Defenders Investigation: Your tax dollars at the border
TEXAS - The Texas Department of Public safety wants $300 million added to their biennial budget.
This request comes as the state faces widespread hiring freezes, cuts to education, and cuts to health care.
“It impacts not just the border region. It impacts Houston, San Antonio, Austin,” said DPS Director Steve McCraw in a legislative hearing in 2015. He still stands by his words today.
The Department of Public Safety wants New helicopters… more personnel… and more tools.
DPS got $800 million last legislative session to enhance border security. If the $300 million gets approved, it would put their border security budget more than a billion dollars. Lawmakers say their priority is to make you safer.
We wanted to see if the extra money makes a difference.
KVUE Defenders teamed up with a University of Texas Rio Grande Valley professor, Dr. Philip Ethridge. He studies law enforcement spending.
“Someone in Austin needs to understand the resources that’s going into a very small area,” said Ethridge.
We found DPS gun boats parked along a waterway.
“Look at those engines! Looks like they’re ready to race, I mean come on. They’re on the Rio Grande river. That’s 70 feet wide,” said Ethridge.
The boats were purchased almost half-decade ago, not during the last legislative session. They’re too heavy for some areas of the international boundary. The Rio Grande can be shallow in several places.
DPS Marine Unit also has boats designed to operate in shallow water, much like the federal resources of Border Patrol.
Up the road, we walked along small trails.
“We’ve got to find a camera,” said Ethridge.
Cameras installed along the border are part of Operation Drawbridge. DPS pushed for the cameras last session after seeing success using grant money from the Texas Department of Agriculture. The apprehension rate is about 45 percent of what they detect.
This year, the department wants to increase the budget by $28 million.
“Through Operation Drawbridge that you’ve funded we use private sector technology that can identify over 120,000 people,” said McCraw in 2015.
The cameras and the technology to work them come from private companies.
“Embracing the private sector made huge terms in how we’re able to protect Texans,” said McCraw in a security meeting last year.
Operation Drawbridge photos show how the cameras help DPS spot people crossing in the brush.
Some are carrying what looks to be drug bundles.
Another appears to be wearing camouflage.
“The only way to secure (the border) is to have a 100 percent detection capability,” said McCraw in 2015.
DPS sells the success to lawmakers with a map of layers of surveillance and enforcement along border, even though they admit the cameras only have a 45 percent capture rate. They’ve admitted this is an example, actual camera locations are confidential. It seems cameras are everywhere.
Trooper Border Security Levels
We've confirmed, DPS cameras are not allowed on federal wildlife refuge lands. The Rio Grande Valley has 115 refuge tracts. They make up a large portion of the international boundary, covering much of the last 275 river miles of the Texas/Mexico border.
The wildlife areas are for protecting endangered species and researching wildlife habitats.
There is no contract, memorandum of understanding, nor right of way, in place for the State of Texas to deploy cameras here.
"U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has not been contacted by the State of Texas to deploy cameras on refuge lands," confirmed a spokesman for FWS.
So, the DPS picture they give lawmakers is skewed. The 45 percent capture rate is of what they detect. They’re not talking about the gaps of uncovered land.
“There it is! Wild,” said Ethridge as he watched the tethered Aerostat balloon sit on the ground.
This year, the governor’s office requests more aerostat balloons. Five more. Just like this one. The state also asked if they are allowed to pitch in on the cost.
These eyes in the sky belong to the federal government, not Texas.
They, too, have issues.
“Your tax dollars at rest,” said Ethridge.
Windy days keeps the balloons at bay.
Based off a federal investigation into an Aerostat crash in Marfa, TX the balloon can come loose with sustained surface winds as low as 22 knots (25.3 mph).
Part of the $800 million last session was to hire 250 troopers and equip them with vehicles.
The state looks to hire another 250 over the next two years. Right now, every non-public safety department in the state is on a hiring freeze. DPS is allowed to hire additional troopers if funded.
“They’ve kept this pace and tempo up 24/7 for the last two years. And based on your efforts this last session, you’ve given us a way to get out of that,” said McCraw in a recent hearing.
We analyzed that “way to get out.”
It hasn’t happened.
Operation Drawbridge & Rio Grande Valley refuge land map
As more hires deployed, those temporarily assigned seem to drop. Once DPS hit their 250 new hires, the temporary deployments from around the state also increased.
It leaves places like Central Texas having fewer troopers.
SECURITY THREAT REPORTING
Weeks before a budget hearing, DPS made another push to show their need. A security report was released addressing the security risks in the state.
This is the second DPS security threat assessment in the last five years. The first one came as they pitched their idea for a border surge in 2013.
When we analyzed the references used, we noticed a third are compiled news articles. Some, we found, were taken out of context.
Reference “20” points to an article from LA times. The news organization didn’t talk about smugglers or terrorism. It says the immigrant took a taxi to a U.S. port of entry, asking for asylum. The immigrant said he qualified because he was a Christian in Syria, persecuted for his faith.
“I do applaud DPS for looking at their range of effort,” said Fred Burton of Stratfor.
DPS refused to interview about this report, so we asked Stratfor for help.
Stratfor is an intelligence firm based in Austin. They study threats around the world and understand threats along the U.S./ Mexico border.
They did not have any role in writing this report, but explained the process and why we may not want to completely discredit the information.
“It’s called OS intelligence, open source intelligence,” said Burton.
DPS may know a classified detail, but they need public websites, press releases and public government reports to release the info as open-sourced.
“Let the readers be their own judge,” said Burton.
We asked DPS if any other agency, federal state or local, approved the report prior to release. They refused to answer our question.
We asked Burton if DPS or any intelligence firm had a monetary incentive to paint security worse than reality.
“It gets back to perception is reality,” he said. “I think DPS has done a pretty good job at articulating why they feel certain issues are of heightened concern.”
WHAT WE CONTINUE TO FOLLOW:
-How DPS measures its seizures and efforts
-The DPS arrests of cartel-related activity versus DWI and other driving infractions
-The conviction rate of offenses associated with criminal aliens
DPS refused an interview.
As our investigation was about to air, a spokesman for DPS sent us this email and asked, "We request that you link to our entire response, including the answers, in the web version of your story for fairness, balance and transparency to your listeners/readers."
The response asked for us to note the number of Troopers rotating to the border has decreased since the Dec. 2016 dashboard. It didn't. It increased from November to December 2016.
The response claims our premise regarding the placement of Operation Drawbridge cameras is inaccurate, even though we have confirmation from those who own and manage the refuge lands.
Finally, their response regarding the security report does not confirm they had any outside agency approve the information, other than stating they collaborate in the production of the overview.
DPS offered no documents, no data, no proof other than links to their own press releases.
What we’re left with is our own analysis.
Incomplete data, third-party reporting, and misleading information persuade our lawmakers how to spend our tax dollars.
We have to ask: is feeling safer worth our money, even if the reality isn’t proven?