Inside a district attorney’s campaign to reform the Austin police department

In just 10 months, the new prosecutor won indictments against nine law enforcement officials. Now he is in a showdown with police.

José Garza, shown in Austin on Nov. 18, 2021, took office as Travis County district attorney in January. (Photo by Spencer Selvidge for The Washington Post)
José Garza, shown in Austin on Nov. 18, 2021, took office as Travis County district attorney in January. (Photo by Spencer Selvidge for The Washington Post)
correction

A previous version of this article incorrectly reported that eight of nine lawyers and the division chief had quit in the child abuse unit of the Travis County District Attorney’s Office. In fact, six of the nine lawyers and chief had quit. Two lawyers were also fired. The article has been updated.

AUSTIN — Travis County District Attorney José Garza was at home when he got a call from one of his prosecutors, Dexter Gilford. A grand jury had just indicted two Austin police officers, charging them with aggravated assault in connection with the beating and hospitalization of an unarmed Black man during a drug arrest in 2019.

Garza hadn’t even been district attorney for three weeks.

The indictments of Chance Bretches and Gregory Gentry that evening last January came years after the police department had cleared them of wrongdoing. They were still patrolling the streets. Now, felony warrants would be issued for their arrest. Gilford asked Garza: Should he call Austin’s chief of police to give him a heads-up?

It was not a trivial decision. Garza needed to work with police to keep the community safe, and a courtesy phone call could help maintain a crucial relationship that was already tense. On the other hand, Garza had promised voters a far more aggressive approach than his predecessor’s in holding officers to account.

“Is there any other employer in the county to whom we would give a heads-up call if their employee was indicted?” Garza asked Gilford.

Gilford couldn’t think of anyone. Garza made up his mind. There would be no call.

When the indictments became public the next day, the backlash from police was swift. Police Chief Brian Manley said he learned of the charges from social media and defended the officers in a news release, saying that the man resisted their attempts to restrain and arrest him. The Austin police union accused Garza of using officers as pawns in a “delusional game of political chess.” Three weeks later, Manley abruptly retired, saying it was time to move on.

Garza had no experience as a prosecutor when he was elected last year in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis police custody and nationwide protests against police. He promised to end the over-prosecution of the poor and people of color.

Since he was sworn in on Jan. 1, his office has obtained indictments of five Austin police officers, two county deputies, an assistant county attorney and a sheriff on charges including tampering with evidence and murder.

His office is also prosecuting three additional officers who were indicted during the prior district attorney’s administration. And in many other criminal cases, he has sought sentences that emphasize rehabilitation over punishment.

Those efforts have fueled one of the most heated showdowns playing out nationwide between police and prosecutors who have vowed to overhaul the criminal justice system, from San Francisco to Chicago to Baltimore. Those prosecutors have come under pointed criticism as violent crime has risen nationwide. San Francisco’s top prosecutor is facing a recall election after securing indictments of three police officers. In St. Louis, the prosecutor accused the police union in a lawsuit of interfering with her reform efforts.

A USE OF FORCE EXAMINED

Alleged assault of Paul Mannie, 44

Arrest affidavit in the Paul Mannie case. (Austin Police Department)
Arrest affidavit in the Paul Mannie case. (Austin Police Department)

Police said that on March 28, 2019, Austin officers were on undercover patrol in an apartment complex where someone had been shot the day before when they saw 44-year-old Paul Mannie, who is Black, selling drugs.

Garza gave The Washington Post a rare look inside his office during the first year of his administration. He allowed a reporter to attend weekly leadership team meetings and to conduct regular interviews with his top executives, on the condition that the publication of any quotes from those exchanges would be delayed for at least several months. In many instances, The Post agreed not to disclose conversations about topics including office politics and personnel matters. The Post also periodically interviewed Austin police leaders and officers, the local police union president and attorneys for the indicted officers.

None of the officers have gone to trial. One Austin police officer, indicted in early January on a felony charge of misusing official information, declined to comment, his attorneys said. Through their attorneys, the rest have all denied the charges against them.

The tension and distrust between Garza and Austin police has damaged their working relationship, according to interviews and documents. Both offices have feuded over what should happen to people arrested on minor charges and clashed publicly over the handling of two high-profile murder investigations.

Travis County District Attorney José Garza, right, at a meeting in November with Dexter Gilford, left, head of the Civil Rights Unit in the D.A.’s office, and Guillermo Gonzalez, head of the office’s trial division. (Photo by Spencer Selvidge for The Washington Post)
Travis County District Attorney José Garza, right, at a meeting in November with Dexter Gilford, left, head of the Civil Rights Unit in the D.A.’s office, and Guillermo Gonzalez, head of the office’s trial division. (Photo by Spencer Selvidge for The Washington Post)

Within Garza’s office, which includes 100 attorneys, his approach has triggered strife about whether he is going too far, too fast. Nineteen prosecutors have resigned, documents show, in many cases disagreeing openly with the level and pace of change. Garza has fired a handful for alleged misconduct. He said that his office is in the midst of a “significant cultural change” but that other like-minded district attorneys have faced greater turnover.

