Texas prosecutor drops charges against 17 Austin police over tactics used during 2020 protests

A Texas prosecutor is dropping most of the charges levied against police officers in Austin over tactics used during the 2020 protests that followed George Floyd’s killing

Paul J. Weber,Jim Vertuno
Monday 04 December 2023 22:46 GMT

A Texas prosecutor whose office oversaw indictments of more than 20 Austin police officers over tactics used during the 2020 protests that followed George Floyd's killing said Monday he was dropping most of the cases and would ask the Justice Department to investigate instead.

The announcement is a reversal for Travis County District Attorney Jose Garza, a progressive who ran on promises to hold police accountable in the Texas capital. Garza, a Democrat, said his office would dismiss indictments against 17 officers but still move forward with prosecuting four others.

The slate of felony charges were by far the most indictments of officers from a single U.S. police department over actions by law enforcement during nationwide protests in 2020 over racial injustice and police brutality. Some Austin police officers fired beanbag rounds in the crowd, critically injuring one teenager.

"This has been a difficult chapter for Austin. I look forward to turning the page. These announcements will allow police officers, whose lives were upended by the indictments, to return to their services to our community,” said Austin Mayor Kirk Watson, a Democrat who was not in office at the time of the protests.

Despite widespread claims of heavy-handed or even illegal police tactics across the U.S. following the 2020 protests, few cities pursued charges. Two Dallas officers faced charges of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and official oppression, and a New York police officer was charged with assault after shoving a woman to the ground.

In October, a former Minneapolis police officer was sentenced to 15 days in the county workhouse, with eligibility for electronic home monitoring, after pleading guilty to assaulting a Black man during the unrest that followed Floyd's murder.

The City of Austin has paid out more than $18 million to settle lawsuits brought by protesters injured during the protests, including a college student who suffered brain damage after an officer shot him with a beanbag round. Eight other lawsuits are still pending, according to the city.

In a statement, Garza did not give specific reasons about why his office was dropping most of the cases while letting others proceed. He said his office “would continue to hold law enforcement who break the law accountable."

Garza also said he expects the Justice Department to seriously consider their request to review Austin police's actions during the protests.

Ken Ervin, an attorney who represents nine of the officers who are having the charges dismissed, said the cases should have never been brought. He also represents several of the officers still facing charges.

“We predicted this (dismissal) some time ago. The cases were indicted before the investigations were complete," Ervin said. "We didn’t think the DA’s office was serious about prosecuting these cases. He just needed a reason to dismiss and save face.”

Ervin said he welcomed the invitation for federal scrutiny on the officer’s actions during the protests. Austin Police Association President Michael Bullock said prosecutors had yet to prove any case where any officer committed wrongdoing.

“Our officers were faced with incredible and unprecedented challenges. In those extremely difficult times they acted within the law and upheld their oath to keep our city safe,” Bullock said.

The indictments at the time widened the rift in Austin between police and Garza, whose 2020 campaign was backed by liberal allies including U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders and promised crackdowns on misconduct by law enforcement.

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