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Texas troopers accused of racially profiling drivers under Abbott’s border crackdown

Texas Department of Public Safety vehicles are parked at a Best Western hotel in Del Rio on July 23, 2021.
Miguel Gutierrez Jr.
The Texas Tribune
Texas Department of Public Safety vehicles are parked at a Best Western hotel in Del Rio on July 23, 2021.

Two civil rights groups have expanded their request for a U.S. Department of Justice investigation into Operation Lone Star, citing evidence of risky pursuits and more frequent traffic stops of Hispanic drivers.

At least 30 people have been killed in state police car chases connected to Texas’ expansive border security operation since it began last March, according to a new complaint by civil rights groups.

The death tally, which includes five people not involved in the chases, was compiled from news reports and sent Thursday to the U.S. Department of Justice in an official complaint of alleged civil rights violations. The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas and the Texas Civil Rights Project are pleading for federal intervention to halt policing practices under Gov. Greg Abbott’s multibillion-dollar Operation Lone Star, including the deadly car chases and an abundance of traffic stops and searches that disproportionately target Latinos.

The Texas Department of Public Safety reported in December that in the nine months after troopers flooded the region searching for people smuggling drugs or people into the United States, its officers engaged in more than 1,000 vehicle pursuits in border communities.

In recent years, police chases have been scrutinized nationwide, and policing experts have encouraged departments to narrow their use, citing the danger they pose to police, suspects and bystanders. A DPS policy from 2017 and a spokesperson’s comments in December indicated the agency does not restrict when officers can chase a car, leaving the decision up to the individual officer.

The civil rights groups also allege troopers excessively pull over Latinos — who make up the vast majority of border county populations — for minor traffic violations. They argue troopers prolong stops of Latinos to search for illegal activity based solely on their ethnicity.

The allegations come on the heels of a state-imposed review of 2021 traffic stops released Monday. The analysis by Tarleton State University flagged DPS as possibly racially profiling Hispanics based on a disproportionate number of stops and searches, despite finding less contraband in cars with Hispanic drivers than white ones.

“There is significant evidence that DPS is engaged in racial profiling — discriminating against Latinx drivers and passengers — in these stops,” reads the federal complaint penned by the ACLU of Texas and the Texas Civil Rights Project. “And, troublingly, the stops turn into deadly vehicle pursuits with alarming frequency.”

DPS did not respond to questions sent Wednesday about its chase policies or complaints of racial profiling. Neither DPS nor Abbott’s office immediately responded to the complaint Thursday.

Operation Lone Star was launched by Abbott to combat a rise in illegal immigration and what he argued were lax federal policies. Border counties said they were overwhelmed and either wanted humanitarian assistance for migrants or increased law enforcement, typically depending on whether they were in more Democratic or Republican areas. Abbott has focused on enforcement, but his operation to “catch-and-jail” migrants and accused smugglers has been marred by controversy and an ever-expanding price tag.

The civil rights groups’ complaint follows one they sent with other groups in December, which called for the DOJ to investigate the operation for its practice of arresting migrants en masse on potential trespassing charges and jailing them for weeks and months in state prisons. Congressional Democrats have also called for a federal investigation after repeated wrongful arrests, illegal detentions and due-process violations in the new criminal justice system for migrants were reported by The Texas Tribune.

This month, state records obtained by the Tribune and ProPublica revealed the federal agency is investigating the operation. Now, the civil rights groups want the same officials to also consider alleged civil rights abuses by DPS for its fatal car chases and alleged racial profiling.

“Federal action is critically necessary to protect Black and Brown individuals caught up in the OLS migrant arrest program — and Latinx drivers and passengers in South Texas communities,” the groups said in their complaint.

Texas governors have repeatedly sent law enforcement south for border security operations throughout state history. Although the increased police presence is meant to tackle human smuggling and drug trafficking, border residents also see a rise in traffic citations as police say they pull people over to investigate possible other crimes.

A KRGV-TV analysis of citations in the Rio Grande Valley’s Starr County revealed there was a more than 1,000% increase in the number of citations for having things like stickers or tinting on a car windshield in the first months of Operation Lone Star.