The police union and some local activists say Garza’s agenda jeopardizes the safety of 1 million Austinites, pointing out that the annual homicide count — nearly 90 so far this year — is higher than it has been in decades.

Supporters of Garza note that the increase is homicides is not unique to Austin and say that in the city, an influx of guns and strained community relations with police are to blame. They say that Garza is doing more to hold police accountable and reform the criminal justice system than any other prosecutor in the nation and that the public is behind him, also noting that Austin voters recently rejected a proposal to hire hundreds of additional officers.

One year into his four-year term, Garza said he is not distracted by his critics and is committed to his agenda.

“We know that there is obviously a sizable part of the voting populace that wanted him,” said Joseph Parker, a lawyer and pastor at a Black church in East Austin. “Does it really reflect where we are? ... Is José Garza an aberration? Or is he in line with the Austin community and the people he’s been elected to serve?”

Breakfast tacos and a broken system

Brenda Ramos in November visits a mural in Austin honoring her slain son Michael Ramos. (Photo by Spencer Selvidge for The Washington Post)
Brenda Ramos in November visits a mural in Austin honoring her slain son Michael Ramos. (Photo by Spencer Selvidge for The Washington Post)

To some, Garza’s election was a vote of no confidence in how his predecessor, Margaret Moore, had dealt with alleged misconduct by police.

When Moore became district attorney in 2017, the public’s faith in police was fraying. A police officer who shot a naked and unarmed Black teenager the previous year had not been charged — raising “legitimate questions about whether prosecutors are up to the task of holding law enforcement accountable,” the Austin American-Statesman editorialized at the time.

A USE OF FORCE EXAMINED

Fatal shooting of David Joseph, 17

On Feb. 8, 2016, Officer Geoffrey Freeman of the Austin police responded to calls in Northeast Austin about a Black male acting “lethargic” and then “aggressive.” When Freeman arrived, 17-year-old David Joseph was naked and standing in the middle of the street, according to police.

Moore promised to draw a hard line on police misconduct. She created a Civil Rights Unit to investigate such allegations and hired Gilford, a respected local defense attorney and former professor of criminal justice who also has deep ties to Austin’s Black community. She also gave Gilford substantial authority to seek indictments of police officers before grand juries.

At the same time, Moore built close relationships with police. She convened monthly meetings over breakfast tacos at the downtown Thistle Cafe with the Austin police chief, the Travis County sheriff and the county attorney, whose office handles misdemeanor prosecutions.

Those ties were crucial during major public safety crises, including bombings in 2018 that killed two people and injured several others. But by the time Moore was up for reelection, there was a perception that she was unwilling to stand up to police.

Although Austin police fatally shot 15 people during Moore’s four years in office, she took almost none of the killings to a grand jury. Her office instead published “declination” letters, which offered details of the fatal shootings but disappointed many activists. One case in which she declined to prosecute, the killing of a 20-year-old Latino man who was suffering from a mental health crisis, recently led to a $2.25 million civil settlement. He was holding a BB gun that police said they believed to be a real firearm.

Moore’s office did obtain indictments for three Austin police officers — more than her predecessor — for allegedly using excessive force in nonfatal incidents, but she won no convictions. One officer’s charge is still pending, and a jury acquitted the other two in a joint trial.

A USE OF FORCE EXAMINED

Police use of a Taser on Quentin Perkins, 20

On Feb. 26, 2018, Officers Robert Pfaff and Donald Petraitis of Austin went to the scene of a shooting in downtown Austin and used a Taser on 20-year-old Quentin Perkins. Officers said Perkins had acted suspiciously, tried to flee the scene and failed to comply with their demands to get down on the ground.

When Garza announced that he would challenge Moore’s reelection, no one saw it coming. Both hailed from a long line of Texans and are avid guitar players, but in most other ways are opposites.

Moore, whose father was a prosecutor and then a defense attorney, was elected Travis County district attorney just before turning 70. She had a long history in local Democratic politics, serving as Travis county attorney decades earlier and later as a county commissioner.

The son of a civil rights lawyer, Garza was 39 when he launched his campaign. He was a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, and had never been a prosecutor or sought any other public office. He had worked as a public defender on the Texas-Mexico border, and, most recently, he led an advocacy group for migrant construction workers.

Garza, who is Latino and often peppers his speech with wonky and academic terms, described Travis County’s criminal justice system as “broken.” Moore had acknowledged a need to address racial disparities but was more restrained than Garza.

During a campaign forum in February 2020, Moore, who is White, asked the audience: “Does anybody here think this is a community that ... sticks people in jail because they are brown? Or Black?”

Several people shouted: “Yes!”

