Death of 2 in pickup at­tracts scru­tiny

DPS

Austin American-Statesman - - THE SECOND FRONT - Con­tin­ued from A Con­tact Eric Dex­heimer at 445-1774; Con­tact Brenda Bell at 445-3634.

law en­force­ment agen­cies be­cause of the high risks as­so­ci­ated with fir­ing a weapon from a mov­ing heli­copter at a speed­ing ve­hi­cle.

The prac­tice has been un­der scru­tiny since Oct. 25, when a DPS trooper fired into a pickup rac­ing along a South Texas dirt road near La Joya, killing two Gu­atemalan men hid­den in the bed un­der a blan­ket. A third man was in­jured by the gun­fire.

The chase be­gan af­ter Texas Parks and Wildlife De­part­ment game war­dens spot­ted the truck and called the DPS for air as­sis­tance af­ter it re­fused to stop. Fol­low­ing the in­ci­dent, the DPS ex­plained that of­fi­cers may use gun­fire to end a high-speed chase that threat­ens by­s­tanders.

The trooper, Miguel Avila, shot as the truck was speed­ing to­ward a school more than a mile away, which the DPS said posed a po­ten­tial dan­ger to stu­dents. Alba Cac­eres, the Gu­atemalan con­sul in McAllen, has said the men in the truck had “no guns, no drugs.” Texas Rangers are in­ves­ti­gat­ing.

In prac­tice, the air­borne marks­men aim at a flee­ing ve­hi­cle’s tires to dis­able it. But, as the deadly Oc­to­ber in­ci­dent demon­strated, they don’t al­ways hit their tar­get.

On Oct. 21, 2010, a DPS of­fi­cer in a heli­copter fired a sin­gle shot at a flee­ing ve­hi­cle sus­pected of smug­gling nar­cotics — but missed the car. “Round did not hit ve­hi­cle,” the agency’s sum­mary of the in­ci­dent stated.

The ve­hi­cle was even­tu­ally stopped when of­fi­cers threw down spikes to punc­ture its tires. Although 800 pounds of mar­i­juana was re­cov- ered, “two sus­pects aban­doned ve­hi­cle and fled to Mex­ico,” the report con­cluded.

In an­other case, on Sept. 13 of this year, a DPS ri­fle­man fired three rounds at a ve­hi­cle re­ported by Mis­sion po­lice to be stolen. From the report, how­ever, it is un­clear whether the bul­lets played a role in end­ing the chase; Mis­sion po­lice couldn’t pro­vide ad­di­tional de­tails Fri­day.

“Three bul­let holes were later found in the ve­hi­cle,” ac­cord­ing to the DPS report. “Three sus­pects ex­ited ve­hi­cle and fled to Mex­ico.” A lit­tle more than 1,000 pounds of mar­i­juana were re­cov­ered.

In a third pur­suit, it is un­clear from the report why a DPS of­fi­cer fired shots.

On June 2, 2011, a state heli­copter joined Starr County sher­iff’s deputies in pur­suit of a ve­hi­cle. The report doesn’t spec­ify why the driver was be­ing chased; Sher­iff Rene Fuentes didn’t re­turn a call for com­ment Fri­day af­ter­noon.

In the course of that chase, High­way Pa­trol of­fi­cers also threw down two strips of spikes, a tac­tic the report de­scribes as “suc­cess­ful,” de­flat­ing three of the car’s tires.

When the ve­hi­cle con­tin­ued to speed away, smok­ing and throw­ing off rub­ber de­bris, ac­cord­ing to the report, a DPS shooter in a heli­copter fired five rounds “in an un­suc­cess­ful at­tempt to stop the ve­hi­cle.” It is un­clear from the report whether any rounds hit the ve­hi­cle.

“Driver even­tu­ally came to a stop and fled on foot, af­ter which he was quickly taken into cus­tody,” the report con­cluded.

Of the five pur­suits the agency has now dis­closed in which DPS of­fi­cers have fired from he­li­copters at flee­ing ve­hi­cles, only one was clearly ef­fec­tive, ac­cord­ing to the DPS sum­mary of in­ci­dents.

On Sept. 23, 2010, Starr County sher­iff’s deputies be­gan chas­ing a ve­hi­cle af­ter it evaded of­fi­cers, the report states, adding: “Dur­ing high speed pur­suit, ve­hi­cle nearly struck other ve­hi­cles and be­gan to drive to­ward a more pop­u­lated area. From heli­copter, DPS com­mis­sioned of­fi­cer fired one round at ve­hi­cle’s tire, which de­flated.”

Ac­cord­ing to the report, the ve­hi­cle came to a stop and the driver was taken into cus­tody. “25 lbs mar­i­juana, one bag­gie co­caine and open beer re­cov­ered from ve­hi­cle,” the DPS report con­cluded.

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