19 Austin police officers accused of excessive force during 2020 protests are indicted

An Austin police officer fires into a crowd of protesters from Interstate 35 near police headquarters on May 31, 2020. (Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune, Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune)

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Nearly two years after demonstrators and police clashed in Austin during nationwide protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd, a Travis County grand jury on Thursday indicted 19 officers accused of excessive force, according to the police union, and Austin officials agreed to a $10 million settlement with two men shot by police with beanbag rounds.

“We believe many protesters injured by law enforcement officers during the protest were innocent bystanders. We also believe that the overwhelming majority of victims in the incidents that were investigated suffered significant injuries,” Travis County District Attorney José Garza said during a Thursday press conference announcing the indictments. “Some will never fully recover.”

The names of the officers being indicted are not yet public record. Garza said that his office is prohibited by law to disclose details of an indictment until that person is arrested and booked into jail.

Austin Police Association president Kenneth Casaday confirmed to The Texas Tribune that 19 officers have been indicted. The Austin American-Statesman first reported the news.

One of the officers indicted was Justin Berry, a candidate for the Hill Country's Texas House District 19, according to Casaday.

The number of indictments is among the highest tied to a single city’s police force in connection with the 2020 protests so far, according to the Associated Press.

In an interview last week, before the grand jury handed out any indictments, Sandra Guerra Thompson, a professor at the University of Houston Law Center, said it would be surprising if such a high number of officers were charged with crimes.

“Historically, we've seen a reluctance by grand jurors to charge police officers criminally for use of force on the job, just because of the sense that they're putting their lives at risk and protecting the public,” Thompson said. “Those kinds of views have usually worked in their favor.”

The cases could take months or years to resolve.

In a short press conference Thursday afternoon, Austin Police Chief Joseph Chacon defended his officers and chided Garza for remarking on "anticipated indictments." Flanked by APD command staff and city higher-ups, including City Manager Spencer Cronk, Chacon said officers were overwhelmed by crowds that were often "riotous and violent" — and that "less-lethal" weapons used for crowd control "did not perform in all instances in the manner anticipated."

"I am not aware of any conduct that, given the circumstances that the officers were working under, would rise to the level of a criminal violation by these officers," Chacon said. "We are at the beginning of the criminal justice process. As we move forward, these officers must be afforded all of the same protections of any defendant, including the presumption of innocence and the right to a speedy trial."

The department has since stopped the use of less-lethal weapons.

Cronk, the city's top executive, warned that "any indictments will heighten the anxiety of our officers" and exacerbate the police department's staffing shortages.

"We are disappointed to be in this position, and we do not believe that criminal indictments of the officers working under very difficult circumstances is the correct outcome," Cronk said in a statement.

Casaday said that the indicted officers were following orders and shouldn’t be held responsible for any injuries during the protests.

“These officers were only doing what they were told to do with what the city of Austin provided them during the days of the riots,” he said.

Casaday accused Garza of attempting to score political points. The police union is asking Garza’s office to stop announcing indictments until after the Democratic primary and runoffs.

"It's an absolute disgrace, and it sickens me that DA Garza is using working officers as pawns in a political game of chess," Casaday said during a press conference Thursday afternoon. "Garza ran on a platform to indict officers and has not missed the opportunity to try and ruin lives, careers and simply fulfill a campaign promise."

Garza was elected in 2020 following the protests and ran on a campaign promising to hold law enforcement accountable. His current term stretches through 2024.

The indictments also drew criticism from the nation's largest police officer association.

“Nothing more than a political attack on 19 officers who were already cleared by their department of any wrongdoing,” tweeted Joe Gamaldi, national vice president of the Fraternal Order of Police.

Also on Thursday, under a settlement unanimously approved by the Austin City Council, demonstrator Justin Howell will receive $8 million — the highest amount ever awarded in an excessive force case involving an Austin police officer, the Statesman reported. Anthony Evans, another protester, will get $2 million.

Both men sued the city after suffering severe head injuries in May 2020, when Austin police officers fired on demonstrators protesting police brutality in the wake of the police killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Michael Ramos in Austin.

Howell, then a 20-year-old Texas State University student, had a fractured skull and brain damage, his brother said at the time. The same weekend, Austin police fired on Evans as he walked away from a demonstration, fracturing his jaw, according to news reports.

"Today’s settlement reminds us of a difficult & painful moment for our city," Austin Mayor Steve Adler said in a tweet. "No one should be injured while exercising their constitutional right to protest."

Even the council's staunchest police allies approved of the settlement. Austin City Council Member Mackenzie Kelly said the Austin Police Department "instructed officers to use tools that were intended to help manage the crowd — for everyone's safety, including officers," but she still voted in favor of the settlement.

"I don't believe that the injuries sustained by Mr. Evans and Mr. Howell were the intended result," Kelly said in a statement. "Regardless, these men were seriously injured, and I think it is right for the City to pay the damages."

Chacon — who took the job as Austin police chief more than a year after the protests — said in a statement he understands why City Council members opted to settle the case and expressed sympathy for Howell and Evans, though he didn't name them.

"In hindsight, we were not prepared for the heightened frustration felt by so many community members, nor the size and scope of the crowds," the chief said.

The violence that weekend spurred more than a dozen lawsuits against the city and police officers by people injured by police, the Statesman reported. So far, the city has settled three of those lawsuits.

Tens of thousands of people protested Floyd's death in Austin for over a week in May 2020. Floyd, a Black man, was killed by a white Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, after he kneeled on Floyd’s neck for over nine minutes in May 2020. Chauvin was found guilty of murder last year.

Floyd's death spurred a nationwide outcry against police brutality against Black people, who are killed at disproportionately higher rates in police custody. Texans protested across the state, including in Austin, Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and Fort Worth.

Cities and communities in Texas continue to grapple with the aggressive tactics that police waged against protesters that year. Police officers all over Texas and the nation have faced charges for how they dealt with protesters.

Law enforcement officials have defended the use of force during the protests, saying it was warranted amid the chaos. They have pointed to reports of people throwing bottles and rocks at officers, sometimes injuring them, damaging police cars and breaking into stores.

But advocates and protesters expressed outrage over police officers turning to violent crowd-control measures, especially in light of what they were protesting.

Last week, the Dallas county attorney's office issued warrants for two Dallas police officers’ arrest for their alleged use of force during the 2020 racial justice protests in that city.

Andrew Zhang contributed to this report.

Disclosure: Steve Adler (who is also a former Texas Tribune board chair) and University of Houston have been financial supporters of the Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.