The city had recently published a report detailing a growing racial disparity in traffic stops, and local news reports had just revealed allegations that an assistant Austin police chief regularly used racial slurs.

The next month, Garza narrowly defeated Moore in the Democratic primary election, forcing her to a runoff. He’d gained support with his promises to end prosecution of low-level drug crimes, reform the cash bail system and improve treatment of sexual assault victims. But his calls to hold police to account boosted his campaign significantly — especially after Officer Christopher Taylor of the Austin police shot and killed a Latino man named Michael Ramos on April 24, 2020.

The deadly encounter began with a 911 call claiming that Ramos, 42, was holding a gun to a woman’s head in a parked car in Southeast Austin. When police arrived, Ramos stepped out of the vehicle with his hands up. After a few minutes, he got back into his car and began to drive. Taylor, who was standing to the side, said he feared Ramos would use the car as a deadly weapon against other officers and fired into it, killing Ramos. Police later said they found no gun in Ramos’s car. It was Taylor’s second fatal shooting on duty: Nine months earlier, he and fellow Officer Karl Krycia had shot Mauris DeSilva, a Sri Lankan man who was holding a knife while experiencing a mental health crisis.

A USE OF FORCE EXAMINED

Fatal shooting of Michael Ramos, 42

On April 24, 2020, Austin police officers responded to a 911 call claiming that Michael Ramos was sitting in a parked car in Southeast Austin smoking methamphetamine and holding a gun to a woman’s head. When officers arrived, they ordered him to step out of the car and walk toward them with his hands up, according to video footage from police dashboard cameras and body-worn cameras. Ramos stepped out of the car, put his hands up and lifted his shirt when police commanded him to do so, the video shows. For the next few minutes, police yelled at him to walk toward them and he yelled back asking them to lower their guns.

The fatal shooting of Ramos and the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis a month later ignited in Austin some of the nation’s most heated clashes between protesters and police. Over the last two days of May 2020, Austin police seriously injured more than a dozen protesters with “beanbag munitions” promoted as nonlethal force.

A week later, the Statesman revealed a video of sheriff’s deputies from neighboring Williamson County repeatedly shocking an unarmed Black man, Javier Ambler, with a Taser as he insisted, “I can’t breathe.” Ambler, who was 40, died during the encounter. Deputies said that they had tried to pull Ambler’s car over but that he fled and eventually crashed. They said he then refused their commands to get on the ground. The incident occurred in Travis County in March 2019, but Moore’s office had yet to take any public action.

A USE OF FORCE EXAMINED

In-custody death of Javier Ambler, 40

An image from Austin police body-camera footage shows Williamson County sheriff’s deputies trying to restrain Javier Ambler on March 28, 2019. (Austin Police Department/AP)
An image from Austin police body-camera footage shows Williamson County sheriff’s deputies trying to restrain Javier Ambler on March 28, 2019. (Austin Police Department/AP)

On March 28, 2019, Deputy Jason Johnson of the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office said he tried to pull Javier Ambler over after Ambler failed to dim his headlights while approaching traffic. Deputies said that Ambler failed to stop and that Johnson pursued him into Travis County, where he crashed and climbed out of his car.

“In the last four years, not one officer has been charged with a crime for killing a member of our community, and not one officer has been convicted of a crime for any misconduct,” Garza told the Statesman in July 2020. He vowed that, unlike Moore, he would present every instance of an officer-involved shooting or other allegations of excessive force to a grand jury to “let the community decide” if there was probable cause for charges.

Moore said that she planned to take the Ramos shooting to a grand jury but had been delayed by the pandemic. “That was not a difficult decision, because he was unarmed,” Moore recalled recently.

That July, Garza trounced Moore with 68 percent of the vote in the runoff election. Critics noted that liberal billionaire George Soros, a well-known supporter of “progressive prosecutor” candidates nationwide, poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into Garza’s campaign. Garza downplayed the donation, saying the money came long after his grass-roots effort had attracted tens of thousands of new voters.

For many in law enforcement, Garza’s win was an existential threat.

“The public just voted to put in someone to the district attorney’s office that ran on prosecuting police and not prosecuting drug crimes, or hardly any other crimes,” Austin Police Association President Ken Casaday told the local Fox News affiliate at the time. “They don’t want an active police department. ... What I’m telling my guys is, ‘Answer your calls and that is it.’” Casaday later reflected in an interview: “Was that the smartest thing to say? Probably not.”

A month after the election, officers again felt under attack when the Austin City Council imposed its own take on the “defund the police” movement. The council voted to reallocate more than $100 million from the police department to other public safety programs.

Given the election results and the pandemic, Moore decided to leave the Ramos case to Garza — along with dozens of other pending cases of officer-involved shootings or other allegations of excessive force that her office was still mulling over.

