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Human Rights Watch calls on Texas DPS to change pursuit policy

A Texas state trooper stands near a vehicle that crashed after a high speed pursuit. The front of a Honda Accord hit by the fleeing truck was crushed in the collision.
Aaron Montes
On August 9, 2023 a Texas state trooper pursued a vehicle after an attempted traffic stop. The chase ended in a collision in northwest El Paso near I-10. Two of the people riding in the fleeing Dodge truck were injured in the accident. Two bystanders in a Honda Accord hit by the truck were also hospitalized.

Chases by Texas state troopers put border residents at risk, group says

A spike in high-speed chases involving Texas state troopers pursuing people suspected of transporting migrants is putting the lives of border residents at higher risk, according to a new report by Human Rights Watch.

The pursuits are part of Gov. Greg Abbott’s controversial A spike in high-speed chases involving Texas state troopers pursuing people suspected of transporting migrants is putting the lives of border residents at higher risk, according to a new report by Human Rights Watch.

The pursuits are part of Gov. Greg Abbott’s controversial Operation Lone Star border enforcement initiative.
“Public safety doesn’t require careening around Texas roadways or crashing into Texans’ cars and homes,” said Allison Parker, deputy U.S. director at Human Rights Watch.

The 77-page report released Monday, "So Much Blood on the Ground’: Dangerous and Deadly Vehicle Pursuits under Texas’ Operation Lone Star,” documents an increase in high-speed chases by Texas Department of Public Safety troopers and shows residents in border counties are disproportionately affected.
DPS officials have previously pushed back at allegations that they engage in pursuits that are needlessly risky.

“We chase what we can chase, to do it safely and properly. If we feel like we’re going to endanger too many people by doing it, we’re going to back off,” Joe Sanchez, the regional DPS director in El Paso, said during an interview following a town hall meeting in Northwest El Paso earlier this month.

In El Paso County, there have been at least 328 DPS pursuits so far this year, with many reaching more than 100 miles an hour. More than 30 people have been injured -- some seriously, including bystanders and four state troopers – according to state records. Seven people have died in collisions following pursuits.

“Across the state of Texas, I think many border residents like myself have experienced this or know someone who has experienced this, that there’s been a high speed chase in their neighborhood, maybe close to their workplace,” said report author Norma Herrera, a resident of the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas.

Human Rights Watch found about 68% of the 5,230 DPS trooper vehicle chases in 254 counties since March 2021, have happened in the 60 Operation Lone Star counties. Those counties have only 13% of the state’s population.

Texas state troopers have chased cars they suspect are transporting migrants in El Paso through neighborhoods, on city streets and onto I-10.

Dion Dorado said he and another man survived a close call on his normally quiet street in the Upper Valley last spring. It happened on a Saturday afternoon near a home having an estate sale.

“I myself was standing right in front talking to another man and I was helping him load some of the things,” Dorado, 80, said.

Just then a car came careening around the corner, nearly hitting a rock wall – followed by a Texas state trooper in close pursuit, he said.

“Both of them sped right through here. Where I was standing, I could feel the air that was being pushed up against my pants.”

Dorado raised concerns about the chase in his neighborhood during a recent town hall meeting hosted by the Texas Department of Public Safety in Canutillo.

“If we hadn’t jumped out of the way we would have been run over,” he told the regional DPS director.

The subject of the meeting was smuggling and included tips for spotting a stash house where migrants are hidden. But questions from the public quickly turned to the pursuit policy.

Attorney Eduardo Solis asked why not follow and track vehicles from a distance to their destination instead of chasing them.

“Almost exclusively the drivers of these vehicles are young people, U.S. citizens, not over the age of 25,” he said.

Most law enforcement agencies in El Paso, including the Sheriff’s Office and Police Department limit pursuits to suspects who poses an imminent threat to the public.

“Are we endangering the public for something like these individuals who almost exclusively present no history, no violent tendencies, and no weapons?” Solis asked.

DPS regional director Sanchez told people at the town hall if there’s a question about a pursuit, supervisors review dashcam and bodycam video. But the agency gives the power to the individual trooper to decide whether to chase or not.

“Any opportunity that we get to mitigate a pursuit is what we do,” Sanchez said.

“They say that they’re going to take precautionary methods, but I don’t see it. I really don’t,” El Paso County Commissioner Sergio Coronado said.  In recent months his precinct has been the scene of about 25 crashes following pursuits of suspected migrant smugglers Coronado said.

He’s especially concerned about what’s known as a PIT maneuver. The precision immobilization technique involves law enforcement hitting the side of a fleeing vehicle to get it to spin and come to a stop. But that tactic has also caused dangerous rollover accidents.

 “We’ve got the technology to be able to follow the vehicles and not do these crashes or these PIT maneuvers where you put the lives in danger, not just the individuals in the vehicles, but bystanders, innocent bystanders.”

In its report Human Rights Watch recommends Texas end high speed chases “when the only basis for the pursuits is a traffic violation and/or the suspected transport of unauthorized migrants.”

The organization also questions the basis for the initiating pursuits. “The reasons they give for suspecting that migrants are in the vehicle at times sometimes suggest reliance on racial profiling” according to the Human Rights Watch report.

A new state law makes it a crime to illegally enter Texas. El Paso County Commissioner David Stout was among those who testified in Austin in opposition to the then proposed legislation.

“Our message was this going to be hugely impactful especially for border communities, negatively. Not only are you just going to see more racial profiling, but you’re also going to see more of these DPS car chases.”

This story was produced as part of the Puente News Collaborative, a binational partnership of news organizations in Ciudad Juárez and El Paso.

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