Posts Tagged ‘Texas’
View Workers dying on the Eagle Ford Shale in a larger map
The Eagle Ford Shale boom is pumping billions of dollars into South Texas. But it carries a steep cost. Our story tomorrow is about the workers who have suffered horrific, preventable deaths at drilling sites. You can see where employees have died and read the federal inspection records about the accidents in this interactive map.
If you work in the industry and want to share tips or concerns, all my contact info is here, thanks.
Another day, another unflinching news story by Scott Huddleston about the Alamo and its troubled caretaker, the Daughters of the Republic of Texas.
Check out how Scott has carved out a unique beat by aggressively covering problems at the Shrine of Texas.
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:
Crash with one or more injuries. Crash with no injuries.
Braylon Nelson is one of the sweetest kids you’ll ever meet. Like any other 2-year-old boy with an insatiable curiosity, he asks a million questions and loves stories. When I visited him, a 400-page book of fairy tales was on his bed near the medical equipment that helps him breathe and eat.
Braylon’s father was driving him home from daycare last year when a Ford F-150 crashed into their small Saturn SL2. Witnesses said the truck driver had been speeding during a dispute with another motorist, and police blamed the accident on road rage.
The Nelsons had nothing to do with the altercation, but Braylon was paralyzed from the neck down.
No other county in Texas has as many reported road-rage crashes as Bexar County. Police and sheriff’s deputies cited road rage as a contributing factor in 680 crashes from 2007 to 2011.
That’s according to a public database of every vehicle accident in the state. The information comes from police accident reports, known as CR-3 forms, and are compiled by the Texas Department of Transportation in a massive database called the Crash Records Information System.
The database tracks hundreds of details about each accident, and anyone can request this information from TxDOT. You can ask for specific locations or types of crashes, or request a copy of the entire database if you’re comfortable using spreadsheets or database managers. To get an idea of what kind of information is available, check out this TxDOT spreadsheet. Or you can read the annual reports of crash statistics published by TxDOT.
Why does Bexar County have so many road rage crashes? It’s unclear whether we have more angry drivers, or whether San Antonio police are more apt to cite road rage than officers in other jurisdictions.
When I met with police officials about these statistics, they said they couldn’t comment on the reporting practices in other cities. But about 12 years ago they recognized San Antonio had a growing problem with aggressive drivers, and police started a program in which officers drive in unmarked cars to catch speeders, tailgaters, and other unsafe motorists like the ones accused of paralyzing Braylon.
I’ve seen some crazy drivers in San Antonio, and when I was working on this story, it seemed like every day I saw someone driving like a maniac.
A few months ago, my boss, Express-News Projects Editor David Sheppard, asked me to see what we could find out about wrong-way crashes on highways. It seemed like there were a lot of these deadly accidents in the news lately, and local officials had recently unveiled a $500,000 pilot project to install flashing wrong-way signs and radar on a 15-mile segment of U.S. 281.
I wrapped up what I was working on and teamed up with reporter Vianna Davila, who covers transportation. We had to answer two deceptively simple questions. How often do wrong-way crashes happen? And how does Bexar County compare to other counties?
We turned to a giant database maintained by the Texas Department of Transportation called the Crash Records Information System. It’s derived from accident reports filled out by law enforcement officers, and it tracks hundreds of details about every accident in Texas — including wrong-way crashes.
But we soon learned there was no quick and easy way to filter the data for the specific wrong-way accidents we were looking for — crashes on major divided highways with exit and entrance ramps.
The database had a “road type” field, with categories that included interstates, tollways and U.S. and state highways. So far, so good. But some state highways are actually busy roads, such as Bandera Road. The wrong-way crashes on those boulevards are different from the type of accident we were examining. We weren’t writing about distracted drivers who cross a center line into oncoming traffic. We were writing about drivers who head up exit ramps and into oncoming traffic on busy highways and interstates.
We ended up selecting the five Texas counties with the largest populations, mapped the wrong-way accidents with Google Fusion Tables, and then eyeballed each location to make sure it actually occurred on a major highway. Here’s how the finished product looked for Bexar County:
It took hours of work but the result was a set of specific crashes we were looking for. And the final numbers were surprising — Bexar County ranked high in wrong-way accidents for the years 2007-2011. It even had more crashes than Dallas County, which is more densely populated and has more traffic. To our knowledge, no one has done this kind of comparison in recent years.
If you work for a news organization and you’re jumping into data journalism (and you should be), it’s a good idea to share your methodology and findings with the government employees who oversee the data. You don’t want to be surprised by an error they catch after the story is published. And it gives the agency a chance to respond if your findings cast the agency in a harsh light.
It was certainly surprising to learn Bexar County ranked so high. The other surprise was how long the deadly problem flew under the radar. Despite several high-profile, deadly wrong-way crashes, local officials didn’t start talking about ways to prevent them until the summer of 2010.
To learn more, check out our two-part series about wrong-way crashes. And check back here when we see how the pilot program is working to stop wrong-way drivers.
If you’ve ever suspected your neighborhood gas station is stiffing you at the pump, you might already know you can file a complaint with the Weights and Measures Program at the Texas Department of Agriculture. The agency’s inspectors verify the accuracy of gas pumps.
But which stations rack up the most complaints, flunk the most inspections and cost consumers the most money?
The answers to those questions lurk within inspection data collected by state employees. The information is public. But like many government agencies, Weights and Measures hasn’t been analyzing its own data to look for trends that could help consumers make informed decisions.
