Department of Public Safety

In 2011, Texas implemented legislation that required a registered citizen to bring one of seven forms of photo ID to the polls in order to vote. It is estimated that this requirement could prevent 600,000 registered Texas voters from voting because they lack an acceptable form of ID.

While photo ID requirements look like they’re here to stay, one state representative is working to help ease the burden it places on students. House Bill 733, filed by state Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin, would make voting more accessible for UT students by allowing them to use a school ID or a Veteran Health Identification Card at the voting booth.  

The current forms of photo ID that are accepted are often inconvenient or expensive for students, especially for out-of-state students who don’t have a Texas driver’s license.

Current law would require them to go to the Department of Public Safety in order to get a state-issued ID to vote. While they can be issued an election identification certificate there free of charge, it can be difficult for students without a car to get to the DPS, as the closest driver’s license office is nearly four miles from campus.

Students also have the option to get a passport card in West Campus, but it will cost them $55 — too high a price to exercise a constitutional right. Short of getting a concealed handgun license, joining the military or applying for a citizenship certificate (if they are American citizens who were born overseas), students are suddenly out of options for being able to vote if they can’t afford these options or didn’t bring the necessary paperwork with them to college.

In contrast, if HB 733 became law, UT students would be able to use their student ID issued by the University. For out-of-state students, this would allow them to use a non-Texas license to obtain a student ID. Instead of requiring a trip to the DPS, they could go to the Flawn Academic Center on campus. HB 733 would also make Veteran Health Identification Cards an acceptable form of ID, making voting even easier for over 1,000 student veterans at UT.

While many supporters of having strict photo ID requirements would argue that this opens up the possibility of voter fraud by those ineligible to vote, this is simply not the case.

Individuals must still comply with eligibility requirements, such as being a citizen when they register to vote in Texas, and this information is subsequently verified. Since 2000, only two people in the state of Texas have been convicted of in-person voter impersonation, which voter ID is supposedly intended to address.

This lack of evidence that voter fraud is occurring anywhere near a significant amount would suggest that the procedures previously in place were already adequate. However, in order to address the two cases of voter fraud that could have been prevented by a photo ID, hundreds of thousands of Texans could now be lacking the identification necessary to vote.

Many of these Texans are specifically out-of-state students, who would benefit from Israel’s bill. When students move to Austin, they become a part of our community and they deserve the right to vote here. By making it exceedingly difficult for students to vote where they live, the current voter ID laws deny them this right and prevent them from becoming civically engaged. If we want students to vote and have a voice in issues affecting them, we must first make sure they have the ability to vote.

HB 733 doesn’t come close to solving all of the issues that come with photo ID requirements. It still creates an effective poll tax and hundreds of thousands of Texans will still lack access to an acceptable ID. However, it is a commendable effort to amend the Legislature’s previous decisions. By expanding the types of ID accepted, HB 733 specifically makes voting more accessible for all students.

Alcantara is a Plan II sophomore from Houston. She is the communications director for University Democrats.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

LA JOYA, Texas — The Texas trooper who fired on a fleeing pickup truck from a helicopter near the U.S.-Mexico border, killing two illegal immigrants hiding in the bed, has returned to work but in a different role, the state Department of Public Safety said Thursday.

The announcement came less than an hour after the American Civil Liberties Union and local civil rights organizations gathered near the site of the Oct. 25 shooting to demand an investigation by an independent body outside the agency. Currently, the Texas Rangers, an elite force within DPS, is leading the investigation.

Some state lawmakers are demanding an immediate meeting of a legislative committee that oversees DPS.

DPS identified the trooper involved as tactical flight officer Miguel Avila. He was placed on administrative leave immediately following the incident. He has since returned but been reassigned to administrative work pending the outcome of the investigation.

The chase started after Texas Parks and Wildlife game wardens spotted the red pickup near La Joya, near the U.S.-Mexico border about 250 miles south of San Antonio. The DPS helicopter joined midway in the 14-mile high-speed pursuit of what it believed was a “typical covered drug load,” and Avila fired from the air to disable the vehicle.

The truck crashed into a ditch. Six illegal immigrants from Guatemala, not drugs, were hidden under a blanket in the bed. Two died, and a third was injured. In total, DPS said there had been 10 people in the truck.

The agency’s statement Thursday reiterated earlier comments that troopers believed they were pursuing a covered drug load when shots were fired. They believed the driver’s recklessness was a threat to the public and to elementary and middle schools less than three miles away.

“Although it is very tragic that two lives were lost, had the vehicle continued recklessly speeding through the school zone, any number of innocent bystanders or young lives could have been lost or suffered serious bodily injury,” DPS director Steve McCraw said.

In a letter delivered to McCraw on Thursday, the ACLU suggested the use of deadly force was “illegal and unconstitutional” and asked for an investigation by an agency not tied to DPS.

Several investigations seem possible.

Some state legislators also called for a committee with oversight of the agency to convene immediately.

Terri Burke, the ACLU’s executive director in Texas, said her group is starting with the legislative committees that oversee DPS, but if that doesn’t produce results, the ACLU will go to the U.S. Justice Department.

“You think about it: you’ve got a helicopter, you’ve got a car moving at whatever speed. It’s outrageous in terms of safety,” Burke said.

Two Democratic lawmakers who sit on a House committee with DPS oversight are asking its chairman to immediately convene a hearing on the matter. Reps. Lon Burnam of Fort Worth and Armando Walle of Houston said they want the committee to review the trooper’s conduct and the agency’s policy on firing at moving vehicles.

In a letter to the chairman, they note that 13 percent of DPS pursuits between 2005 and 2010 occurred in Hidalgo County. Pursuits by a variety of local, state and federal agencies of drugs and illegal immigrants are a daily occurrence in the border county.