Then-Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore with Dexter Gilford, center, chief of her office’s Civil Rights Unit, and Williamson County District Attorney Shawn Dick in 2020. (Bronte Wittpenn/Austin American-Statesman/AP)
Then-Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore with Dexter Gilford, center, chief of her office’s Civil Rights Unit, and Williamson County District Attorney Shawn Dick in 2020. (Bronte Wittpenn/Austin American-Statesman/AP)

In an interview, she said her administration laid the foundation for Garza’s work toward police reform. She noted that despite Garza’s criticism of her for not indicting officers, he chose to keep Dexter Gilford as the office’s civil rights chief.

“We were unafraid of prosecution of police officers,” she said. “But the law of justification is a formidable obstacle.”

But Moore said she would have handled the January indictments against Officers Bretches and Gentry differently: She would have called Chief Manley to let him know, “You need to know this because you’re gonna be asked about it. ... I know that that’s gonna put you in an uncomfortable place.”

Manley said later in an interview that he was surprised by the indictments and had been under the impression that the case was not going to be presented to a grand jury. He acknowledged that his departure was “abrupt” but said that after 30 years with the department, he had been thinking for some time of retiring.

“At some point, you leave,” he said.

In retrospect, Garza said, a courtesy call would have been a good idea. “Giving them a heads-up is a small, good-faith step I can take.”

“You know,” he said, “I’m learning.”

‘Looking for a civil rights prosecutor’

A shrine that Brenda Ramos maintains in honor of her son Michael Ramos at her home. (Photo by Spencer Selvidge for The Washington Post)
A shrine that Brenda Ramos maintains in honor of her son Michael Ramos at her home. (Photo by Spencer Selvidge for The Washington Post)

By March, trials were still on hold because of the pandemic, but the four lawyers in Garza’s Civil Rights Unit were busy preparing dozens of police misconduct cases for grand jury presentation, including cases where protesters had been injured with beanbag munitions, and the fatal shooting of a young Latino man just five days into Garza’s term.

A USE OF FORCE EXAMINED

Fatal shooting of Alex Gonzales Jr., 27

Shortly after midnight on Jan. 5, 2021, Officer Gabriel Gutierrez of the Austin police was driving his personal vehicle while off-duty when he said he encountered 27-year-old Alex Gonzales Jr. also driving a vehicle. The two came to a stop, and, after a brief argument, Gutierrez called 911, claiming that Gonzales had pointed a gun at him and that he had shot Gonzales, according to police. He told dispatchers that Gonzales had “blood all over his face” and that a female passenger from his car was lying on the ground, according to the 911 call.

On March 10, the unit made a big announcement: The grand jury had charged Officer Christopher Taylor with murder in the Ramos killing. It was the fourth indictment of an Austin police officer that year.

In a statement, Garza called the development “a significant step toward justice for the Ramos family and our community.” But Casaday, the police union president, called it “a political promise kept rather than a decision based on sound legal judgment.”

Just a month later, Garza’s office announced the indictments of four more law enforcement officials in neighboring Williamson County over the death of Ambler, the case that had stalled under Moore.

But all of that was only half the battle for Gilford’s unit. The cases could drag on for years. And none had the kind of visual evidence or resources that came into play at the trial of George Floyd’s killer. It took that type of evidence and the work of the Minnesota attorney general to convict Derek Chauvin of second-degree unintentional murder.

“I experienced that trial in ways that gave me reason for concern, for pause,” Gilford said. “I really did.”

Parker, who had supported Moore’s campaign, was encouraged by the string of indictments. He had officiated at two funerals for members of his congregation who were killed by Austin police. Many of his congregants felt that every interaction with police was a “life-or-death kind of situation,” he said.

Liberal activists also praised Garza for sending more defendants to pretrial diversion programs than ever before and for ensuring that more people were getting out of jail without having to post bond. “I think that he’s reflective of what the community would want from a prosecutor,” said Sukyi McMahon, senior policy director for the advocacy group Austin Justice Coalition, which was founded in 2012 with a focus on police accountability.

Police, meanwhile, were struggling.

Amid the fallout from the summer 2020 protests, more than 100 officers had left the force of 2,000 within a year, according to the department. The police academy had been shut down for months over concerns from the city council about racially biased training and an overly militarized culture. It would not reopen until later that summer.

Demonstrators decry police violence as they rally outside Austin Police Department headquarters on June 4, 2020. (Photo by Tamir Kalifa for The Washington Post)
Demonstrators decry police violence as they rally outside Austin Police Department headquarters on June 4, 2020. (Photo by Tamir Kalifa for The Washington Post)

Meanwhile, Garza and Travis County Attorney Delia Garza (the two are not related) imposed new scrutiny of arrests.

For decades, police in the county had been able to arrest people, jail them and secure criminal charges and an initial cash bail from judges. A person might remain in jail for days before a prosecutor reviewed the case and decided whether to dismiss the charges.

Under the new process, police still could arrest someone, but prosecutors would review the paperwork before it reached a judge. If they rejected the charges, the person would be freed within hours.

