from the New York Times
By MANNY FERNANDEZ
Published: November 10, 2012
HOUSTON — For years in Texas, state troopers have been safely bringing vehicle chases to an end by using their weapons. Suspects wanted for burglaries and other crimes who have led the police on chases through multiple counties have been apprehended after state troopers pulled up close enough to shoot the tires. In one case here, a state trooper waved his pistol at a kidnapping suspect as a warning to pull over, and then shot the pickup truck’s two left tires.
But the practice has also led to fatal errors.
In August 1984, Zachary Eugene Hilliard, 17, was a passenger in a car that fled the police near Austin. A state trooper fired three rounds to shoot out the tires, but one of the shots struck Mr. Hilliard in the head, killing him. His relatives sued the agency that oversees state troopers, the Department of Public Safety, and the state later paid the family nearly $51,000. According to The Austin American-Statesman, James Adams, the director of the agency at the time, said in court documents that the trooper was in compliance with policies governing the use of deadly force.
Last month, it happened again, after a Department of Public Safety helicopter began pursuing a red pickup truck suspected of carrying drugs near the border in South Texas. A tactical flight officer on board the helicopter fired multiple times into the vehicle in an attempt to shoot the tires. He shot one of the tires, but his other shots struck a group of illegal immigrants from Guatemala who had been hiding in the bed of the truck under a dark blanket, the authorities said. Two men in the back of truck were killed, and a third was injured. No drugs were found in the truck, and no shots were fired from the vehicle.
The Texas Rangers are investigating the shooting, and officials with the Department of Public Safety, the state’s top law enforcement agency, have requested that the F.B.I. and the civil rights division of the Department of Justice conduct their own investigation. The request for a federal inquiry pleased the A.C.L.U. of Texas, which called the shooting unconstitutional and had asked for an independent investigation.
State troopers and officers with the Department of Public Safety are allowed to fire on vehicles during pursuits. They can shoot to disable a vehicle, to defend themselves or others from death or serious injury, or to apprehend those suspected of using or trying to use deadly force, according to the agency’s general manual.
Officials with the Department of Public Safety said in a statement that they were reviewing all related policies, but they defended the actions of the officer in the helicopter, identified as Miguel Avila, saying that the truck was traveling fast near two elementary schools and a middle school and posed “an immediate threat to the schoolchildren and motoring public.”
In addition to Mr. Hilliard and the two men from Guatemala fatally shot last month, at least one other man has been shot and killed since 1984 by state troopers trying to disable vehicles in chases.
That man was Israel Leija Jr., 24, who led the authorities on a chase outside Amarillo one night in March 2010 after they had tried to arrest him on an outstanding warrant. A state trooper took up position on an Interstate 27 overpass with an M-4 rifle and fired multiple times into the vehicle. Mr. Leija was shot, his vehicle rolled over several times and he was pronounced dead at the scene. His relatives filed a lawsuit in federal court in Amarillo, claiming civil rights violations and wrongful death.
“There’s a tremendous amount of room for error,” said Rob Hogan, a lawyer representing Mr. Leija’s relatives. “Essentially what they’re doing is, they’re allowing D.P.S. troopers to become snipers. That may be something appropriate for Afghanistan or Iraq in a military operation, but it’s not appropriate for a community law enforcement function.”
Lawyers in the state attorney general’s office, which is representing the state trooper in that case, said in court documents that Mr. Leija was evading arrest and had threatened multiple times during the pursuit to shoot police officers. They said the trooper, Chadrin Lee Mullenix, fired his weapon at the vehicle to protect the public and other police officers, including those who were out of their vehicles placing spikes on the roadway.
Trooper Mullenix asked his commanding officer for permission to fire on the vehicle. The family’s lawsuit asserted that he received an order from his superior to “stand down,” because the vehicle would soon reach the spikes that had been deployed. The state’s lawyers said in court documents that the trooper did not hear any response to his request. A grand jury declined to indict Trooper Mullenix.
A spokesman for the Department of Public Safety, Tom Vinger, said in a statement that officers, in evaluating the circumstances confronting them, may “attempt to terminate a dangerous high-speed car chase that threatens the life of innocent bystanders.”
He said that the department had limited information about the shooting of Mr. Hilliard, and that any settlement of the case did not constitute an admission of liability. Of the shooting of Mr. Leija, Mr. Vinger said, “The Texas attorney general is vigorously defending that litigation on behalf of the department and the officer involved.”