Thermal device used by trooper
Helicopter shooting on pickup came after heat check was inconclusive.
A Texas Department of Public Safety helicopter involved in the fatal October shooting of two men under a blanket in a pickup truck in South Texas used a thermalimaging device to try to determine whether people were in the back of the truck before shooting, the AmericanStatesman has learned.
The device — standard equipment on all DPS helicopters — can detect human bodies by the heat they radiate in contrast to their surroundings. But this time the image was “not distinguishable,” said DPS spokesman Tom Vinger.
Despite the inconclusive reading, a DPS trooper aboard the helicopter shot anyway in an attempt to disable the truck. Two Guatemalan immigrants hiding under the tarp were killed and a third was wounded.
Although troopers had suspected the truck carried
drugs, the Guatemalan consul in McAllen said the men had “no guns, no drugs.”
Asked whether the DPS trooper who fired the shots, Miguel Avila, would have done so had the imaging equipment clearly shown people in the truck’s bed, Vinter said, “In every enforcement situation, officers on the scene are the only individuals in a position to … make a determination of whether force is justified and, if so, what level of force.”
The alleged driver of the pickup, a 14year-old boy who was arrested after the chase near La Joya in Hidalgo County and inadvertently released, was apprehended last week in McAllen when he was pulled over in a stolen vehicle, police said.
The DPS has refused requests by the AmericanStatesman for information on previous shooting incidents during airborne pursuits, rejecting multiple open-records requests. “(T)he department believes these records are confidential and must be withheld from public disclosure,” DPS lawyers argued in a filing with the Texas Attorney General’s office seeking to prevent the records’ release.
Hidalgo County District Attorney Rene Guerra said he expects to receive a report this week from the Texas Rangers, the investigative arm of DPS, about the shootings. Guerra has said he will take the case to a grand jury early next year. DPS Director Steven McCraw has also asked the U.S. Justice Department to conduct an “independent investigation of the events surrounding this matter.”
DPS helicopters often use thermal imagers in pursuits near the Mexican border, according to internal agency reports released earlier this year by WikiLeaks, after the computer hacker group Anonymous obtained access to emails at Stratfor, an Austin company that publishes geopolitical analysis.
The reports said air crews on numerous occasions had used the technology to ferret out suspected illegal immigrants and drug runners hiding in vegetation along the Rio Grande, running through canals or hiding in the woods near U.S. Border Patrol checkpoints. On at least one occasion, troopers used a thermal imager to find multiple subjects hiding in the bed of a speeding pickup during a nighttime pursuit, according to the leaked documents.
There is debate over how useful the devices are during the day. In its promotional materials, aimed at law enforcement agencies, Wilsonville, Ore.-based man- ufacturer FLIR states, “Thermal imaging cameras do not only produce a clear image in total darkness, they are also extremely useful during daylight. Thermal contrast is extremely difficult to mask.”
But according to Kevin Means, the author of Tactical Helicopter Missions, a guide for law enforcement agencies, and longtime pilot with the San Diego Police Department, it would have been difficult for the DPS crew to positively identify the people hidden in the truck as it sped along a rural road outside the town of La Joya in midafternoon.
On a hot day — the high was 94 degrees — it’s also harder to differentiate body heat from nearby objects, he said. And while thermal imagers can detect images behind fabric (and metal walls), it can only do so if bodies are pressing against the fabric, Means added.
“You would really have to be on your game,” Means said. “It would have taken a very, very experienced (operator) to try to interpret what was under a tarp. It’s a borderline-unreasonable expectation.”
To law enforcement officials and experts outside of Texas, the DPS policy of permitting troopers to fire weapons from helicopters during high-speed pursuits is so dangerous that it doesn’t matter if specialized imaging equipment is used.
“What relevance does thermal imaging have? Whatever it revealed or didn’t reveal is irrele- vant,” said Andrew Scott III, a former police chief in Boca Raton, Fla., who now owns a consulting firm specializing in police practices and procedures, including pursuit policies.
“Never have I heard of law enforcement using helicopters to disable a vehicle. It’s not a police practice anywhere, and I travel all over the country. Obviously you have a greater chance of an errant bullet striking an innocent bystander — or the subject in the vehicle, who may have committed no crime.”
Scott, who said he has provided expert testimony on both sides of lawsuits involving police actions, said a safer course to take when officers are in hot pursuit of a vehicle is usually to back off.
“Study after study has shown that if pursuit is discontinued, the vehicle will slow down within 30 to 45 seconds and the occupants will bail out,” he said, adding that they can be apprehended then.