José Garza planned to decline most felony drug possession charges if the amount of drugs was less than a gram. He also said prosecutors would decline other charges if police had not provided enough probable cause. Delia Garza’s office, meanwhile, began rejecting misdemeanor charges, including criminal trespassing and evading arrest.

“We are wasting potentially millions of dollars processing cases that the district and county attorney’s office may not think are appropriate for a variety of reasons,” José Garza said in an interview. He also said research showed that prosecuting low-level drug crimes does not increase community safety.

But police were frustrated. Amid the explosion of Austin’s homeless population, they were constantly getting calls about trespassing and vandalism. Now, many of the people arrested as a result of those calls would be back out on the street the same day.

“Many times, having people in jail, at least for a day or two, can help defuse [an unsafe] situation,” Joseph Chacon, who replaced Brian Manley as chief of police in March, said in an interview. Now, in many cases, “we don’t have that any longer.”

Austin Police Chief Joseph Chacon addresses the  audience on being sworn into office Oct. 29, 2021, after being confirmed by the Austin City Council in September. (Photo by Spencer Selvidge for The Washington Post)
Austin Police Chief Joseph Chacon addresses the audience on being sworn into office Oct. 29, 2021, after being confirmed by the Austin City Council in September. (Photo by Spencer Selvidge for The Washington Post)

A statewide police union attacked Garza by name.

“Jose Garza has misused his official position of elected office,” wrote the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas (CLEAT), an organization of police unions, including the one in Austin. “Taxpayers are unknowingly funding his whimsical journey of reimagining a Texas with criminals roaming the neighborhoods magically rehabilitating themselves and morphing from home invaders, armed robbers, drug offenders, and mass shooters.”

In the first five months, Garza’s office rejected 82 felony charges, mostly for possession of less than one gram of illegal drugs, records show. In about a fifth of those cases, the arrestee remained in jail because prosecutors accepted a different charge, such as gun possession or burglary.

Prosecutors also rejected other charges including a felony theft charge for a man who allegedly stole less than $3 worth of groceries, and a felony assault charge against a hospital patient accused of pushing a security guard against a wall.

The rejections led to some heated exchanges between police and prosecutors, but inside Garza’s office, there was cause for optimism.

On April 19, Garza’s executive team gathered for its weekly virtual meeting. Erin Martinson, the sexual assault division chief, told the group about her decision to reject an assault charge for the hospital patient. She said she did not believe there was enough probable cause for a felony.

Martinson said she received angry phone calls from three different people at the police department about the rejection but stood her ground: The case was a misdemeanor, not a felony, she said. Eventually, she said, a patrol sergeant proposed that police call her for guidance on arrests in certain situations.

“We learned so much from each other,” Martinson told the team during the meeting. She suggested that prosecutors try to call the police officers involved when they decline charges, a policy the office soon adopted.

The police department also began considering how it could adjust. In mid-April, an assistant chief emailed Garza with a proposal: If officers wanted to arrest someone for a low-level felony drug offense, they would need to have their supervisor’s approval and to provide evidence of a public safety threat.

But before that could happen, the relationship with the police grew even more complicated.

On May 23, a Republican state senator tweeted a leaked email written by Garza’s chief deputy, Trudy Strassburger. The subject line of the email was, “Looking for civil rights prosecutor.”

“Friends, I am reaching out in the hopes that you may be looking to prosecute police officers, or that you know someone who is!” Strassburger’s email said.

“We need a heavy hitter who is willing to fight against the status quo.”

The email was meant to generate more interest in a job opening for a “team lead” in the Civil Rights Unit. Although hundreds of lawyers had applied to work in Garza’s office, few had experience with police misconduct cases.

Police saw the email in a different light.

“They accidentally tipped their hand on another nasty prejudice,” said CLEAT executive director Charley Wilkison shortly after the email was made public. The implication was, he said, “we hate policemen and … we want someone who specializes in prosecuting them.”

Garza later called that an intentional misinterpretation of the email.

“We have a child abuse unit. We have a sexual assault unit. We have a domestic violence unit,” he said. A similar email might have said his office is looking for people who prosecute those types of cases, rather than police misconduct, he said.

“I guess what she left off was [officers] ‘who break the law’? But you know, I mean, come on,” he said. “This office, we’re a criminal prosecuting entity. It goes without saying.”

CLEAT called for Strassburger’s resignation. She received at least 50 hostile online messages, including one that threatened to publish her home address. A thread on the website 4chan described how users believed the police should murder her.

The messages were so concerning that Garza, along with a member of the executive team who is a former Austin police officer, wanted to provide Strassburger a security detail. But she declined. “I’m an easier target because I’m a woman,” she said in interview at the time. “Let them call for my resignation.”

