McALLEN — The policy that lets Texas state troopers fire from a helicopter at fleeing vehicles on the ground will come under scrutiny during the next session of the state Legislature.
An oversight committee will gather the results of not only the investigation undertaken by the Department of Public Safety’s Texas Rangers but also the independent investigation by the FBI and the U.S. Justice Department, plus the findings of an Hidalgo County grand jury, said state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen.
“Depending on what comes out of the investigations, we can make an analysis to improve our policies and make the necessary changes, especially along the border,” Hinojosa said.
DPS has fired at fleeing vehicles to end chases in the past, but the tactic has come under criticism from the Guatemalan government and civil rights groups since two undocumented immigrants were killed and a third wounded during a chase Oct. 25 north of La Joya. The pickup was driven by a 14-year-old undocumented immigrant from Mexico who was transporting nine Guatemalan immigrants.
DPS has emphasized that because the people in the pickup truck’s bed were covered by a tarp, they weren’t visible to the sharpshooter in the DPS helicopter, who thought the fleeing driver’s cargo was drugs, not immigrants.
That jibes with what Hinojosa saw Thursday, when he watched video taken during the chase from the DPS helicopter.
“You couldn’t tell there were people under the tarp,” the senator said.
The video shows a vehicle pursuit along a caliche road at speeds of more than 80 mph, Hinojosa said.
DPS trooper Miguel Avila shot out three of the tires in the pickup truck, but the driver kept going forward at a high rate of speed while the truck was fishtailing.
“The officers were communicating with each other,” Hinojosa said. “They were not aware that there were people under the tarp. They believed it was drugs.
“When the vehicle stopped and the people bailed out, the officers were very surprised and shocked,” he said.
Dotty Griffith, a spokeswoman with the American Civil Liberties Union, said the civil rights advocate has not received a response from DPS regarding its request for access to the video.
The ACLU says shooting at vehicles is a dangerous practice that DPS should abandon.
“The unanswered question is: Why fire at a vehicle that hadn’t fired on them?” Griffith said. “There were people inside that vehicle, whether on the bed of the pickup or on the front. It’s an unwarranted use of firepower.”
Ildefonso Ortiz covers courts, law enforcement and general assignments for The Monitor. He can be reached at email@example.com and (956) 683-4437.
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