According to sources familiar with the matter, 19 Austin officers were indicted by a Texas grand jury on charges of aggravated attack with a deadly weapon. They were accused of their actions during 2020 protests against racial injustice that spread across the country following the murder of George Floyd .
Multiple people spoke with The Associated Press on Thursday under the condition of anonymity as they weren’t authorized to speak publicly about the case. Austin Police Association President Ken Casaday confirmed that 19 officers were facing criminal charges, but did not provide details.
It is one of the most indictments against a single US police department over the tactics used by officers during widespread protests. These tactics led to the resignations or ousters of many police chiefs across the nation.
The indictments were announced hours after Austin leaders approved $10 million for two people who were injured in protests by officers of the 1,640-officer police department. This included a student at Austin University who sustained brain damage when an officer shot him with the beanbag round.
The combined charges and settlements resulted in conservative Texas’ liberal capital, 960,000 people, taking some of the most significant actions. Criticism still simmers about the police chief’s handling of the protests. This increased pressure on him to resign.
Jose Garza (the district attorney for Travis County which includes Austin) spoke to journalists about the grand jury investigation, but did not give any details about it, including the number of officers facing criminal charges and the crimes they are being accused of.
Our community is safer when it trusts that enforcement will be done. Garza stated that the community trusts that law enforcement will follow the law and protect its residents. “If there is no accountability for law enforcement breaking the law, trust cannot exist.”
Ismael Martinez (a spokesperson for Travis County District Attorney) declined to comment on the number officers charged. He referred reporters to Garza’s comments.
The officers being charged have not been identified by the prosecution. Texas law requires that indictments remain secret until the officer is arrested. A public servant could be sentenced to life imprisonment for aggravated assault with a deadly instrument.
Casaday, president of the Austin Police Association called the move “devastating” but said that he is confident that no officer will face trial. He criticised Garza and called the investigation political motivated.
Casaday stated that DA Garza was running on a platform to indict officers of the police and has not missed an opportunity to ruin lives or careers to fulfill a campaign promise.
Garza stated that his office will prosecute anyone who causes harm, “regardless who caused it.”
Austin Chief of Police Joseph Chacon took over after Manley was fired. Chacon said he respected the grand jury process, but was “extremely disappointed to hear the district attorney announce expected indictments for his officers.”
Chacon stated that his command staff was able to prepare officers for facing hundreds of people, but thousands showed up at protests he described as “riotous and violent.”
Chacon stated, “I don’t know of any conduct that, given the circumstances under which the officers were working, would rise above the level of criminal violation by these officers.”
However, beanbag rounds shot by officers didn’t always perform in the way expected. Chacon stated that his agency now bans the use “less lethal” munitions in crowd control situations.
The settlements approved Thursday are some of the largest for people who were hurt by police in the United States during the massive protests that followed Floyd’s death.
The largest settlement in Austin gives $8 million to Justin Howell. Howell was 20 years old at the time when he was shot with a beanbag around. Following the incident, family members informed the AP that Howell had a fractured skull and brain damage. He was left in critical condition for several days.
The city will also pay $2,000,000 to Anthony Evans. He was 26 years old when an Austin officer shot him with the beanbag round in another incident. This resulted in extensive treatment for his jaw.
Austin Mayor Steve Adler stated that the settlements “remind me of a real painful and difficult moment in my city.” A representative from the Howell family didn’t immediately respond to a request.
This is the latest example of how two years ago, protests swept across the country, cities continue to address the injuries and tactics used police. Two Dallas officers were charged by with injuring protestors after they fired less lethal weapons.
The Austin protests saw Chief Manley, the then-police chief, later stating that Howell wasn’t the intended target. He said it was a dispute in a crowd in which people hurled objects at officers. According to authorities, that is what led to officers firing on the protestors from the top.
David Frost captured the moment Howell was shot on video and told the AP that he saw protesters throw fist-sized rocks at police officers on an overpass. Frost then saw Howell falling. Frost stated that he was in a severe state of bleeding and had a seizure.
These settlements are among the dozens of lawsuits that were filed in Austin against those who suffered injuries during the protests. The Austin American-Statesman reported earlier this month that a $150,000 settlement had been approved for Ariana Chavez. She was injured after she was shot in her head with less lethal ammunition, resulting in a concussion.
After the protests, at least 19 people were admitted to Austin hospitals.
Eleven officers were disciplined after their actions during the early summer protests. Seven additional officers were placed on administrative duty.
This story has been corrected to correct Ken Casaday’s spelling of Austin Police Association president. This also corrects the statement by Austin Police Chief Joseph Chacon that protests were “riotous” at times.