Assistant Travis County District Attorney Trudy Strassburger in Austin in November. (Photo by Spencer Selvidge for The Washington Post)
Assistant Travis County District Attorney Trudy Strassburger in Austin in November. (Photo by Spencer Selvidge for The Washington Post)

At the start of Garza’s next weekly leadership meeting, he tried to set a lighthearted tone. “Who knew Dexter [Gilford] and his unit were so controversial?” he joked.

But midway through, as the team discussed the new teleworking policy and other matters, Strassburger’s face went white.

“I just got a message that they’re about to release my address because I’m a ‘Nazi cow,’” she said. “They’re about to go public on me.”

Everyone paused for a few seconds.

Then Strassburger took a breath and moved on. “All right, anyways, disclosure policy.”

In interviews with the local media, Garza defended the email as a routine job posting. The threats eventually died down. But the impact was profound.

“I think we all believe in police accountability,” said Troy Gay, an assistant police chief in Austin and a 30-year veteran of the department, of Strassburger’s email. “It’s just, how it’s being marketed. And you know, words matter. It sends a very negative message to the men and women that are supposed to be serving this community, that you are advocating and looking for people that are interested in that type of case.”

Days after the email was leaked, Martinson, Garza’s sexual assault division chief, worried that any work toward mending the relationship between prosecutors and police would be jeopardized. Many lawyers in the office were already uncomfortable with Strassburger, a former criminal justice reform advocate who had never been a prosecutor. Now, some police saw her as an enemy.

“They’re always like us versus them,” Martinson said at the time. “Then it ramped up because of this email that Trudy sent out.”

Martinson didn’t know it, but after she rejected the assault charge against the hospital patient six weeks earlier, police had found a way around it. They persuaded a judge to sign a warrant for his arrest — bypassing Garza’s office.

“I really did feel like we were collaborating,” she later said. “Maybe I was the only one who felt that way. Maybe they were just humoring me. I don’t know.”

In a statement, Austin police said they had not intended to undercut Martinson.

“It appears that this was a communication breakdown between the APD detective and the assigned Assistant DA on what the next steps were going to be,” police said.

Frustration all around

Austin’s new police chief, Joseph Chacon, left, leads a department executive staff meeting in November. (Photo by Spencer Selvidge for The Washington Post)
Austin’s new police chief, Joseph Chacon, left, leads a department executive staff meeting in November. (Photo by Spencer Selvidge for The Washington Post)

On the morning of June 22, Chacon, Garza, Strassburger and two other members of the district attorney’s executive team stood in a conference room in their downtown Austin office building before a group of reporters. They had news to share about a deadly shooting on a recent Saturday night in Austin’s famed downtown Sixth Street district.

Around 1:30 a.m. on June 12, a fight broke out between two groups of high school students, some of whom were armed. Shots were fired, killing a 25-year-old tourist from Michigan, shattering a 19-year-old woman’s right leg and injuring a dozen other people.

Two teenagers were caught that night on the scene with guns, and a witness claimed that one had fired the fatal shot. Both were in custody. But almost two weeks later, ballistics testing had revealed that the true shooter was still at large, calling into question some of the testimony by the witness, officials told reporters.

Chacon and Garza thanked each other profusely for their offices’ hard and collaborative work. But then Garza announced that the two teens would be released and the charges against them dismissed.

A TV reporter asked, incredulous: “Are you letting them walk out today, and go back home? Is that in the best interest of this community?” Another reporter wanted to know whether police had arrested the wrong suspects.

Garza said there was no longer probable cause to keep either teen in jail and that releasing them was “in the best interests of this prosecution, of this investigation.” Then Chacon took the lectern.

“These two individuals were involved, okay?” he told reporters. Chacon said there was no evidence the teens had fired their guns that night but added: “This is not people who were innocent bystanders, who were somehow incorrectly identified as being involved.”

Reporters pressed him further.

“I think the D.A. has indicated that he is not going to pursue charges at this moment,” Chacon answered.

Rather than reassuring the public about progress on the investigation, the district attorney and police chief were publicly arguing about whether there was legal justification to keep two suspects in jail. “The press conference exposed already strained relations between ... two agencies that have historically worked hand in hand on such cases,” the Statesman wrote.

“I’ll just tell you very honestly, it’s tough for me as a person that cares about the safety of this community to see two individuals who did what they did just walk away,” Chacon said later in an interview. “I certainly would have, you know, liked for the D.A. to expand a little bit more on his decision to drop the charges.”

Garza said he was taken aback by Chacon’s reaction. Just minutes before the news conference, he and Chacon had gone over their talking points. Chacon had expressed no concern about releasing the teenagers, he said.

“I think the chief is very defensive about the suggestion that [police] may have done something wrong and feels the need to defend it,” Garza said soon afterward. “And the way he defends it is by putting forward his version of facts ... that, you know, may or may not be rooted in the actual evidence.”

Months later, one of the teens was arrested for allegedly trying to sell the weapon used in the shooting.

Garza’s frustrations were mounting.

