Prosecutor ran to change Austin ahead of police charges

AUSTIN, Texas — Jose Garza has run for district attorney in Austin promising to hold police accountable in the Texas capital. He got off to a fast start, indicting at least seven officers in his first year on the job, including one charged with murder twice.

But no case has penetrated deeper into the police department than Thursday’s indictments of 19 officers charged with felonies over tactics used during the 2020 racial injustice protests.

“Nineteen is, phew, I don’t know of any other place that’s done this,” said Margaret Moore, Garza’s predecessor as Travis County District Attorney.

The indictments deepened the rift in the burgeoning city between Austin police and Garza, a Democrat whose 2020 campaign has been backed by liberal allies including U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, and has vowed to repress the faults committed by the forces of order.

As of Friday evening, all of the newly charged officers had been placed on administrative leave, said Saul Gray, a department spokesman.

Garza said the indictments were not politically motivated and that “our community is safer when our community trusts law enforcement.” Community activists who have long criticized the city’s handling of protests, which included officers firing beanbag bullets into crowds, called the indictments a delay and said Garza deserved credit.

But even Friday’s allies were frustrated by the lack of details, which Garza said he was unable to release yet. Garza announced at a press conference Thursday that grand jury indictments were expected, but he gave no details. And more than 24 hours later, the names of the officers and the reasons for which they were charged had not been made public.

Texas law requires an indictment to remain secret until an officer has been arrested. Criminal justice experts have also expressed skepticism about the large number of indictments in a case and whether it would result in convictions.

Officer Justin Berry, a Republican candidate for a State House seat, said in a statement on Saturday that he was among those charged. He lambasted Garza for trying to sway voters with what he called a witch hunt.

“This case is more than absurd,” Berry said. “He demonizes the police, he doesn’t value people’s safety and he harms our communities.”

Berry said an internal police investigation into the incident had cleared all officers and there was no doubt they would be acquitted.

Mayor Steve Adler said there has been pressure on the city to change police culture and that he supports Garza. But he said he wanted details of the indictments made public as soon as possible.

“It’s a big number and I can’t wait for the public and everyone to know what gave rise to this,” he said.

Garza’s office declined an interview request on Friday and said it was still unable to release details.

Several people familiar with the indictments told The Associated Press that the charges included aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the case publicly.

Charges of aggravated assault, when committed by a public official, can carry a sentence of up to life in prison.

Police Chief Joseph Chacon expressed disappointment with the charges and police union chief Ken Casaday blasted Garza, saying he was trying to “keep up with an election promise” to indict officers. Garza brushed off that criticism and pointed out that his office had also prosecuted 33 non-commissioned officers involved in the 2020 protests.

Garza handily beat out of office Moore in a 2020 win he attributed to outrage against the justice system in Texas’ most liberal city. He had been the head of a workers’ group, the Workers Defense Project, and had never held public office before.

Garza was among a handful of progressive prosecutors who were elected that year, when the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others sparked a national outcry over the treatment of black people by security forces. order.

“There was literally no accountability for the officers who seriously injured dozens of people during the protest,” said Chris Harris, director of policy for the Austin Justice Coalition. “So it’s something that had to happen. And so we’re happy that Jose Garza is here and has done something.

This is by far the most charges by officers from a single U.S. police department for tactics applied by law enforcement during the 2020 protests. Two Dallas officers are charged with assault serious with a deadly weapon and official oppression, and a New York police officer has been charged with assault after pushing a woman to the ground. But despite widespread allegations of brutal or even illegal police tactics, few cities have filed complaints.

Former U.S. attorney Joe Brown, who also spent two decades as a Republican district attorney in North Texas, said convicting a police officer is always difficult and Texas juries tend to award police the benefit of the doubt.

“It’s truly unprecedented, to my knowledge,” Brown said. “To allege that there was criminal intent on the part of so many police officers, who operated in a chaotic and unpredictable environment and supposedly in accordance with policy and the way they were trained, is truly remarkable.”

Chacon pointed out that his staff had prepared officers to face hundreds of people as thousands showed up for demonstrations that he described as sometimes “riotous and violent”. The Austin Department, which has 1,640 officers, serves a population of 960,000 people.

David Crump, a professor at the University of Houston Law Center and a former prosecutor, also said it was rare to see more than one officer charged together.

While emphasizing that the evidence must be seen, Crump drew a parallel between the charges brought in Austin and those brought against Baltimore police in the 2015 death of Freddie Gray. In that case, a newly elected Maryland prosecutor, faced with intense public pressure, charged six officers. After three trials, she got no convictions.

“It looks like some kind of dodgy indictment that could go either way,” Crump said.

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Bleiberg reported from Dallas. Coronado is a member of the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places reporters in local newsrooms to report on underreported issues.

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