Rare batch of indictments issued against Austin police over 2020 protests

Rare batch of indictments issued against Austin police over 2020 protests

(Reuters) – The massive U.S. protests in the summer of 2020 against racism and police brutality were met with a violent response from police in many areas, as law enforcement across the country openly assaulted mostly peaceful protesters, bystanders, and even journalists and legal observers.

The hostile police response to nationwide protesting drew widespread condemnation from the public and numerous officials, and even raised concerns globally.

Still, in most cases, no disciplinary or legal action has been brought against officers and departments that apparently crossed the line of lawful police action – a reflection of the impunity with which police can use violence against citizens. And it is the very injustice that fueled the unprecedented protests in the first place, with the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020 at the heart of those demonstrations.

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A notable exception is a major lawsuit by New York attorney general Letitia James. That case requests a court declaration that the NYPD’s protest policing practices are unconstitutional and an injunction against using those “retaliatory tactics” in the future.

And now, another important precedent comes with the announcement on Feb. 17 of the indictments of 19 officers in Austin, Texas, on aggravated assault charges, as more local prosecutors seek to hold police departments and officers accountable for misconduct.

Travis County District Attorney Jose Garza’s enforcement action doesn’t target systemic practices, but the indictments – by far the largest batch of U.S. police officers indicted in relation to practices used during the 2020 protests – are an important step toward deterrence, even before any verdict is handed down. (Investigations into alleged officer misconduct rarely result in departmental discipline, let alone criminal charges or convictions, Reuters reported in a June 2020 investigation of police tactics during the protests.)

Thus far, however, the response from law enforcement in Texas demonstrates even further the need for oversight and real accountability.

State and local police unions in Texas held a press conference ahead of the indictments, saying without evidence that the prosecutions are politically motivated, the Austin American-Statesman reported Feb. 17. Austin Police Chief Joe Chacon said that he was unaware of any conduct by police officers that would rise to the level of a criminal violation and that officers had rocks, bottles of bodily fluid and other objects thrown at them.

Chacon declined to respond to questions for this column.

Regardless of any justification Austin police might cite for their conduct, it is worth noting that about 94% of all pro-Black Loves Matter demonstrations were peaceful, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project.

Austin Police Association president Ken Casaday told me the group is taking a stand because they believe their colleagues “followed the training provided by the city.”

I asked Casaday how common it is for the police union to defend Austinites who have been indicted by a grand jury.

“Typically, we always say ‘we might not agree but we respect the grand jury’s decision, and we’ll see how this plays out in court,’” Casaday said. He added that the processes in these 19 cases were unusual, but he did not enumerate specific irregularities.

The Texas law enforcement’s outright rejection of the notion that some officers should be tried for allegedly assaulting residents is disconcerting.

The Austin City Council agreed to pay a total of $10 million in settlements with two people who were severely injured after being shot with so-called beanbag rounds earlier on the same day that the indictments were revealed, Reuters reported Feb. 17. The recent indictments also are focused on injuries caused by beanbag projectiles.

Altogether, Austin has already faced at least 14 recent lawsuits because of serious injuries to protesters caused by that same weapon – and has settled at least three, the Texas Tribune reported Feb. 21.

Moreover, reporting on the 2020 protests in Austin revealed the same patterns of excessive and indiscriminate force seen across the country during the demonstrations, according to investigations by Reuters, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian and other newspapers.

Police officers in small towns and big cities tackled people and beat them with batons. They used tasers, and tear gas, and shot various “non-lethal” projectiles. At least eight people around the country were blinded by police projectiles, the New York Times reported in March last year.

One officer in New York opened the passenger-side door of a moving patrol car so it struck a protester, and another officer rammed a vehicle into a crowd, Reuters reported in June 2020. In D.C., helicopters flew low enough over protesters to blast them with wind and noise equivalent to a tropical storm, a war-zone practice known as buzzing, according to the Reuters report and a June 23 Washington Post investigation.

Police in Buffalo, New York, pushed a 75-year-old protester to the ground, fracturing his skull, and law enforcement in Oregon shoved and tear-gassed “Walls of Moms” – mostly white suburban mothers who formed human walls in front of demonstrators.

Hundreds of bystander videos and television cameras captured the police violence. Reuters’ investigation focused on 44 widely circulated videos – including two from Austin.



And, since that summer, a series of strikingly similar independent reviews concluded that officers behaved aggressively and displayed little effort at de-escalation.

In addition, officers didn’t discriminate between peaceful demonstrators and lawbreakers and often used excessive force in violation of policy, the New York Times reported in March 2021. The review included independent investigations in Indianapolis, Philadelphia, Denver, Raleigh, North Carolina, and other cities large and small.

But few cities have actually pursued charges against officers, the Associated Press reported on Feb. 19.

That might explain the disappointing response from Austin law enforcement. Still, their atypical rejection of the grand jury’s decision – and of even a preliminary step toward accountability – seems like the wrong reaction to a prosecutor simply carrying out his duties.

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Desk Team

Desk Team