AUSTIN (KXAN) — A Travis County grand jury indicted two Austin Police officers on aggravated assault by a public servant charges following a review of a March 2019 incident, Travis County District Attorney Jose Garza said Friday.
Separately but also on Friday, Garza announced a grand jury had indicted a Travis County Sheriff’s Office corrections officer on felony offenses of aggravated perjury and tampering with a governmental record. That indictment happened in December.
The APD officers, Gregory Gentry and Chance Bretches, now face felony charges following an altercation with a suspect as the pair tried to break up an alleged narcotics deal.
The initial case and review process
A release from the Austin Police Department describes what happened as a fight after the officers tried to handcuff one of the suspects. Both the suspect and the officers were hurt. The release also says the officers’ actions were “deemed compliant with policy and training,” upon initial review by the APD Executive Team, Special Investigations Unit and the Force Review Board.
The Office of Police Oversight told KXAN it was briefed on and reviewed the videos on April 19, 2019. It said Director Farah Muscadin “expressed concerns on the level of force used” to APD.
APD said it worked with former district attorney Margaret Moore and said “based on the Department’s findings that the officers’ conduct was within policy, the case was not forwarded to the DA’s Civil Rights Division.”
The Office of Police Oversight said in October 2019 it received a complaint from the person involved and forwarded a notice to APD. It said APD opened an internal complaint into what happened in March 2020, but “both internal and external complaints were closed without any formal investigation.”
Garza said two of his senior assistant district attorneys, who he described as “experienced,” “identified potential misconduct and brought it to the Office of Civil Rights Unit.” He said they independently alerted the unit and that an investigation was opened and approved to be presented to a grand jury last year.
“Holding law enforcement accountable when they break the law is critical to rebuilding community trust, and also to the safety of our community,” Garza said.
The combined law enforcement association of Texas which often represents officers in these kinda of cases alleged this was a political play by the DA.
“Since the DA is not reopening any old cases of assault against officers, then, of course, this is a political stunt from another insatiable publicity seeking politician,” said CLEAT Executive Director, Charley Wilkison.
Garza says the case was set to go before the grand jury last March, 8 months before he was elected, but then COVID happened.
Statements from APD, officers’ lawyers
“APD respects the role the Grand Jury holds in the criminal justice process and will continue to cooperate with the District Attorney’s Office as needed on this case,” the department said.
Both officers have been placed on administrative duty and will remain on it until the end of the criminal proceedings, APD says.
Attorneys for Gentry and Bretches sent a statement to KXAN saying the initial investigation included law enforcement officials with collective experiences that “spans decades,” and if they didn’t find any wrongdoing, that should have been enough.
“The consensus was that the officers’ use of force was lawful and appropriate,” attorneys Ken Ervin and Doug O’Connell said in the statement. “We are gravely concerned that the judgment of newly-elected DA Garza, whose lifelong prosecution experience consists of seven weeks, is that both officers committed first-degree felonies punishable by life in prison.”
Attorneys for Gentry and Bretches also called on Garza to ‘fulfill his promise of transparency and record and transcribe all grand jury proceedings, so the public can be confident in a fair and thorough proceedings.”
To which Garza says this:
“I urge Chief Manley to release the video tapes so the public can see for themselves what transpired,” said Jose Garza.
Bretches is part of another use-of-force investigation that is set to be presented to a grand jury this fall. In May 2020 during a protest, street medic Maredith Drake was hit by a “less-lethal” bean-bag round while attending to an injured person at the protest. Drake has since filed a lawsuit against the city.
On Jan. 14 Garza released a list of use-of-force cases he planned on presenting to grand juries this year, including the cases of Mike Ramos and Javier Ambler.