Travis County District Attorney José Garza. (Photo by Spencer Selvidge for The Washington Post)
Travis County District Attorney José Garza. (Photo by Spencer Selvidge for The Washington Post)

That same day, a local TV reporter asked Garza about a business manager who said that he called police after someone threw a rock at his company van. The manager said that when officers arrived, they said they had been instructed to “stand down” and could do nothing because of the new policies that limited prosecution of lower-level crimes.

A similar complaint came from a resident who had called Garza’s office about rampant drug use in his neighborhood. The caller said police told him they could do nothing because the offenders would not be prosecuted.

None of those claims were true, Garza said: His office had done nothing to prevent officers from making arrests, and he was not declining to prosecute all lower-level crimes.

“Law enforcement officers misrepresenting the facts is a pretty grave threat to our system of law,” he later said in an interview.

The day after the disastrous news conference, Garza, Chacon, the county attorney and the Travis County sheriff tried to smooth things over. In the tradition of their predecessors, they met for breakfast tacos in the cafe of a downtown Austin hotel. Garza’s young daughter sat at the table playing games on her tablet.

Garza and the county attorney complained that police were misrepresenting their new policies to the public. Chacon said he couldn’t stop officers from expressing their opinions. The group discussed prosecutors’ rejection of certain criminal charges and other issues. But they didn’t resolve their differences.

“I don’t think the meeting was very helpful. I really don’t,” Chacon said in an interview later. The chief, who grew up in El Paso and decided to become a police officer after getting to know off-duty officers at the bowling alley he managed, said: “I think that our policy views are pretty divergent right now.”

It was the group’s last taco meeting.

About a month later, Garza wrote a scathing letter about Austin police to the city manager. “Failure to investigate crimes reported by our citizens for perceived political gain is a gross violation of the public trust and makes us less safe,” he wrote. No one responded.

Asked about the issue later, Chacon said the department was investigating some instances in which officers told the public that their hands were tied by Garza’s new policies. “It’s just unacceptable” for officers to speculate about “what we think might be happening” within Garza’s office, he said.

To critics, the tensions reflected Garza’s lack of experience in public office. Nineteen attorneys had chosen to resign and work elsewhere, including at nearby prosecutors’ offices for lower pay. Several even went to work for the Republican Texas attorney general, whose politics couldn’t be further from the liberal politics of Travis County. Many complained that Garza and Strassburger — both of whom had never previously been prosecutors — did not respect or understand how prosecution worked.

Garza, Strassburger and trial division chief Gonzalez discuss scheduling in October. (Photo by Spencer Selvidge for The Washington Post)
Garza, Strassburger and trial division chief Gonzalez discuss scheduling in October. (Photo by Spencer Selvidge for The Washington Post)

The internal dissension was greatest among attorneys in the child abuse unit, where six of the nine lawyers and the division chief had quit. Two lawyers in the unit were also fired.

Allison Tisdale, who resigned in March after four years as a prosecutor working on a wide range of cases, said many of those who left believed in Garza’s mission but disagreed with his methods, especially given his lack of experience. “I think it’s about the office culture and mentality,” Tisdale said. “And when we voice opposition, it’s kind of shut down without a lot of collaboration.”

Garza noted that Tisdale had worked for him for only three months.

“There certainly are people who have left because this is not a direction they want to go. And I think we expected that,” Garza said.

The Civil Rights Unit also had a setback.

In July, Garza dismissed the case against Officer Gregory Gentry, who, along with Officer Chance Bretches, was indicted in January, accused of assault. It was an extraordinary decision just months after the case had created so much ill will when Garza did not notify the chief of the charges before they were publicized.

In a news release, Garza’s office said the prosecutor handling the case, whom he did not publicly name, had withheld an expert opinion finding that Gentry’s use of force in the arrest was justified. Garza also publicly apologized, saying, “I offer my sincere apologies to Officer Gentry, who undoubtedly suffered as a result of this process.”

The criminal case against Bretches was not affected.

Privately, Garza asked for the resignation of the prosecutor who had handled the case, Sandra Ramirez. In a recent interview with The Post, Ramirez said that although she tendered her resignation, she did not agree with Garza’s actions.

“I stand by my work in this case,” she said, adding that she did present the information to a grand jury. She said she believes Garza dismissed the case in part to smooth over “the acrimonious relationship” between prosecutors and police.

A month later, Garza fired another prosecutor in the unit just weeks after hiring her, and a third resigned. The constant turnover in the unit forced Gilford to keep passing the dozens of police misconduct cases pending in the office from one prosecutor to another, frustrating victims and their attorneys.

To make matters worse, a longtime homicide detective, David Fugitt, publicly opposed a murder prosecution by Garza’s office. Fugitt said the actions of the defendant, a military sergeant who killed an armed protester during the 2020 demonstrations, were justified. In an affidavit, he also accused Garza of engaging in “criminal behavior” by limiting what Fugitt was allowed to testify to before a grand jury that might benefit the defendant.

