Miguel Avila, riding in a helicopter, fired at a pickup truck he thought was carrying a drug shipment. Actually, the truck was full of immigrants suspected of entering the U.S. illegally. Two Guatemalan immigrants were killed.
One of the most difficult and controversial challenges for police officers is chasing a fleeing vehicle. Police are supposed to catch criminals. But a lot can go wrong in a high-speed chase — especially in the deadly cat-and-mouse game DPS troopers play with drug smugglers in Texas border counties.
DPS Director Mike McCraw has asked the FBI to investigate the shooting. But there are already resources available to the public that show why an incident like this near the border was probably bound to happen.
Two years ago, we found and wrote about a little-known resource: A DPS database that keeps track of every vehicle pursuit troopers are involved in. The database is available to the public through the state’s open-records law, and I teamed up with Brandi Grissom at the Texas Tribune to get a copy of the data and analyze it.
We received data for nearly 5,000 chases that occurred from January 2005 to July 2010. The database was packed with details about every DPS pursuit in Texas, showing factors like how each chase started, how it ended, and how many people were injured or killed.
One thing that jumped out at us was the high number of pursuits in Hidalgo County on the Mexican border. Between 2005 and July 2010, troopers in other Texas counties chased vehicles, on average, about 20 times. In Hidalgo County, DPS troopers chased vehicles about 30 times more often — 656 pursuits. That’s far and away the most in Texas:
You can view and download the raw data here if you want to crunch the numbers yourself.
Brandi and videographer Callie Richmond went for a ride-along with troopers who said the high number of pursuits was easy to explain. Troopers often chase drug smugglers who are growing more brazen. During pursuits, some smugglers throw homemade caltrops made of welded nails on the road to puncture the tires of police cruisers. They drive on caliche roads to kick up dust to blind troopers. And they often drive into the Rio Grande River, where smugglers wait in rafts to recover the bundles of drugs.
For our story, we also found DPS policies allowed troopers to engage in riskier chase tactics than other large Texas police and sheriff’s departments:
Troopers can set up rolling and stationary roadblocks to end a chase, a strategy they used 68 times from 2005 to 2009. Troopers also can shoot out a suspect’s tires if other methods, such as deploying spike strips, fail to stop the pursuit. Troopers fired their guns during chases nearly 90 times over the last five years, with 14 of those incidents occurring during pursuits in urban areas.
The agency had admitted in the past that it didn’t do a very good job training troopers for vehicle pursuits:
In 2007 the department acknowledged it needed to do a better job giving officers hands-on training after crashes involving troopers increased by 30 percent. “We fall short in providing the necessary practical driver training to our officers,” said a February 2007 newsletter published by the department’s public information office. At the time, troopers practiced their driving skills at a parking lot around a football field in Austin.
Use-of-force expert Geoffrey Alpert questioned the wisdom of shooting at vehicles:
Alpert says there’s no good rationale for firing a weapon at a fleeing vehicle. “What if there are passengers in the car?” he asks. “How do they know who else is in the car? How can you use deadly force for a traffic offense?” He says most state highway patrol departments have “very aggressive, loose policies,” perhaps because troopers often operate in sparsely populated communities. Half of all DPS pursuits occurred in rural areas; the other half were in urban areas or a mix of the two.
DPS officials pointed out that troopers often operate in the “middle of nowhere.” And they can call off a chase if troopers believe the situation is veering out of control. But the database showed that rarely happened. Out of the 5,000 chases, only 142, less than 3 percent, were terminated voluntarily by DPS.
This year, my colleague Jason Buch went back to the Rio Grande Valley to write another story about DPS’ efforts to stop smugglers. He found DPS’ presence on the border had grown into a small army and Jason flew with troopers in a DPS helicopter:
The Legislature has provided more than $600 million for border security since 2007, with most of the money given to DPS to target drug and human smugglers. The border operation today represents a small army, with specialized Ranger Reconnaissance Teams, new intelligence centers, patrol boats, helicopters and surveillance cameras watching for traffickers.
Even a high-altitude spy plane soon will be deployed.
It’s a departure from DPS’ traditional roles as highway patrolmen and a support service to local law enforcement agencies.
Jason got copies of helicopter videos showing smugglers crashing into the Rio Grande River:
The story also mentioned an episode of Texas Drug Wars on the Discovery Channel that showed a DPS sharpshooter in a helicopter firing at a drug smuggler’s vehicle in an attempt to shoot out the tires (the footage is after the 14:20 mark):
News organizations have provided a wealth of context that explains the recent controversy involving DPS. Yet the practice of shooting rifles from DPS helicopters was news to San Antonio’s Allan Polunsky, a member of the Public Safety Commission that oversees DPS. Polunsky told the Austin American-Statesman “he was unaware of any prior incidents involving DPS troopers shooting from helicopters in pursuit of fleeing suspects.”