By Paul J. Weber
AUSTIN, Texas — Nearly four months after a Texas state trooper in a helicopter fired on a pickup truck speeding along the U.S.-Mexico border, killing two Guatemalan immigrants, state officials said Thursday that troopers are now forbidden from aerial shooting unless they're under fire.
Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw announced the policy change while facing questions from lawmakers about the deadly high-speed pursuit near La Joya in October. The truck was mistakenly thought to be carrying a drug load, and DPS says a trooper opened fire to disable the vehicle because it was barreling toward a school zone.
McCraw continued to defend that shooting, even while rolling out new rules that would now forbid it.
"I'm convinced that now, from a helicopter platform, that we shouldn't shoot unless being shot at, or someone is being shot at," McCraw said.
According to the revised policy later released by DPS, "a firearms discharge from an aircraft is authorized only when an officer reasonably believes that the suspect has used or is about to use deadly force by use of a deadly weapon against the air crew, ground officers or innocent third parties."
A suspect driving aggressively or recklessly does not constitute use of a deadly weapon, the new policy states.
The American Civil Liberties Union quickly applauded the move.
"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 ACLU of Texas. "We hope that this decision is a step, if only a small one, toward ending the culture of violence that pervades enforcement of border security in Texas."
Criminal prosecutors in Hidalgo County still are investigating the shooting, which caused the truck to crash into a ditch. Two illegal immigrants died, and a third was injured. Authorities said the wounded immigrants were among six hiding under a blanket in the truck's bed.
"I'm a firm believer they did exactly what they thought they needed to do," McCraw said Thursday.
The incident began with a chase after Texas Parks and Wildlife game wardens spotted a red pickup near La Joya and the U.S.-Mexico border, about 250 miles south of San Antonio. The wardens requested help, and the DPS helicopter joined midway in the 14-mile, high-speed pursuit of what authorities said they believed was a "typical covered drug load."
In the days following the incident, civil rights groups and the Guatemalan government expressed concerns that DPS essentially was investigating itself because the Texas Rangers, who were leading the investigation, fall under the DPS umbrella. A week after the incident, McCraw said he had asked the FBI and the U.S. Justice Department's Civil Rights Division to investigate and would turn over the Texas Rangers' report.
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