AUSTIN — At least 19 police officers in this state capital are facing criminal charges for allegedly using excessive force on protesters during the summer of 2020, according to their union president — an unusually high number that reflects District Attorney José Garza’s year-old effort to crack down on police misconduct.
Garza, who was elected in 2020 after promising to reform the criminal justice system, declined to reveal specifics of the indictments, saying he is prohibited by law from doing so until everyone charged has been served with an arrest warrant or turned themselves in to law enforcement.
Police union president Ken Casaday said he was aware of the indictments because the officers’ defense lawyers had been notified. Though the identities of most of the officers have not been made public, Casaday identified one of them as Justin Berry, a 13-year veteran of the department who is running as a Republican for a seat in the Texas House.
Few cities across the nation have seen so many of their police officers face criminal charges all at once; before Garza took office, fewer than half a dozen Austin officers had been indicted in the previous 20 years.
News of the charges widened the rift between police and prosecutors in Austin that has developed since Garza took office. Casaday called the indictments “an absolute disgrace.” In an unusual public rebuke of the district attorney, Austin Police Chief Joseph Chacon said that he was “disappointed” and that none of his officers had committed criminal conduct during the protests.
The demonstrations against police brutality that swept the nation in 2020 were especially heated in Austin, where police had fatally shot an unarmed Latino man named Michael Ramos just a month before George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis. City police fired “bean bag munitions” at protesters, which they described as nonlethal force. Dozens were severely injured, however, and the department soon banned the use of such munitions in crowd-control situations. Police union officials have said that department leaders, not individual officers, were to blame for failing to recognize that the munitions were defective.
Two of the injured protesters, both Black men, underwent emergency surgeries for a fractured skull and a fractured jaw, according to lawsuits they filed against the city and police. Austin officials recently agreed to pay them a combined $10 million to settle the cases. The most the city had ever previously paid to settle an excessive-force allegation against police was $3.25 million for the shooting death of an unarmed Black teenager in 2016.
It was not clear Friday whether the officers charged by Garza were involved in the conduct that resulted in the lawsuits. The Washington Post reached out to two defense lawyers who Casaday said were representing the indicted officers. Neither responded to a request for comment.
A member of the Democratic Socialists of America party, Garza won office in a landslide in 2020 with a platform that included a more aggressive approach toward police accountability. Local police reform advocates say he is getting results none of his predecessors achieved; the police union and other critics say he is jeopardizing the safety of 1 million city residents at a time when the homicide rate is spiking.
Garza has also publicly clashed with Austin police leadership over a number of issues, including the handling of high-profile murder investigations.
The tensions reflect similar situations elsewhere in the country: San Francisco’s liberal district attorney faces a recall election this summer, and in New York, the newly elected mayor and district attorney are feuding publicly over how to change law enforcement.
Austin’s divide was on full display Thursday during back-to-back news conferences. First, Garza announced that “multiple indictments” related to “disturbing” conduct during the 2020 protests would be forthcoming. “We believe many protesters injured by law enforcement officers during the protests were innocent bystanders,” he said.
Shortly afterward, the police chief took the lectern at the department’s downtown headquarters with a very different view.
“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. He called the conduct of protesters in the summer of 2020 “riotous and violent.”
The indictments, handed down by a grand jury whose proceedings by law are conducted in secret, are the first step in what could be a long journey for prosecutors and the defendants. Trials have largely been on pause for the last two years in the Austin region because of the coronavirus pandemic; several Austin police officers indicted under Garza last year in connection with the shooting death of Ramos and other use-of-force incidents are still awaiting their day in court.
Austin’s city manager, Spencer Cronk, a nonelected official who wields more power over the police department than the mayor, also spoke out against the 19 indictments Thursday.
“Any indictments will heighten the anxiety of our officers and will impact the staffing shortages we are experiencing,” Cronk said in a statement.
His comments incensed some local activists, including Chris Harris, policy director for the Austin Justice Coalition.
“Without these indictments, there would literally have been no accountability for the rampant police violence that occurred in Austin in the summer of 2020,” Harris said. He praised Garza “for doing what he said he was going to do, living up to his campaign promises. We’ve seen many folks in a similar position around the country not do that.”
Police reform in America
Repeated police misconduct: More than $1.5 billion has been spent to settle claims of police misconduct involving thousands of officers repeatedly accused of wrongdoing. Taxpayers are often in the dark.
Listen: “Broken Doors” is a six-part investigative podcast about how no-knock warrants are deployed in the American justice system — and what happens when accountability is flawed at every level.
Fatal Force: Since 2015, The Washington Post has logged every fatal shooting by an on-duty police officer in the United States. View our police shooting database.
Fired/Rehired: Police departments have had to take back hundreds of officers who were fired for misconduct and then rehired after arbitration.
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