• Everything you need to know about DPS, police pursuits and why troopers shoot at vehicles

    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.

    Smugglers recovering drugs from the Rio Grande River
    Smugglers recovering drugs from the Rio Grande River (Source: Texas DPS)
    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:


  • Firm tied to San Antonio official landed plum job at the Rim shopping center

    Fernando De Leon, assistant director of land development for the city of San AntonioCity hall reporter Josh Baugh and I learned a few more scraps of information about fired city employee Fernando De León; the permit company owned by his sister; and possible reasons why the FBI and police are investigating them.

    First, some background:

    On March 26 — a lazy, Friday afternoon in the newsroom — Josh got a tip that FBI agents were at the city’s “One Stop” center. The tipster said the FBI was carting out files from Fernando De León office, and leading him away in handcuffs.

    The One Stop center is a spacious city building that feels more like a trendy art museum than a staid government building. It’s the home of the city’s Planning and Development Services Department. Developers and builders visit the One Stop center to apply for permits to develop land, construct new buildings, and renovate existing structures. De León, an assistant director at Development Services, was one of many employees who reviewed those plans.

    I know De León. The last time I saw him was a month or so earlier, when I visited his colleague’s office for a story about the cracked retaining wall at the Hills of Rivermist. In the newsroom, I was walking by Josh’s desk and saw De León’s picture on the computer. “What’s up with Fernando?” I asked. Josh told me about the tip.

    I think my exact words at that point were: “Holy shit.”

    I offered to help find out what was going on and called Development Services. A receptionist answered. I asked for De León. He was unavailable. I asked for his boss, Roderick Sanchez. He was unavailable, too. I said I heard there were guys in suits over there and asked what they were doing. She blurted “Oh, my God,” and said she couldn’t talk about it.

    I got my stuff and started running out to my car to head to Development Services. Josh caught up with me and said it was too late — the FBI had been there earlier that day and had left. So now we had some catching up to do to find out what had happened. It was about 5 p.m., and we had a few hours to go before deadline.

  • FBI and police quiz San Antonio official who oversaw land development

    Fernando De Leon, assistant director of land development for the city of San AntonioFor longtime observers of local politics, the terms “City Hall” and “FBI” conjure memories of a bribery investigation that snared former city councilmen Enrique Martin and John Sanders.

    On Friday, FBI agents and San Antonio white-collar crime detectives showed up at the city’s Planning and Development Services department and seized a computer and files belonging to Fernando De León, an assistant director in charge of issuing land development permits. Authorities later questioned De León for several hours that same day at police headquarters downtown. De León was not arrested and he was released after the interview.

    WOAI’s Brian Collister reported in February that San Antonio police were investigating building inspectors in the same city department. The inspectors check residential and commercial structures, and inspect things like electrical systems and plumbing. If the building isn’t up to code, the inspector is supposed to tag the flaw and the owner is supposed to fix it. The city is investigating whether inspectors took money to sign off on work that wasn’t up to city code.

    Friday’s development added a new wrinkle to this story — it was the first sign that the FBI is investigating the city department. And De León oversaw land development, not building inspections. His name is tied to hundreds, if not thousands, of development plans that govern things like lot densities of subdivisions and tree preservation requirements. De León held an important position in a city that is grappling with the growing pains of urban sprawl. Here’s the city’s description of his responsibilities:

    The Land Development Division is involved with the review and approval process of Master Development Plans (MDPs), Plats, Tree Preservation, Infrastructure, Traffic Impact Analysis (TIAs), and Zoning. The Construction and the Environmental Inspectors assist the Division in the field. The Land Development Division serves as staff to the Planning Commission, Zoning Commission and Board of Adjustments.

    District Attorney Susan Reed said investigators are examining “irregularities in the permitting process” that De León oversaw.

    I last bumped into De León in February when I was at Development Services covering the retaining wall collapse at the Hills of Rivermist. He’s a friendly, soft-spoken guy.

    How did the FBI and San Antonio police team up? It appears they were initially conducting separate investigations of Development Services:

    Officials said city and federal investigators “crossed paths” during two separate investigations of the department. The city got involved in October, when the Office of Municipal Integrity received a complaint about the four building inspectors.

    When that office determined it was a criminal matter, it turned the case over to the city manager’s office, which in turn handed it over to the Police Department, officials said.

    Meanwhile, federal authorities were quietly conducting their own inquiry. …

    “We did cross paths,” [Police Chief William] McManus said. “We partnered up.”

    Here’s a time line of events in the investigation that have been made public so far. I’ll add more events as we learn more.

  • EMS scanners to fall silent to the public

    searching the wreckage

    The crackly radio chatter of police, firefighters and paramedics doing their jobs has always been a lively soundtrack in the newsroom. But Columnist Scott Stroud explains how the scanner traffic in San Antonio is about to grow quieter:

    Starting today, reporters at the Express-News and other local media outlets will not have access to emergency medical services scanner traffic. This will make their jobs harder because they won’t hear addresses where incidents occur, or the reason an ambulance is needed.

    It should alarm you, too. The change inhibits your ability to learn how well the police, fire and emergency medical workers that your tax dollars pay for are performing — whether they’re arriving at crime and accident scenes in time to help people in trouble, for example. It also diminishes your ability to know about emergencies that could threaten your well-being.

    City Attorney Michael Bernard, who instigated the change, thinks allowing reporters to hear EMS scanner traffic — as they always have — could lead to violations of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.