The result was an interesting Sunday story that told readers things that state officials probably should have known themselves.
Joe learned that one out of five stations in San Antonio had at least one pump that failed inspections. The pumps that are more likely to shortchange customers are owned by one of the biggest players in town: Valero Energy Corp.
Joe mapped the locations of the stations and their inspection results, so anyone can check out the track record of their neighborhood gas station.
Joe told me it took nearly four weeks to work on the story. One of the difficulties he faced was sharing what he learned with state officials, who hadn’t analyzed their own database of inspection reports.
“It’s not their job,” Joe said, describing the bureaucratic mentality of some government workers. “It’s not what they’re paid to do.”
Not every government agency is like that, but it’s not an uncommon problem. When I found a San Antonio police database that documented every vehicle pursuit involving officers, I was a bit surprised to learn that SAPD had never analyzed the information, even though it shed light on an important public policy issue.
These agencies probably paid some poor data-entry monkey to go through each paper report and type the details into a spreadsheet or database. Why not go the extra step and analyze that information?
Joe described these kinds of stories as “low-hanging fruit” for journalists, who can step in and analyze databases that agencies aren’t scrutinizing.
“If they would go above and beyond their actual jobs, there’d be less of a need for reporters,” he said.
(Photo credit: Derrich on Flickr)
How did a housekeeper at the Crockett Hotel fall six stories to her death down an elevator shaft?
A scathing report by a state inspector offers a theory.
Many thanks to Rick Casey, Bruce Kates, and the staff at KLRN’s Texas Week for having me on their show to talk about the Texas Highway Patrol Museum and its little-known purpose as a telemarketing operation.
Check out our past news coverage of the museum, which is actually a telemarketing operation that spends only a fraction of its revenue on charitable causes.
The Texas Highway Patrol Museum sits on a prime piece of property near downtown San Antonio, across the street from Rosario’s Café y Cantina. Business is booming at Rosario’s, but not so much at the museum. It usually looks empty every time I drive by or hang out in King William. I’ve been kind of curious what their deal is.
After I wrote about delays and conflicts at the Briscoe Western Art Museum last month, Express-News police reporter Michelle Mondo suggested I take a look at the highway patrol museum. It sounded interesting.
A quick Google search showed that others had asked similar questions about the museum over the years and discovered red flags. Amy Davis, a TV reporter who used to work in San Antonio and now works in Houston, investigated the museum in April 2008 and produced this in-depth report. Davis found that the museum was actually a telemarketing operation, and she interviewed a former employee who said the group spent little money on troopers with the Texas Department of Public Safety. The KSAT Defenders produced a similar report later that year.
More recently, Scott Henson at Grits for Breakfast blogged about a phone call he received from a telemarketer who said he worked for the “Texas Highway Patrol.” Henson asked if he meant DPS — and the caller said yes. It’s a big no-no to falsely claim to be affiliated with a law enforcement agency.
What does DPS, the government agency that employs state troopers, think about the museum? Not much. The agency’s website has a general warning about giving money to telemarketers — but it also has a web page that focuses on the highway patrol museum in San Antonio. DPS criticizes the exhibits, puts “museum” in quotes and warns the public not to give it money.
All this adds up to a good story that people need to know about.
The museum is a nonprofit organization, so its tax records are open to the public. Guidestar offers free access to the three most recent years of tax returns for most nonprofit organizations. The Express-News has an account with Guidestar that gives us access to even more tax returns, which offers a treasure trove of historical information about charities.
Database Editor Kelly Guckian logged into Guidestar and got me copies of everything available for the Texas Highway Patrol Museum and a related entity, the Texas Highway Patrol Association. The two organizations share the same board members, and both were founded by Lane Denton, a former state representative from Waco who was found guilty of stealing money from a different law enforcement charity.
The museum is the telemarketing arm of the partnership. It employed more than 380 people in 2009, most of whom worked at call centers in El Paso, Austin and Houston. The association provides benefits to state troopers.
A brochure states the group gives the “finest benefits possible” to troopers. But looking at a five-year span of tax returns showed that while benefits were indeed paid to troopers and their families, they were only a fraction of the total revenues raked in by the museum’s telemarketers.
I typed all the financial information into a spreadsheet. Here are the numbers:
Donors gave nearly $12 million to the museum, but the association gave only $65,300 to DPS troopers and their families. That’s half a penny for every dollar raised.
Yet when telemarketers call potential donors, they often refer to recently killed troopers by name, pull heart-strings, and lead people to believe that most of their money is actually going to help the people who need it. That happened to the friend of David Slaton, a trooper who died last year in a car accident. The telemarketing call hit her hard.
My story about the museum ran Sunday and many outraged readers responded that they had received telemarketing calls from this organization and others.
What do people with the museum have to say about all this? The employees I spoke with were friendly, and the director of marketing who oversees the telemarketing operation basically described it as a necessary evil. There’s overhead, he said, but without the telemarketing calls, no money would be coming in at all.
But there are more effective ways to help peace officers. Slaton’s friend told me she was impressed by the 100 Club of Houston, which does not raise money through telemarketers. It relies on membership donations, and according to its tax returns, it gave about $1 million in survivor benefits last year.
Rick Hartley, executive director of the 100 Club, said the group has no plans whatsoever to try telemarketing.
It’s not worth the blow to their credibility.