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:
Until recently, I had no idea this DPS database existed. But I stumbled across it a few months earlier when I was working on this article about pursuits in San Antonio. SAPD keeps a database packed with details about each chase — the weather and road conditions, the pursuit speeds and durations, the injuries and fatalities. Since SAPD had this data, I figured other law enforcement agencies in Texas probably kept similar records. I asked around and sure enough, DPS was one of the agencies that collects details about pursuits.
Why is that a big deal? Well, when you find a previously unknown database with information about an important public safety issue and analyze those digital records, you’ll probably discover fresh, interesting information for your readers. Public databases empower journalists to do their own research and find surprising answers.
Brandi asked for a copy of the data and we received it from DPS with little trouble. It was a big spreadsheet documenting nearly 5,000 pursuits from 2005 to July 2010.
One detail jumped out at us: Hidalgo County, by far, had the most pursuits over the past five years — 656. Several other border counties also ranked high, suggesting smugglers were often fleeing DPS troopers. The database told us all kinds of things about these pursuits — how often people were injured, how often motorists escaped, and how they got away.
When reporters dive into data-heavy topics, it’s important to find the real people behind the numbers. We asked DPS early in the reporting process to go on a ride-along with a trooper in Hidalgo County. Brandi and photographer Callie Richmond visited McAllen and went on a ride along with DPS Trooper Johnny Hernandez. Their experience became the lede of our story. Brandi had some great interviews with Hernandez and other troopers in Hidalgo County, who openly talked about their continual struggles to catch smugglers from Mexico. The visit provided rich material for photos and an awesome online video that Callie produced.
Brandi wrote a big chunk of the article on the drive back from McAllen. We finished writing and editing the story in a Google Document, which really beats sending e-mails back and forth and losing track of differing versions of the story. Google Docs lets you see what each collaborator is adding to the document as they write. It’s like the Big Brother version of Microsoft Word, but less evil. It’s a useful tool for collaborating with people, especially if they work in a different organization in a different city. Plus, Google gives you a chat window in the document, which is nice if you want to mock the typing skills of your colleagues.
There were some interesting reactions to the story. Scott Henson at Grits for Breakfast was surprised so many suspects got away: “I would not have guessed that the number of chases ending with the suspect successfully eluding troopers on foot would have been so high, nor that the proportion who stop and surrender would be so low.”
KXXV TV localized the story by looking at the high number of pursuits in McLennan County.
That’s the great thing about news stories based on public data — people can take the information you found, talk about it, and look at the data themselves.
I had always wanted to write a story about police chases after I watched a crazy high-speed pursuit unfold on local TV. I wondered how often these chases go bad, and how the San Antonio Police Department keeps track of that information.
Law enforcement agencies usually churn out paperwork for every situation known to man. I made some phone calls and learned that officers must fill out a pursuit-evaluation form after they chase someone. The reports have check boxes for different categories of information, such as whether someone was injured during the chase. When you see boxes like that on a report, chances are, some hapless soul at the government agency types that information into a database. It turned out SAPD has been compiling a database that tracks details of every chase by all its officers.
If you work for a news organization or a blog and stumble upon a previously unknown database filled with rich details about an important public policy issue, you’ve found a great story. Request a copy of the raw data and analyze it. You might be able to tell your audience something new about the world.
SAPD’s pursuit database formed the foundation for my story that ran Sunday. The numbers show that two out of five pursuits damaged cars or property. The number of chases and crashes peaked in 2008, but dropped in 2009 after SAPD emphasized vehicle safety to its officers:
Here’s a copy of the raw data for the years 2003-2009. To me the numbers highlight the difficult position officers are in during a police chase, but they managed to make progress last year.
Getting the data was important. But it didn’t tell the full story — it was missing narratives describing what happened during the chase. The narratives were written down in the hardcopy pursuit reports. So I requested copies of reports for a bunch of chases, including a pursuit that led to the most recent death of an innocent bystander in San Antonio, 85-year-old Edna Hurst:
I also asked for a copy of SAPD’s pursuit policy. It describes the situations in which officers are permitted to pursue suspects. The policy also mentioned that Blue Eagle, the police helicopter unit, is supposed to videotape pursuits if the helicopter is able to assist. So I asked for some videos and came across this incident involving a reckless driver of a pickup truck, which I thought was a good example showing the dynamics of how officers handle chases.
The chase database doesn’t show the location of where the pursuit begins. But it does have a case number for each chase. Using that number, Mike Howell of mySA.com linked the data to Crimebase, a gargantuan data file of offense reports we receive from SAPD. Mike made an interesting map showing where chases occurred in the city in 2009. Click on a chase, and it calls up details from the pursuit data, and a link to a Crimebase report with a brief narrative.
The point of all this work isn’t to make SAPD look bad. It’s to offer people relevant information about a life-or-death issue. I learned a lot working on this story. If we did our job right, so did our readers.
The San Antonio Police Department keeps a unique database that documents every police chase by SAPD officers. I’m working on a story that will be published Sunday that’s based on an analysis of the data. We’re examining the challenges and risks police officers face when they try to catch a suspect in a high-speed chase.
If you’re an SAPD officer or someone who’s been involved in an accident related to a police chase, feel free to contact me.