“This is an old tool being pulled out once again from the state to make a political point,” said Erin Thorn, a senior attorney at the Texas Civil Rights Project. “It just feels like a systemized way to further entrench that militarization, which affects border communities with harassment and fines and fees they can’t afford.”

The civil rights groups argued that DPS uses ethnicity alone as a reason to conduct more thorough searches after a traffic stop. From a sample of human smuggling arrest reports the groups received, they alleged there were multiple instances of officers prolonging a minor stop to investigate possible smuggling based on the occupants being Hispanic.

In one instance, an officer further investigated smuggling because he smelled an odor he said was distinct to undocumented immigrants “due to sweat and being exposed to the environment.” The civil rights groups argue the justification was “plainly outrageous, and it is bias-based policing.”

The allegations align with findings from a statewide study of traffic stop data initiated by the Texas Legislature. The Institute for Predictive Analytics in Criminal Justice of the Texas A&M University System showed DPS officers in 2021 were more likely to search Hispanic drivers than white ones, despite the searches of Hispanic drivers being less likely to turn up contraband than white drivers.

“If you have a significant number of searches that you make on minorities, but most of them don’t result in contraband being found, that is a big, big red flag for us,” said Alex del Carmen, the director of the institute. “Racial profiling is not necessarily based on who the officer stops, but what the officer does once the stop is made.”

In Kinney County, whose leaders are vocal supporters of Abbott’s operation and have jailed by far the most migrants for allegedly trespassing, a sheriff’s spokesperson said residents are more tolerant of increased traffic stops. Matt Benacci said the community is aware drug cartel operatives have cloned vehicles, as was the case in San Antonio last month, when 53 migrants died after being trapped in a sweltering tractor-trailer imitating a Texas company truck.

But even residents who want more statewide enforcement of immigration in the Hispanic-majority county are unhappy with what seems to be daily high-speed chases through their sleepy town.

“A lot of people are terrified that these kids are going to get run over,” Benacci said. “There are safety concerns about chases in the city limits and police driving over the speed limit without lights and sirens.”

Those fears have come to light in other border communities. Of the 30 people killed and more than 70 injured in police chases involving DPS reported by the civil rights groups, five were in other vehicles but just happened to be on the same road as the pursuit. Other bystanders were hospitalized, including a child.

The groups argue that the department’s lack of restrictions on chases has led to the tragedies, which surpassed the 23 deaths connected to U.S. Border Patrol in the entire southern border, from California to Texas, in 2021, according to ACLU data. DPS spokesperson Chris Olivarez said at a briefing in December that chases increased because smugglers are getting bolder.

“We’re starting to see this more often, a lot of these crashes, especially not only with the innocent bystanders as far as motorists, but we’re also seeing illegal immigrants that are being killed because of the way these human smugglers are transporting them,” he said.

The department’s most recently released policy for vehicle pursuits from 2017 is minimal, leaving the decision of chasing a fleeing person entirely up to individual officers without specific guidelines. The policy, which an agency spokesperson said in December was still in effect, does not meet best practices set by national policing groups, which suggest only chasing violent suspects who pose an imminent danger.

“You have to ask yourself, what is the threat?” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum in Washington, D.C. “Is the threat worth endangering the people you’re chasing and the police officer who is chasing them? If something should happen, or a third party should somehow cross the street while this chase is going on and you kill that person, does that justify the pursuit?”

In cases where officers suspect a car full of people are being brought into the country illegally, Wexler said a chase puts all at risk. Without clear guidelines from the law enforcement agency, officers may make the wrong decision.

“Cops need to know what’s expected of them,” Wexler said. “And if you don’t tell them, you’re basically opening the door to potential tragedies.”

Jolie McCullough develops data interactives and news apps and reports on criminal justice issues for the Texas Tribune. She came to the Tribune in early 2015 from the Albuquerque Journal, where her work as a web designer and developer earned her national recognition. She was at the Journal for four years and specialized in interactive maps and data-driven special projects. She is a graduate of Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication; while there, she interned as a reporter and online producer at the Arizona Republic and served as the web editor of the student-run newspaper, the State Press.