Austin, Texas – Jose Garcia ran for the post of district attorney in Austin on a promise to bring the police to justice in the capital of Texas. He quickly got started, charging at least seven officers for his first year in office, including one accused of murder twice.
But the case did not go deeper into the police department charges Thursday with 19 criminal officers for tactics used during racial injustice protests in 2020.
“Nineteen is, well, I don’t know anywhere else where that was done,” said Margaret Moore, Garza’s predecessor as Travis County Attorney General.
The indictments widened the gap in the thriving city between Austin police and Garza, a Democrat whose campaign in 2020 was backed by liberal allies, including U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, and promised repression against lawless misconduct.
By the end of Friday, all new accused officers had been placed on administrative leave, said Sol Gray, a spokesman for the department.
Garza said the allegations were not politically motivated and that “our community is safer if our community trusts law enforcement.” Public activists who have long criticized the city’s behavior with protests, including officers firing bullets at the crowdcalled the charges overdue and said Garza deserved respect.
But even allies on Friday were disappointed by the lack of details, which Garza said he could not publish yet. Garza announced during a news conference on Thursday that the indictments of the grand jury are expected, but he did not give specifics. And more than 24 hours later the names of the officers and the reasons for their accusations were not made public.
Texas law requires that charges be kept secret until an officer is arrested. Experts in criminal justice also expressed skepticism about the large number of indictments in one case and whether it would lead to a conviction.
Officer Justin Berry, a Republican nominee for the House of Representatives, said in a statement Saturday that he is one of the accused. He accused Garza of trying to influence voters with what he called a witch hunt.
“This case is out of place,” Berry said. “It demonizes the police, it does not value human protection and it harms our communities.”
Berry said an internal police investigation into the incident had released all officers and that there was no doubt that they would be acquitted.
Mayor Steve Adler said the city was under pressure to change its police culture and that he supported Garza. But he said he wanted details of the charges to be published as soon as possible.
“It’s a lot, and I want the public and everyone to know what caused it,” he said.
On Friday, Garza’s office rejected a request for an interview and said it still could not disclose details.
Several people who know the indictments told the Associated Press that the charges involve aggravated assault using deadly weapons. They spoke on condition of anonymity, as they had no right to discuss the case in public.
An accusation of aggravated assault by a civil servant may be punishable by life imprisonment.
Police Chief Joseph Chacon expressed frustration with the allegations, and police union leader Ken Kasade laid siege to Garza, saying he was trying to “fulfill a campaign promise” to accuse officers. Garza dismissed the criticism and stressed that his office also prosecuted 33 non-commissioned officers who took part in the 2020 protests.
Garza easily defeated Moore, who was incumbent president for one term, in a 2020 victory he credited with outrage over the justice system in Texas ’most liberal city. He was the head of the working group, the Workers’ Protection Project, and had not previously held public office.
Garza was among the few progressive prosecutors who took office that yearwhen the killings by police of George Floyd, Breona Taylor and others caused a national resonance due to the treatment of black people by law enforcement agencies.
“Officers who seriously injured dozens of people during the protest were literally out of responsibility,” said Chris Harris, political director of the Austin Coalition of Justice. “So that’s what was supposed to happen. And that’s why we are glad that Jose Garcia did something here. “
This is by far the largest number of accusations by officers of one U.S. police department for tactics used by law enforcement during the 2020 protests. Two Dallas officers have been charged about a heavy attack with deadly weapons and oppression, and a New York City police officer was charged with assault after pushing the woman to the ground. But despite widespread allegations of brutal or even illegal police tactics, several cities have filed charges.
Former U.S. Attorney Joe Brown, who also spent two decades as a Republican District Attorney in North Texas, said it is always difficult to convict a police officer and that Texas jurors tend to benefit officers.
“As far as I know, it’s really unprecedented,” Brown said. “To claim that there was criminal intent on the part of many police officers who acted in a chaotic and unpredictable environment and is supposed to be in line with the policy and the way they were trained is really great.”
Chacon stressed that his team had prepared officers for a clash with hundreds of people when thousands actually took part in protests, which he said were sometimes “rebellious and violent.” The Department of Austin with 1,640 officers serves a population of 960,000.
David Crump, a professor at the University of Houston Law Center and a former prosecutor, also said it is rare to see more than one officer charged together.
Stressing that the evidence needs to be seen, Trump drew a parallel between the Austin and those who were brought to Baltimore police in 2015 for the death of Freddie Gray. In this case, the newly elected Maryland Attorney General faced strong public pressure blaming six officers. After three trials, she did not receive zero sentences.
“It just looks like a shaky accusation that can go in any direction,” Crump said.
Blayberg reported from Dallas. Coronada is a member of the Associated Press / Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a non-profit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report open problems.
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