“I was not aware of this policy, but apparently, based on what I’ve learned since last Thursday, most areas’ law enforcement agencies in the state are aware of it and that’s why they call on DPS,” Burnam said. “But I have a lot of concern about a sharpshooter sitting in a helicopter shooting at what he can’t see.”

Burnam, who said he has flown in the border region with DPS and the local sheriff’s office, called the policy “terrible.”

“The fact of the matter is neither human trafficking nor drug trafficking deserves the death penalty without a trial,” Burnam said. “The two people who were killed are guilty of a misdemeanor.”

Hidalgo County District Attorney Rene Guerra announced Wednesday after meeting with Texas Rangers that the case would be taken to a grand jury, but at the moment charges against Avila were not under consideration. He asked them to tell DPS leadership to suspend firing from helicopters until its policies are reviewed.

McCraw’s statement Thursday indicated a policy review was underway.

The 14-year-old driver who was detained, but then released to a grandmother, is believed to have fled. The juvenile equivalent of an arrest warrant has been issued.
Guatemala’s consul in McAllen has expressed skepticism that the troopers wouldn’t have been able to see people in the truck and her government has asked for an investigation.

Michael Seifert, who once served as a Roman Catholic priest in La Joya and now heads the Rio Grande Valley Equal Voice Network, said Thursday that he used to frequently drive the roads near the shooting site. He said the dead could have just as easily been local teenagers.

“It sounds like war but we’re not at war,” Seifert said.

Found gun-silencer forces lockdown on state building

A state building downtown was under lockdown this morning while the Department of Public Safety and the Austin Police Bomb Squad assessed the area for threats after a state trooper arrested a man who had a homemade gun silencer in his car.

The state trooper saw the silencer inside of a car parked on the top floor of the parking garage attached to the William P. Clements State Office Building at 15th Street and Lavaca. Ricky Lankford, 33, approached the trooper and identified himself as the owner of the car, according to DPS spokesperson Lisa Block.

The building houses the Office of the State Attorney General among other state offices and was under lockdown until just past 9 a.m. this morning while DPS conducted bomb searches of the car and the surrounding area.

Lankford is a resident of Gatesville, Texas and has been charged with a third degree felony for possession of a prohibited weapon and is in custody at the Travis County Jail. The contents of his car are being inventoried.

The case is currently under investigation by the DPS. 

Soldiers attend a flag-lowering ceremony organized by the National Regeneration Movement, MORENA, representing people allegedly killed by military members during Mexico’s drug war, at the Zocalo central square in Mexico City, Sunday March 4, 2012.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

Whether students plan to stay in Austin or visit their hometowns, students should not consider planning a risky trip to Mexico, according to the Department of Public Safety.

This week, the DPS released an advisory that warns students not to venture into Mexico during spring break. Since 2006, Mexico has faced safety issues concerning its citizens and American visitors because of the escalated drug cartel violence, said Tom Vinger, DPS spokesman. The issue is still prevalent in Mexico and is the reason Americans should sincerely consider not crossing the border, he said.

“The problem with violence in Mexico is that it’s very unpredictable, and because of those factors and the fact that many crimes against Americans go unpunished, we believe the risks are simply too great to be ignored,” Vinger said.

Vinger said spring breakers planning on travelling to Mexico should view the advisory sent out by DPS and reconsider their plans.

“We’re worried about anyone traveling into Mexico, but when spring break rolls around, there is alcohol involved and people don’t make the best decisions,” Vinger said. “They might get into a situation that could escalate, especially in bars and nightclubs of resort cities that are havens for drug dealers and criminals.”

The UT Global Risk and Safety Office website offers an overview of risks students face when traveling to Mexico and a region-specific information map outlining the different levels of risk.

Erin Wolf, the international risk analyst for the Global Risk and Safety Office, said although there have not been particular cases involving UT-Austin travelers being harmed due to cartel or drug violence, pick-pocketing and petty crime are regular occurrences.

Despite the warnings, nutrition junior Jose Mendez said he has traveled to his grandparents’ ranch outside of Reynosa, Mexico, and will go during spring break.

“A lot of people won’t go to Mexico because they think that as soon as they cross the border, they will get shot, but in the past months nothing has happened over there,” Mendez said.

Mendez said the advisories to stay out of Mexico, such as the reports of constant shooting rampages, is an exaggeration of what is really happening.

Vinger said crime across the border is dangerous because people never know where it will surface.

“We understand people travel to Mexico all the time without incident, but we want people to make informed decisions and not just listen to people who have a financial interest in their travel there, “ Vinger said. “We understand tourism concerns, but we’re worried about the safety of our citizens.”

Printed on Friday, March 9, 2012 as: DPS warns against visiting Mexico for spring break

Jordan Etier has been released from the Texas baseball team, school officials announced Monday.

The senior infielder was arrested over the weekend for possession of marijuana and evading police, both misdemeanors. Etier will remain enrolled at the University of Texas but will be prohibited from participating in any team-related functions. Etier will not be able to appeal the punishment.

According to the official arrest report, Etier was approached by a Department of Public Safety trooper while urinating under a pedestrian bridge near the 1600 block of Trinity Street on Friday afternoon around 2:25 p.m.

Etier fled, leading the trooper through heavy pedestrian traffic and into a parking garage. Etier ran up a ramp to the second floor of the garage and dropped what was later to be identified as an ATM receipt with his credit card information and marijuana into the below bushes.

Etier could not be reached for comment Tuesday evening.

A starter at second baseman last season, Etier, a graduate of Westlake High School, had a .237 batting average and hit two home runs. 

Printed on Tuesday, October 18, 2011 as: Veteran infielder removed from team after misdemeanors