Four months after a helicopter-borne Texas Department of Public Safety trooper mistakenly shot and killed two immigrants in the back of a fleeing pickup near the Mexican border, the agency has banned shooting from helicopters in similar scenarios.
DPS Director Steve McCraw told members of the Texas House Appropriations Committee on Thursday that the move wasn’t spurred by the shooting, which is under review by the Hidalgo County District Attorney’s office and federal agencies, including the FBI.
“This is not a reflection on what happened there,” McCraw said. “I’m a firm believer they did exactly what they thought they needed to do.”
But he added, “I’m convinced now that from a helicopter platform we shouldn’t shoot unless being shot at or if someone (else) is being shot at.”
The Oct. 25 shooting outside the town of La Joya triggered a torrent of criticism, including from law enforcement experts who say firing at moving targets from the air is too risky. The DPS is the only state law enforcement agency along the Southwestern border that allows the practice.
The new policy, quietly adopted by the DPS last week but not disclosed until Thursday, would still allow troopers to shoot from aircraft if a “suspect has used or is about to use deadly force by use of a deadly weapon.” But aggressive or reckless driving wouldn’t constitute using a deadly weapon, meaning the new policy apparently would have prohibited the Hidalgo County shooting.
During that incident, trooper Miguel Avila, believing that the pickup’s covered payload contained drugs, opened fire because he thought the speeding truck posed a threat to a middle school three miles away, DPS officials have said.
Avila, intending to disable the vehicle, instead struck the bed of the truck where a group of Guatemalan men were hiding under a blanket. Jose Leonardo Coj Cumar, 32, and Marcos Antonio Castro Estrada, 29, were killed. A third man was injured but has recovered.
Last November, Hidalgo County District Attorney Rene Guerra asked the DPS to stop the practice while the La Joya shooting is under investigation. A Hidalgo County grand jury was expected to take up the case this month.
While resisting open records requests for operational details on specific incidents, the agency has disclosed that its officers have fired guns from helicopters while pursuing vehicles five times over the past two years. According to that information, the tactic was clearly effective in the apprehension of fleeing suspects in only one instance.
The Texas American Civil Liberties Union, which had also sought an end to the DPS practice, issued a statement applauding McCraw’s announcement Thursday.
“We are relieved that Texas is ending this extreme practice, which no other Southwestern border states have ever allowed,” said Terri Burke, executive director of the state organization. Noting that the La Joya incident was one of five in which DPS troopers have shot from helicopters, Burke said: “ In none of the previous incidents were DPS officers being fired upon.”
The DPS has a fleet of at least 16 helicopters, many of them stationed near the Mexican border, and has trained the troopers who fly in them in aerial shooting tactics.
But in interviews with law enforcement agencies in other U.S. states along the Texas-Mexico border, the American-Statesman found Texas to be unusual in having a policy that allows its state troopers to shoot at vehicles from the air.
A spokesman for the Los Angeles Police Department, which has 20 helicopters, said that while it doesn’t expressly prohibit shooting from its aircraft, it doesn’t happen. “Our officers would never do it. It’s not only too risky, it’s not tactical,” LAPD public information officer Bruce Borihanh told the Statesman last year.
Until now, the DPS general manual hasn’t specifically addressed shooting from aircraft. The new language not only speaks to that but also tightens the rules on use of deadly force in general.
Officers are now prohibited from shooting at “any part of an occupied vehicle” unless the use of deadly force is justified by one of several criteria, including this new one: If an officer “reasonably believes there is a substantial risk that the person to be arrested will cause death or serious bodily injury to the officer or another if the arrest is delayed.”