Late last month in Hidalgo County, sharpshooters in a state Department of Public Safety helicopter opened fire on a pickup truck that fled from police. The troopers suspected that the truck was smuggling drugs. But in point of fact, it was stuffed full of Guatemalans attempting to sneak into the U.S. Two were shot dead.
In early reports, it’s not clear how much the state troopers knew. Did or did not a tarp hide the six men crouched in the truck’s bed? And at close range, should the troopers have seen that four people were crammed into the cab?
We support calls for an outside investigation. But whatever the facts of this case, we’re more alarmed that, as a matter of policy, Texas DPS allows state troopers in helicopters to fire on moving vehicles. When no one’s life is at risk.
We know that the Texas-Mexico border is a dicey, dangerous place. But we heartily support Hidalgo County District Attorney René Guerra’s request that DPS immediately review its policy on shooting from helicopters.
In our view, that shooting must stop now. It’s both wrong and unconstitutional. Use of deadly force is the ultimate expression of government power. And that power should be wielded only with the greatest of care, and only under the direst of circumstances.
In this country, government agents’ suspicion of a crime doesn’t automatically justify the death penalty. Hidalgo County isn’t literally a war zone, and the Texas DPS isn’t Seal Team Six, invading Osama bin Laden’s compound. Criminal suspects are not enemy combatants. They’re innocent until proven guilty.
Should the helicopter have chased that suspicious pickup? Absolutely. Should DPS do everything legally in its power to capture suspects and see that they’re prosecuted? Yes.
But when no one’s life is in immediate danger, should troopers risk killing suspects? No. That’s not the American way.