“This is a dispute about the length of a PowerPoint presentation to the grand jury,” Strassburger said. “It is really disappointing that Detective Fugitt took that dispute and inferred bad faith on the part of experienced prosecutors.”

Fugitt’s accusations, which prosecutors termed “baseless,” were dismissed by a judge. But the episode further strained relations between Garza’s office and police as the homicide rate climbed.

If the frustrations were getting to Garza personally, he declined to discuss the issue in numerous interviews with The Post over several months. “Nobody gives a f--- about me or how I’m feeling personally,” he said once. “The bigger question is, what is it gonna take to get a police department up to the aspirations of the community?”

He said he was trying to develop a better relationship with law enforcement, proposing to meet with each division of the police department and handing out his business card to officers he sees in public.

During an interview in his sparsely decorated office, Garza pointed to a card in a frame on his desk. It was written by his mother, who died of cancer during his campaign for district attorney last year. It says, “I measure my success in life by your accomplishments. By that measure, I’m a very successful woman.”

“That note,” he said, “is a little bit of a reminder to me what’s at stake.”

‘Waging a war on police officers’

Austin police officers patrol the city’s busy Sixth Street nightlife stretch in November. (Photo by Spencer Selvidge for The Washington Post)
Austin police officers patrol the city’s busy Sixth Street nightlife stretch in November. (Photo by Spencer Selvidge for The Washington Post)

Since March 2020, the Travis County criminal courthouse — an 11-story building towering over farmhouse-style homes that serve mostly as lawyers’ offices — has been largely deserted because of the pandemic. Jury trials have only just resumed, and many pretrial hearings, conducted over Zoom, are live-streamed on YouTube.

But one part of the courthouse that has stayed busy is a small room on the first floor where people surrender for arrest. On the morning of Aug. 21, Casaday, the police union president, got an unexpected phone call asking him to get over there as soon as possible.

He had received word that Officers Christopher Taylor and Karl Krycia had been indicted on charges of murder and deadly conduct in the shooting of Mauris DeSilva in 2019.

DeSilva’s death had barely made the news at the time. A neighbor in DeSilva’s downtown Austin apartment complex had called police, noting that he appeared to be in crisis and was walking around carrying a knife. Austin police said that when the officers arrived and encountered DeSilva, he advanced toward them with the knife and ignored their commands to drop it. His family disputes the account. He was 46.

For Taylor, it was his second murder indictment.

Taylor and Krycia had returned to active duty weeks after the DeSilva shooting. In April 2020, Taylor fatally shot Michael Ramos, which led to his first indictment.

The officers’ indictments over DeSilva’s shooting were unexpected: The previous district attorney, Margaret Moore, had decided her office would not present the case to a grand jury. Gilford had explained that decision to DeSilva’s family members at the time, telling them that he did not believe jurors would determine the shooting was a crime.

DeSilva’s father had been devastated, his attorney recalled. “They gunned down my son like a dog,” he’d told Gilford. “And you’re not going to do anything about it.”

A USE OF FORCE EXAMINED

Fatal shooting of Mauris DeSilva, 46

Mauris DeSilva with his parents at his graduation. (Courtesy of Aspen J. Dunaway Law Firm)
Mauris DeSilva with his parents at his graduation. (Courtesy of Aspen J. Dunaway Law Firm)

On July 31, 2019, a neighbor of Mauris DeSilva’s called 911 to alert Austin police that he was walking around their apartment complex with a knife. The caller requested that police send an officer with mental health training, but none was dispatched.

But then Garza was elected, promising to take every case to a grand jury: Twelve residents of Travis County believed there was enough evidence to charge Taylor and Krycia with murder. Gilford had been proved wrong.

While Casaday waited at the courthouse, officials took Taylor’s mug shot, fingerprinted him, and he posted bail. Then Casaday and Taylor walked over to the law offices of Taylor’s defense attorneys for a news conference.

“Until now, we have refrained from accusing District Attorney Jose Garza of waging a war on police officers,” Taylor’s attorneys said in a statement. “After today’s two new murder indictments, we do not know how else to characterize what he is doing.”

Attorneys for Taylor and Krycia said both officers’ actions were justified.

In all, eleven current and former officers are awaiting their day in court.

“Take them to trial, and let’s just see what the community says,” said Parker, the East Austin pastor. “Yes, you will win some. Yes, you will lose some. But we still will find out where the community stands.”

John D. Harden in Washington contributed to this report.

About this story

Editing by David Fallis. Produced by Julie Vitkovskaya. Design and development by Jake Crump and Tara McCarty. Copy editing by Gilbert Dunkley. Photo editing by Robert Miller. Video production and editing by Sarah Hashemi, James Cornsilk and Angela Hill.

Neena Satija has been an investigative reporter for The Washington Post since January 2019. She was previously an investigative reporter and radio producer for the Texas Tribune and Reveal, a national radio show and podcast.