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.