02/22/2013 06:24 pm ET

Texas Changes Aerial Shooting Policy, Restricts Firing On Unarmed Vehicles After Immigrants Killed

In a surprise move, Texas authorities have restricted the state's policy on aerial shootings and will no longer allow troopers in helicopters to fire at vehicles unless suspects have used deadly force, or unless police feel deadly force is imminent. The change could prevent shootings similar to one last year that resulted in the death of two immigrants in a pickup truck believed to be evading a police helicopter.

Steve McCraw, head of the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS), made the announcement Thursday, according to Texas-based news outlet The Monitor. Speaking in front of the state House Committee on Appropriations in Austin, McCraw said, "I’m convinced that now, from a helicopter platform, that we shouldn’t shoot unless being shot at, or unless someone is being shot at."

CBS Rio Grande Valley affiliate KVEO News Center 23 noted that Texas' policy allowing State Troopers to fire from the air at moving vehicles was the only one of its kind among law enforcement agencies in Southwestern border states. The new policy clarifies old language that had formerly permitted troopers to open fire on a vehicle based on a suspect's aggressive or reckless driving.

From the new policy, provided to The Huffington Post in an email from the DPS:

1. In addition to the other requirements of this policy, a firearms discharge from an aircraft is authorized only when an officer reasonably believes that the suspect has used or is about to use deadly force by use of a deadly weapon against the air crew, ground officers or innocent third parties.

2. For purposes of authorizing the discharge of a weapon from an aircraft, a suspect’s driving behavior including aggressive or reckless driving to evade arrest does not constitute use of a deadly weapon by the suspect.

The Austin Statesman notes that DPS actually adopted the new policy last week, but that the official announcement was not made until Thursday.

A DPS spokesman told HuffPost in an email that the change in policy was not influenced by the aerial shooting last fall that killed two Guatemalan immigrants in a pickup.

The incident occurred in October near the town of La Joya, just north of the Mexico border, according to CBS News. Police observed the truck traveling down a deserted road, and judged it to be carrying drugs and driving recklessly. The Statesman reports that trooper Miguel Avila opened fire on the truck intending to disable it but hit the bed of the truck, killing Jose Leonardo Coj Cumar, 32, and Marcos Antonio Castro Estrada, 29, who were hiding under a blanket.

According to the Associated Press, the FBI and the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division McCraw were ordered to investigate the incident at the behest of McCraw.

In a statement release to the AP, the ACLU expressed its support for the move:

"We are relieved that Texas is ending this extreme practice, which no other Southwestern border states have ever allowed," said Terri Burke, executive director of the ACLU of Texas. "We hope that this decision is a step, if only a small one, toward ending the culture of violence that pervades enforcement of border security in Texas."