D.A., City ask feds to investigate Austin Police Department
By Austin Sanders, 4:34PM, Mon. Dec. 4, 2023
APD officers stand guard on I-35 after protesters took over the highway on May 30, 2020 (Photo by John Anderson)
Travis County District Attorney José Garza announced today, Dec. 4, that his office would dismiss charges against 17 of the 21 Austin police officers indicted for felony assault for their actions during 2020 protests that followed the police killings of George Floyd and Michael Ramos.
In all 21 cases, grand juries determined there was enough evidence to support charges for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, allegedly committed when officers shot into large crowds of protesters with “lead pellet” rounds and caused serious injuries. Prior to Dec. 4, the D.A.’s office had dropped two of those cases. Meanwhile, lawsuits related to certain shootings have already played out in civil courts. As a result, the City of Austin has paid nearly $20 million in damages to victims.
Now, only four cases remain to be criminally prosecuted, and the identities of those four officers still facing charges have not yet been disclosed.
Garza also announced that his office would issue a joint request with the City of Austin to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division asking that the DOJ open a “pattern-and-practice” investigation into the Austin Police Department’s response to the protests in 2020.
Such reviews are meant to determine whether a police department’s procedures have resulted in a widespread violation of constitutional rights and can lead to federally-mandated policy changes within the department outlined in a consent decree. If the DOJ takes on the investigation, it won’t be the first time. In 2004, the local NAACP chapter and the Texas Civil Rights Project requested a pattern-and-practice review, which the DOJ started in 2007. In 2011, the DOJ closed the case with a finding that APD did not regularly violate the constitutional rights of Austin residents.
“We expect the Department of Justice will take our request seriously,” Garza said in a news release announcing the dropped charges and joint request. “We look forward to working with Mayor [Kirk] Watson, Interim APD Chief Robin Henderson, and City Council to ensure full cooperation with the DOJ investigation.” The DOJ does not have to accept the request for review and it is unclear when the federal agency will make a decision.
In a news release, Austin’s Interim City Manager Jesús Garza pointed to several reforms APD has made since the 2020 shootings, including discontinuing use of the “lead pellet” rounds, which were fired from shotguns, as a crowd control measure.
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