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As cops go after suspected migrant smugglers, high-speed chases have surged in Texas

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

High-speed chases have surged along the southern border in Texas. State troopers pursue suspected migrant smugglers as part of Texas Governor Greg Abbott's controversial border enforcement effort called Operation Lone Star. Many chases end with crashes, serious injuries and even deaths. As Angela Kocherga of member station KTEP reports, some want the policy changed.

ANGELA KOCHERGA, BYLINE: Dion Dorado recalls the spring Saturday morning when he and others in this El Paso neighborhood were coming and going from an estate sale. They'd park their cars along the street.

DION DORADO: I myself was standing right in front, talking to another man, and I was helping him load some of the things.

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

DORADO: Both of them sped right through here. As to where I was standing, I could feel the air that was being pushed up against my pants.

KOCHERGA: Dorado says if he had not jumped out of the way, he would have been run over. He's a retired law enforcement officer and rushed to help the trooper detain the driver, who got cornered in a nearby cul-de-sac. He watched over the man while the trooper chased two other men who had bailed out of the car. He strongly supports the police but not the troopers' high-speed pursuit policy.

DORADO: In this case, he should have slowed it down and not attempt to do that chase through here.

KOCHERGA: Texas state troopers have chased suspected migrant smugglers down residential streets, county roads and on the busy interstate highway that cuts through El Paso. It's happened here more than 328 times this year alone. More than 30 people have been injured, some seriously. That includes bystanders and four state troopers, according to Department of Public Safety, or DPS, records. Seven people have died in collisions in El Paso so far this year, and that's just El Paso. State data show a huge spike in high-speed pursuits in counties all along the southern border. Human Rights Watch will soon release a report on the rise of dangerous and deadly vehicle pursuits under Operation Lone Star. Bob Libel is with Human Rights Watch in Austin.

BOB LIBEL: So we think that certainly DPS and other law enforcement agencies need to revise their policies in order to not be pursuing people at these kinds of speeds.

KOCHERGA: El Paso residents raised those same concerns about high-speed chases during a recent town hall meeting hosted by the Texas Department of Public Safety. The subject was human smuggling, but questions from the public quickly turned to the pursuit policy. Local attorney Eduardo Solis asked, why not track smugglers' vehicles, often driven by young people with U.S. citizenship, from a distance rather than give chase?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

EDUARDO SOLIS: Are we endangering the public for something like these individuals who almost exclusively present no history, no violent tendencies and no weapons?

KOCHERGA: Local law enforcement agencies in El Paso, including the sheriff and city police, say their policy is to only pursue a suspect who's committed a violent crime or who poses an imminent threat to the public. But state troopers have a very different policy. Joe Sanchez, the DPS regional director, says his agency gives the individual trooper the power to decide whether to chase or not.

JOSE SANCHEZ: We chase what we can chase, to do it safely and properly. If we feel that we're going to endanger too many people from doing it, then we're going to back off.

SERGIO CORONADO: They say that they're going to take precautionary methods, but I don't see it. I really don't.

KOCHERGA: That's El Paso County Commissioner Sergio Coronado. He says in recent months, his district has seen at least 25 crashes following pursuits of suspected migrant smugglers. He's especially concerned about what's known as a PIT maneuver, which stands for Precision Immobilization Technique. It 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.

CORONADO: We've got the technology to be able to follow these vehicles and not have to do these crashes or these PIT maneuvers where you put the lives in danger - not just about the individuals in the vehicles but the innocent bystanders.

KOCHERGA: A new state law makes it a crime to illegally enter Texas. Some border residents are concerned that when that law goes into effect, there will be even more high-speed chases of migrant smugglers or anyone suspected of entering the state illegally. For NPR News, I'm Angela Kocherga in El Paso.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS SONG, "ACID RAINDROPS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Angela Kocherga
Emmy winning multimedia journalist Angela Kocherga is news director with KTEP and Borderzine. She is also multimedia editor with ElPasoMatters.org, an independent news organization.
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