Sunday, June 23, 2024

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.

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 there 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.

In recent months, residents said, the number of pursuits appeared to decline. still, the fear of further tragedies loomed. For Mr. Lerma and his family, the grieving process is compounded by a sense of injustice. “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.

In recent months, residents said, the number of pursuits appeared to decline. still, the fear of further tragedies loomed.

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