DPS’ Sniper Program Only Part of the Agency’s Militarization Problem
Since a Texas Department of Public Safety helicopter sniper fatally shot two Guatemalan men and critically injured another last week during a high speed pursuit, the Hidalgo County District Attorney has asked the DPS to suspend its helicopter sniper program in Hidalgo County.
DPS Director Steve McCraw has asked the FBI to investigate the incident. Local community leaders, civil rights groups and and a handul of elected officials have also asked for both a state review of the program and a DOJ investigation into the incident. A Hidalgo County grand jury will also look at the case.
The men killed were Jose Leonardo Coj Cumar, 32, and Marcos Antonio Castro Estrada, 29. Coj Cumar was a father of three who had come to the United States because his son needed surgery. Castro was a father of two whose wife is three months pregnant. Both men were from the town of San Martin Jilotepeque, about an hour outside of Guatemala City. A third man, who was wounded, is still in the hospital.
Law enforcement experts told the San Antonio Express-News last week that they were stunned by the DPS policies, which allowed snipers to disable vehicles during high speed pursuits. Geoffrey Alpert of the University of South Carolina, who has studied police pursuits across the country, said he’d “never heard of law enforcement agencies allowing officers to shoot at vehicles from helicopters.”
“There’s a trend to restrict officers from shooting at vehicles at all,” Alpert told the Express-News. “It’s not an efficient or effective policy to let officers shoot from vehicles, and certainly not from a helicopter.”
The DPS aerial sniper program, however, is just a fraction of the state law enforcement agency’s push toward using military tactics in civil law enforcement. To my knowledge, state elected officials have not scrutinized DPS’ new armored gun boat program or looked at the program’s lethal force policies. Each gun boat is stocked with several machine guns. No one has been shot yet by DPS on the Rio Grande, but last month a U.S. Border Patrol agent opened fire from a patrol boat at people standing on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande in Nuevo Laredo. One man was fatally shot. Border Patrol says the people were throwing rocks. The FBI is investigating the incident.
DPS troopers received their aerial sniper training from a private outfit called Craft International, which was founded by Texan Chris Kyle, a former Navy SEAL and the author of “American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. History,” about his years fighting in Iraq.
According to an upcoming story in Guns & Weapons for Law Enforcement magazine’s January issue, Craft International trained DPS troopers in “aerial platform shooting.” “Because of the current border wars and strategic interests for potential terrorists,” the article explains, “Texas police officers have made using helicopters a priority, and they take helo-platform shooting very seriously.”
Craft International’s motto on its website is: “Despite what your mamma told you, violence does solve problems.” They also include a video glorifying the DPS sniper program on their site, which makes a nice commercial for other law enforcement itching to start their own helicopter sniper program.
The Facebook page for the Ganado Police Department, (Ganado is located between Houston and Corpus Christi) shows DPS troopers training for the helicopter sniper program in 2011.
Recently, DPS Director Steve McCraw spent $7.4 million on a high altitude spy plane, according to G.W. Schulz of the Center for Investigative Reporting. Hopefully, legislators will start asking questions next session, McCraw will have plenty of explaining to do—and hopefully it won’t take another tragedy like last week’s to reveal problems with the agency’s border security programs.