LA JOYA, Texas – The Texas trooper involved is the shooting death of two undocumented immigrants from a helicopter near the U.S.-Mexico border is back at work but in a different role, the state Department of Public Safety said Thursday.
The announcement came less than an hour after the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and local civil rights organizations gathered near the site of the Oct. 25 shooting to demand an investigation by an independent body outside the agency. Currently, the Texas Rangers, an elite force within DPS, is leading the investigation.
Some state lawmakers are demanding an immediate meeting of a legislative committee that oversees DPS.
DPS identified the trooper involved as tactical flight officer Miguel Avila. He was placed on administrative leave immediately following the incident. He has since returned, but has been reassigned to administrative work pending the outcome of the investigation.
The chase started after Texas Parks and Wildlife game wardens spotted the red pickup near La Joya, near the U.S.-Mexico border about 250 miles south of San Antonio. The DPS helicopter joined midway in the 14-mile high-speed pursuit of what it believed was a "typical covered drug load," and Avila fired from the air to disable the vehicle.
The truck crashed into a ditch. Six undocumented immigrants from Guatemala, not drugs, were hidden under a blanket in the bed. Two died, and a third was injured. In total, DPS said there had been 10 people in the truck.
The agency's statement Thursday reiterated earlier comments that troopers believed they were pursuing a covered drug load when shots were fired. They believed the driver's recklessness was a threat to the public and to elementary and middle schools less than three miles away.
"Although it is very tragic that two lives were lost, had the vehicle continued recklessly speeding through the school zone, any number of innocent bystanders or young lives could have been lost or suffered serious bodily injury," DPS director Steve McCraw said.
In a letter delivered to McCraw on Thursday, the ACLU suggested the use of deadly force was "illegal and unconstitutional" and asked for an investigation by an agency not tied to DPS.
Several investigations seem possible.
Some state legislators also called for a committee with oversight of the agency to convene immediately.
Terri Burke, the ACLU's executive director in Texas, said her group is starting with the legislative committees that oversee DPS, but if that does not produce results, the ACLU will go to the U.S. Justice Department.
"You think about it: you've got a helicopter, you've got a car moving at whatever speed. It's outrageous in terms of safety," she said.
Two Democratic lawmakers who sit on a House committee with DPS oversight are asking its chairman to immediately convene a hearing on the matter. Reps. Lon Burnam of Fort Worth and Armando Walle of Houston said they want the committee to review the trooper's conduct and the agency's policy on firing at moving vehicles.
In a letter to the chairman, they note that 13 percent of DPS pursuits between 2005 and 2010 occurred in Hidalgo County. Pursuits by a variety of local, state and federal agencies of drugs and undocumented immigrants are a daily occurrence in the border county.
"I was not aware of this policy, but apparently, based on what I've learned since last Thursday, most areas' law enforcement agencies in the state are aware of it and that's why they call on DPS," Burnam said. "But I have a lot of concern about a sharpshooter sitting in a helicopter shooting at what he can't see."
Burnam, who said he has flown in the border region with DPS and the local sheriff's office, called the policy "terrible."
"The fact of the matter is neither human trafficking nor drug trafficking deserves the death penalty without a trial," Burnam said. "The two people who were killed are guilty of a misdemeanor."
Hidalgo County District Attorney Rene Guerra announced Wednesday after meeting with Texas Rangers that the case would be taken to a grand jury, but at the moment charges against Avila were not under consideration. He asked them to tell DPS leadership to suspend firing from helicopters until its policies are reviewed.
McCraw's statement Thursday indicated a policy review was underway.
The 14-year-old driver who was detained, but then released to a grandmother, is believed to have fled. The juvenile equivalent of an arrest warrant has been issued.
Guatemala's consul in McAllen has expressed skepticism that the troopers wouldn't have been able to see people in the truck and her government has asked for an investigation.
Michael Seifert, who once served as a Roman Catholic priest in La Joya and now heads the Rio Grande Valley Equal Voice Network, said Thursday that he used to frequently drive the roads near the shooting site. He said the dead could have just as easily been local teenagers.
"It sounds like war but we're not at war," he said.
Based on reporting by the Associated Press.