Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Police cautious, before chasing dangerous coyotes (The Monitor)

Police cautious, before chasing dangerous coyotes

April 29, 2008 - 6:11PM
Sean Gaffney

LA JOYA - Dramatic police chases with illegal immigrant-crammed trucks are common place in this small city.

That pursuit, however, has often ended in dangerous chases with the desperate human smugglers widely known as coyotes.

Again on Tuesday, just east of La Joya, a coyote led Peñitas police on an early morning chase that crossed four cities and ended in a crash after the driver refused to pull over for erratically changing lanes on Expressway 83.

Four Honduran illegal immigrants were taken to the hospital with broken bones and other minor injuries after the vehicle they were traveling in blew out a tire and rolled over, Peñitas police Chief David Harris said. The coyote charged with shepherding the immigrants into the interior of the country fled the scene and got away.

Facing federal prosecution if caught, these coyotes put police in the delicate position of deciding whether to chase after them for failing to pull over on a minor traffic violation.

The choice is never simple and at several Rio Grande Valley police departments, it seems everyone has a different answer.

The rationale behind each decision offers a window into how local law enforcement agencies address the federal issue of illegal immigration.

On April 17, Mission police chased a coyote after he ran a red light and refused to pull over. That smuggler plowed into a SUV as he tried to flee, sending a mother and her two young children into a canal.

The woman and her children were rescued by the pursuing officer and another bystander, escaping with minor injuries. The coyote was arrested and arraigned on smuggling charges, while most of his human cargo who tried to flee was caught.

"The video (of the Wednesday chase) indicated there was no reason to believe there was any ... immediate danger" to civilians, Mission police Chief Leo Longoria said at the time. "(The officer) made that decision and I think any other officer would have made that decision."

It was the second chase for Mission that underscored the dangers coyotes and the police who chase them pose to motorists. In October a coyote who fled police lost control of his van and crashed, killing one of his passengers.

Often police are unclear why the driver flees. The driver could be wanted or carrying drugs, Longoria added.

In the October crash, Mission police were helping U.S. Border Patrol agents, who had lost the vehicle at a local park.

"When things go bad, things get very bad," Longoria said.

But he also stressed that his officers are trained to consider factors that could complicate and make the chase even more dangerous, such as weather, conditions of the roadway, the limitations of their vehicles and the purpose of the pursuit.

All Valley police departments interviewed said their officers consider the same factors before pursuing.

"Our primary objective is the preservation of life and property," Longoria said. "We don't lose that mission."

Local police are not required to enforce immigration law nor are they required to ask about a person's immigration status during a criminal investigation or traffic stop.

When police do encounter illegal immigrants, they turn them over to Border Patrol for processing.

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency, of which Border Patrol is a part, reported nearly 74,118 illegal immigrant apprehensions across the Valley in 2007. That's more than 200 a day.

Local police, however, detain and turn over maybe a few hundred a month, said local Border Patrol spokesman Dan Doty.

"The number doesn't look significant," Doty said. "But, we're all in it for the same thing: to protect the community."

Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Treviño doesn't chase if the primary reason is a car full of illegal immigrants. He said border protection is a job best reserved for federal officials, even though his department does use state funding to dedicate a special unit of deputies to immigrant and drug patrol along the border region.

"If a pursuit is initiated and all we have is a traffic violation and it's quite evident that there are illegal immigrants involved, we are not going to pursue," Treviño said. "I don't want to be held liable for the death of an innocent bystander because we're pursuing an illegal immigrant truck."

McAllen Police Chief Victor Rodriquez institutes a similar policy. His officers are simply too busy to pursue illegal immigration and doing so might compromise street patrol and violent criminal investigations, he said.

"It's not rocket science along the border for law enforcement if you're doing immigration enforcement," Rodriquez said. "You can spot illegal aliens left and right - (CBP) needs to be doing that, but it shouldn't be us."

Still, Treviño and Rodriguez both say they will pursue illegal immigrants if there are outstanding warrants or if the public is in danger otherwise.

"If the driver gets away, is there a greater danger to the general public," Rodriguez said his officers must ask. "If the answer to that is no, then we should not engage."

In La Joya, where fallow fields dot much of the landscape, the area for illegal immigrants to hide and flee north is greater than it is in developed cities of Hidalgo County, like McAllen.

Some weeks, La Joya police seem to detain coyotes and turn over illegal immigrants to Border Patrol agents on a daily basis - many times following a minor traffic infraction.

The immigrants storm across ranches and private lands, often leaving a scattering of trash in their wake. Residents feel threatened and call the police with tips, said La Joya police spokesman Officer Joe Cantu.

For Cantu, who said his officers undergo extensive training in their police vehicles before they are ever allowed to be the primary pursuit vehicle, it's a situation they can't ignore. If a person flees after not pulling over for a traffic violation and it's apparent that the vehicle might be carrying illegal immigrants, La Joya officers will pursue.

"When illegal immigrants over-run your area, what are you going to do? Look the other way," Cantu said. "Be it federal law, state law or local ordinance, we're enforcing the law. Period."

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