AUSTIN (KXAN) — Travis County District Attorney José Garza said Thursday “multiple indictments will be forthcoming in the days ahead” for law enforcement officers suspected of criminal conduct during the May 2020 racial injustice protests.
Earlier this month, KXAN learned from an attorney several Austin Police Department officers could be indicted by a grand jury related to excessive use-of-force cases from the protests, spurred by the deaths of George Floyd and Mike Ramos. Those cases fall under the Travis County DA Civil Rights Unit.
Now, the officers’ attorneys told the Austin Police Association ultimately 19 officers would be indicted, according to APA President Ken Casaday. The Associated Press also reported from sources 19 Austin police officers were indicted on aggravated assault charges over the protests.
Garza said in a Thursday press conference the special grand jury empaneled to consider the cases has completed its work, but he didn’t say exactly how many APD officers would be officially indicted.
Austin Police Chief Joseph Chacon responded immediately after the district attorney’s press conference on Thursday, saying he’s “extremely disappointed” in the announcement of the indictments.
“While I respect the grand jury process, I am disappointed to hear the DA’s press conference statements regarding anticipated indictments of APD officers related to the 2020 protests,” Chacon said during a press conference Thursday.
Garza explained if indictments are issued, under state law, the Travis County District Attorney’s Office can’t talk about specific ones until the person is booked into the county jail.
The district attorney said the facts discovered through his office’s investigation of the incidents are “disturbing,” and they believe many protesters injured by law enforcement during the protests were “innocent bystanders.”
Garza said the protesters suffered “significant and serious injuries to the head, face and body,” and some may never recover.
“Our community is safer when our community trusts law enforcement, when it believes law enforcement follows the law and protects the people who live here,” Garza said, adding people are less likely to report crimes if they don’t have trust in police.
KXAN spoke with an outside legal expert for insight on the proceedings of a special grand jury like this one.
“The way grand juries work in Texas they really are controlled by the DA’s office in that they can decide who they want to testify,” said former Travis County Assistant District Attorney Kevin Madison. He adds that only 9 out of 12 grand jurors need to vote for a case to move forward.
The burden of proof then shifts during a criminal trial, where the state will have to prove the allegations against the officers beyond a reasonable doubt, he said. Next steps including a series of court appearances leading up to a trial, during which the officers are innocent until proven guilty.
Austin Police Chief responds
Chacon explained officers had “to work under the most chaotic of circumstances” during the protests, and the size of the crowds “was underestimated by management.” Chacon said APD prepared for hundreds of protesters, but instead, officers faced thousands.
At times, the chief said, the crowds were “riotous and violent,” with property destruction and looting present at the beginning of the protests. Chacon said his officers faced rocks, frozen bottles of water, bottles containing bodily fluids, commercial-grade fireworks and other objects being hurled at them.
“I believe in many instances that officers were simply attempting to protect themselves and other protest participants,” he said.
The chief said while the weapons provided to APD officers to control crowds (less-lethal rounds) didn’t perform as anticipated, the department has recognized this and prohibits said equipment. Austin Mayor Steve Adler said in a statement, “never again would we use such weapons for crowd control. I wish that city policy had been in place before this event.”
“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.
Associations get involved
Before both press conferences Thursday, the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas and Austin Police Association called on Garza to cease any announcements about any prosecuted cases involving APD officers until after the Democratic primary and runoffs.
Garza fired back at people suggesting his office is biased toward prosecuting law enforcement.
“There are some people in this community and across the state who insist that there must never be accountability for law enforcement if they break the law,” Garza said. “Some of them have already suggested that our office’s review of the 2020 protests have been biased and that we are targeting police, while letting others off scot-free. That could not be further from the truth.”
The district attorney pointed out in addition to looking into the criminal conduct of police during the protests, his office has also prosecuted 33 cases against civilians who engaged in criminal conduct at the time. Eleven of those cases are still pending.
One of Garza’s priorities since taking office in January 2021 was to get excessive use-of-force cases by police officers in front of grand juries. Many of those cases have been delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It is so important that our community have faith and trust in our criminal justice system,” Garza told KXAN after he took office. “That they have faith if a law enforcement officer engages in misconduct, that if a law enforcement officer breaks the law, that they will be held accountable. So, that is our goal.”
In the wake of the protests, several people filed civil lawsuits against APD officers, the department and the city after being injured by police who fired “less-lethal” ammunition at them. Many of those people suffered injuries after being hit by bean bags and/or rubber bullets in the face/head area while officers were trying to control crowds.
Austin City Council on Thursday approved $10 million in settlements for two people hurt by Austin Police officers during the protests. Austin City Manager Spencer Cronk said in a statement Thursday while they wish there weren’t any injuries during the protests, “the City is taking responsibility to compensate those who were injured due to actions of police officers.”
Cronk went on to say “indictments will heighten the anxiety of our officers and will impact the staffing shortages we are experiencing. 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.”
Mayor Adler said on the indictments, “the judicial process, now moving forward, needs to be respected. Something went wrong here because no one should be injured merely exercising their constitutional rights.”