Poor communication between Border Patrol and the Texas Department of Public Safety resulted in a harrowing incident during June, when a state trooper from Amarillo fired a weapon near a federal agent.
Records obtained by CBS 4 News detail the incident, which remains under investigation.
The report raises questions about the Department of Public Safety’s border surge, which sends state troopers from across Texas to the Rio Grande Valley. Many don’t speak Spanish and aren’t familiar with the area — especially rural Starr County, where navigating at night is tricky.
“When you bring DPS officers from other parts of the state who aren’t really familiar with the border, it’s like going into a strange area or an unfamiliar area,” said state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen. “You’re prone to be a lot more cautious and possibly make some mistakes.”
At about 10 p.m. on June 21, a game warden and a Border Patrol agent near Escobares encountered trouble. They were keeping an eye on the Rio Grande when the game warden heard a gunshot.
“I heard a single round fired towards my location,” according to a report written by the game warden.
The game warden called the Border Patrol agent on the radio, concerned about his partner. They met up roughly 220 yards away.
“I was shot at by a trooper,” the game warden wrote, quoting the Border Patrol agent.
The Border Patrol agent said he realized two state troopers were nearby and attempted to identify himself by flashing a white light at them, according to the report. The Border Patrol agent also attempted to contact them by radio, but didn’t receive a response.
Afterward, the Border Patrol agent spoke with a Department of Public Safety lieutenant, according to the report. While they talked, the game warden confronted the trooper — “Trooper Cannon” of Amarillo.
“Trooper Cannon made several incoherent statements when I asked him why he shot at my BP partner,” according to the game warden’s recollection of the conversation. “’I had the flashlight and pistol up close to my face’ … ‘I’m not sure why I fired the pistol and don’t recall’ … ‘The pistol slide hit me in the face when I fired’ … ‘I don’t remember turning on my flashlight.’ … “I hope he’s going to be ok’ … ‘What were you guys doing out there anyway?'”
Asked about the incident, the Department of Public Safety released a statement:
The DPS investigation into the incident is ongoing, so we are limited in the information we can provide at this time. The preliminary investigation indicates an accidental discharge in an upward direction — not directly at the Border Patrol agent.
The incident in question took place on June 21 after 10 p.m. It is important to note that information from both the Parks and Wildlife game warden and the Border Patrol agent are part of the investigation, and our investigators also spoke directly with both men. (The preliminary investigation also indicates that the trooper and the agent were separated by more than 10 feet.)
DPS and the Border Patrol have already communicated about this incident, and will continue those interagency discussions once the investigation is complete, including lessons learned from all involved. We have a strong working relationship with our Border Patrol partners, and continually discuss ways to enhance communication, cooperation and safety.
Local, state and federal law enforcement often use different radios and can’t communicate directly in the field, said Pharr Information and Technology Director Jason Arms.
“A lot of the times, when real-time communicating with Border Patrol, the officer will radio in the traffic to the communication center here in our Pharr Police Department,” Arm said. “That department will typically have to call on a landline to Border Patrol to establish some sort of patch or gateway so that officers can then talk in real-time between two different kinds of radios.”
Poor communication is a big problem, said former Sullivan City police Officer Jose Martinez, who spent more than 20 years in law enforcement. Told about the incident in Starr County, he didn’t mince words.
“Miscommunication is going to get you killed,” Martinez said.