AUSTIN, Texas — As many as 21 Austin police officers face possible criminal charges stemming from actions in the 2020 George Floyd protests as a Travis County grand jury review of a dozen force incidents nears finality.
The KVUE Defenders and Senior Reporter Tony Plohetski, in partnership with the Austin American-Statesman, have learned that the review is expected to be completed by the end of the month, likely reigniting scrutiny on Austin police operations during the unprecedented protests following Floyd's murder in Minneapolis and the controversial shooting in Austin of Michael Ramos in April 2020.
It is not clear what charges the officers could face, and it is possible that grand jurors could issue indictments in some instances and not in others. They also could declare the uses of force justified and issue no indictments.
Travis County District Attorney Jose Garza declined to comment because of the ongoing grand jury review.
Austin Police Chief Joe Chacon also declined to comment "out of respect for the grand jury process."
The protests drew tens of thousands to Downtown Austin streets and led about three dozen people to be taken to the hospital during more than a week of protests.
The protestors suffered a range of injuries, including traumatic head wounds and broken bones, that they claim were the result of excessive force by Austin police officers.
They include Anthony Evans, who was 26 at the time.
“I started running, like jogging, and then turned my face, and as I turned, I got shot in the cheek," Evans told KVUE in June 2020. “We need to demand change. A lot of people have been silent for a long time.”
According to documents released by the Travis County District Attorney's Office, the cases under consideration by the grand jury focus almost exclusively on the use of "less lethal" bean bag rounds.
On Wednesday night, the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas (CLEAT) put out a statement, alleging the Austin Police Department management knew "or should have known" the bean bags fired were expired and defective.
"Austin Police Department leadership was repeatedly made aware of the bean bag issues and declined to take action and replace the defective bean bag rounds," CLEAT said.
The organization said it believes the officers firing the founds had zero decision-making authority over the manufacturing, purchasing, storage or deployment of any ammunition.
"These incidents are a clear indictment on the department leadership," CLEAT said. "We can damn sure guarantee you that if the officers knew the rounds were expired and defective, they would have never used them. No APD patrol officer has ever been expected to disassemble issued beanbag rounds or any type of ammunition themselves to gauge their usability. This was a responsibility of department leadership."
Attorneys Doug O'Connell and Ken Ervin, who represent several officers whose actions remain under review, said officers faced aggression that justified force against protestors including water bottles, rocks and other objects being thrown at them.
“If they see an individual who is throwing rocks, batteries, other objects and has a weapon, and if that person is presenting a danger, this is a round that is designed to impact the person – it does cause pain, it is going to get your attention and make you stop what you are doing, and yes, it is a lawful use,” Ervin said.
However, attorneys who are representing protestors, including Scott Hendler, say their clients did nothing to merit force being used on them.
“You consider the injuries sustained, and the fact that these young people were just expressing their voices to protest what they perceived was systemic police misconduct around the country, they were fired upon for no reason," he said.
In the 20 months since the protests, about a dozen plaintiffs have filed lawsuits against the City of Austin and individual officers.
Last week, the City settled its first case stemming from the protests, paying out $150,000.
As the grand jury review continues, legal experts told the KVUE Defenders that prosecutors and grand jurors may have difficulty sorting through what occurred during the volatile and crowded protests and will likely rely upon video and witnesses.
However, they said whether uses of force were justified will depend on whether officers felt they had to use force to defend themselves or someone else.
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