High-Speed Police Chases Rise Near Texas Border, Leaving Locals on Edge

Jairo Lerma and several of his relatives placed a wooden cross in the dry grass along a Texas highway where his parents, on their way from Georgia to Mexico, died suddenly in a fiery crash with an oncoming car that was carrying migrants and fleeing a sheriff’s deputy.

Shortly before the crash on Nov. 8, his mother, Isabel, had texted to say that she and her husband, José Carlos, a retired carpet factory worker from Dalton, Ga., would soon be at the border. Instead they died near a bend in the road some 60 miles short, along with five migrants and the 21-year-old driver of the other car.

“I blame the sheriff’s department because they were chasing at a really high speed in a location that was really dangerous,” Mr. Lerma said. “This could have been avoided.”

In recent years, police departments across the United States have been reassessing when and how to pursue fleeing suspects, adopting policies to curtail the number of dangerous high-speed chases.

But in Texas, the state police and sheriff’s offices have been notable exceptions, policing experts said, retaining broad discretion to give chase whenever their officers deem it appropriate. The approach differs even from big city departments in the state, such as in Houston, where the police recently barred pursuits for minor offenses.

The number of chases across Texas has gone up sharply starting in 2021, when Gov. Greg Abbott began a program known as Operation Lone Star and sent thousands of state police officers to patrol the area around the border.

The chases, which often erupt suddenly from traffic stops, have left dozens dead and scores injured, including bystanders, rattling border communities from El Paso to Brownsville.

High-speed chases are part of Mr. Abbott’s aggressive approach to a surge in migrant arrivals at the border, a strategy that has led to clashes with the Biden administration. The federal government has looked into the actions by Texas police during Operation Lone Star, including their operations in areas where migrant drownings occurred in the Rio Grande, though no broad action has been taken to curtail the program.

In Zavala County, where Mr. Lerma’s parents were killed, residents have contended with a sharp uptick in chases. The state police alone conducted at least 175 vehicle pursuits in Zavala County during the first two years of Operation Lone Star, according to data provided by the department. In the year before the border enforcement program, there were seven.

“It’s dangerous,” said Paul Rodriguez, who runs a roadside taco truck with his wife on U.S. Highway 57, where many chases have occurred. “It could just come straight at us, or people buying food.”

The owner of a towing company, who has had steady business hauling the wrecked vehicles used by fleeing migrant smugglers, said he advises his family not to drive on Highway 57. The mayor of Crystal City, the largest community in the sparsely populated, ranch-land county, said he avoids the road altogether after having seen the gnarled remains of pursuits.

“I quit using that highway,” said the mayor, Frank Moreno Jr., in an interview at City Hall. “After all the years in the Army, for something like that to do me in, I don’t think so.”

The state Department of Public Safety said it counted 29 people killed in pursuits by its troopers in 2021 and 2022, the first two years of Operation Lone Star, roughly double the number during the previous two years. The figures do not include pursuits by other law enforcement agencies working with the state on Operation Lone Star, the department said.

A review of media reports by Human Rights Watch suggested that more than 60 people had been killed in pursuits during Operation Lone Star as of July 2023. A report from the organization was expected on Monday.

The rise in deaths appeared to closely track the rise in chases by the state police. In South Texas counties along or near the border, chases doubled to 1,100 in 2022 from about 500 in 2019. There were about four times as many in those counties as there were in and around major cities like Dallas and Houston, according to department data.

This year, the federal Customs and Border Protection agency, whose agents have been involved in a number of deadly chases, imposed new risk assessments and restrictions as part of its pursuit policy.

“It has evolved pretty dramatically,” said Travis Yates, a police trainer and retired major from the Tulsa Police Department. Thirty years ago, most departments chased everyone who fled, he said. “You’re seeing the trend right now is to give officers very strict parameters.”

Still, many departments adhere to the old approach of leaving it up to the discretion of individual officers.

“State police are usually the biggest detractors” of limiting pursuits, said Geoffrey P. Alpert, a criminology professor at the University of South Carolina who has long researched police chases. “Their job is traffic. That’s what they do. So if someone flees from them, that’s an affront.”

He added that the Texas state police are “very aggressive” when it comes to chases.

Steven McCraw, the director of the Department of Public Safety, said in a phone interview that the department relied on its troopers to decide when to start a pursuit and when to call it off.

The department, he said, also uses a range of other tools to stop fleeing cars, including following overhead in helicopters, laying “stop sticks” across the road or, where available, attaching a GPS tracker during a stop. (Such devices have been primarily used in urban settings, a department official said.)

“I would argue you can certainly mitigate risk,” Mr. McCraw said. But by not giving chase, he added, “all you’re doing is rewarding the Mexican cartels” in their smuggling efforts. He said he expected his troopers to pursue in a “judicious manner” and that they would be held accountable when they did not exercise appropriate caution.

“Quite frankly, I think that’s a far better approach as opposed to capitulating to the cartels,” he said.

Mr. Abbott has credited Operation Lone Star with thousands of human smuggling arrests, often of U.S. citizens hired to drive migrants away from border counties. A new law, set to go into effect next year, raises the penalty for smuggling to a minimum of 10 years.

Many of the drivers are Texans who are recruited with the promise of quick money, said Sgt. Rogelio Lopez Jr., a deputy in the Zavala County Sheriff’s Office. “A lot of them are teenagers that we’re pursuing,” he said in an interview during a recent patrol, before dawn.

The crash that killed Mr. Lerma’s parents remained under investigation. Chief Deputy Ricardo Rios said the policy of the Zavala County Sheriff’s Office was to rely on a deputy’s discretion, taking into account the location — whether in town or on the highway — as well as traffic on the road.

In September 2021, Gabriel Salazar, a 19-year-old from San Antonio with a significant social media following, died in a crash along with three migrants while fleeing a traffic stop in Crystal City. A sheriff’s deputy used “a tire deflation device” before the crash, the department said.

Mr. Salazar was driving a white Chevrolet Camaro, which he had purchased with his mother’s help only days before, said his sister, Danna Salazar. “He was so excited when he got it,” she said. The family had tried to bring a case against the police, whom they blamed for the crash, but could not find a lawyer to represent them, Ms. Salazar said. “He had a lot of goals,” she said of her brother. “He was trying to become a model.”

Zavala County, once an industrial producer of spinach, does not sit directly along the Rio Grande, but provides a connection between the border town of Eagle Pass and Interstate 35.

During his patrol, Sergeant Lopez pointed out places used to hide migrants waiting for a pickup along the highways: an abandoned home, now filled with discarded clothes and backpacks; a hiding spot in the brush.

Beyond the fences of one ranch, an abandoned S.U.V. that had been involved in a crash last year sat lodged in a stand of mesquite trees near some bellowing cattle.

“They went from the highway to here,” said Eddie Gomez, a ranch worker. He said migrants still passed through the hunting ranch regularly on foot, cutting the fence and occasionally allowing deer to escape.

In recent months, residents said, the number of pursuits appeared to decline. Still, the fear of a sudden chase loomed.

For the annual spinach festival in Crystal City — where a painted 1930s statue of Popeye stands prominently in front of City Hall — the city manager, Felix Benavides, said he positioned police cars as protection in case a fleeing suspect crashed through the celebration.

“As a city manager, that’s my main worry,” Mr. Benavides said. “These are the problems we are facing in America.”

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