Abbott says he may “exonerate” Austin cops accused of excessive force

by | Feb 23, 2022 | Law Enforcement, News

Gov. Greg Abbott is weighing in on the indictment of Austin police officers who were charged with aggravated assault by a public servant after using excessive force during the 2020 George Floyd protests.

“Those officers should be praised for their efforts, not prosecuted,” Abbott said in a Wednesday press release. “Time will tell whether the accusations against the courageous Austin police officers is a political sham. Time will also tell whether I, as Governor, must take action to exonerate any police officer unjustly prosecuted.”

Travis County District Attorney José Garza announced last week that a special grand jury would indict the officers. 

“Unlike the Governor, we believe that no one is above the law, and that our communities are safer when people see and believe that is true,” Garza said in a statement to the Signal. “In these cases, Austin police officers indiscriminately fired deadly weapons into crowds of people. Many of the people hit were innocent bystanders and they suffered severe and lasting injuries. Our investigation into this matter continues. Safety and accountability are our priority, not political talking points.”

Austin City Council recently approved a $10 million settlement for two demonstrators that were shot and injured at the protest with beanbags rounds. Though they were described as “less than lethal” the munitions fractured the skull of 20-year-old Justin Howell and caused brain damage.

A video shows fellow demonstrators carrying Howell to safety, only to be shot as they approach police headquarters where they were directed by law enforcement to seek medical attention.

Evans, 26, the other protestor who received a settlement from the city after being injured by police, was shot in the head while running away. 

In another highly publicized incident at time, officers shot a 16-year-old demonstrator in the head. Video prior to the shooting shows the teen unarmed and standing alone in the grass before being struck by a bean bag round (warning the following video is graphic).

Chris Harris, policy director for Austin Justice Coalition, the group that has been at the forefront of police reform in Austin, said Abbott’s statement and promise to exonerate the accused cops is a danger to constitutional rights. 

“Abbott’s statement threatening to pardon officers convicted for unjust violence against protestors in the summer of 2020 further diminishes our 1st amendment rights by asserting that the government can harm protestors without repercussion and by trying to scare us from protesting, but we are not afraid,” Harris said in an email. 

“People of color and other folks subjected to disproportionate police violence will also be harmed by those officers even more emboldened to use force against us,” Harris continued. “Coupled with his heartless announcement yesterday directing the state to punish those that provide health care, teach or otherwise care for trans children, it’s clear the governor views the criminal legal system in Texas primarily as a tool to be deployed against the vulnerable and his perceived political enemies, not an arbiter of truth and dispenser of justice in service of public safety. This strengthens our resolve to advance non-carceral alternatives to that system.”

At a press conference last week announcing the indictments, District Attorney Garza said his office believed many protesters injured by law enforcement officers during the protest were innocent bystanders.

“We also believe that the overwhelming majority of victims in the incidents that were investigated suffered significant and lasting injuries,” Garza said. “Those injuries include significant and serious injuries to the head, face and body. Some will never fully recover.”

Garza said that when law enforcement is held accountable, people are more likely to report crimes, act as witnesses, and not take the law into their own hands. “Our community is safer when our community trusts law enforcement, when it believes that law enforcement follows the law and protects the people who they serve,” he said.

Addressing accusations that the investigations against police were biased, Garza said his office had also prosecuted 33 cases against people who engaged in criminal conduct during the protest.

“Our office investigates and prosecutes any person who causes harm in our community, regardless of who causes it,” Garza said.

Photo: Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons

fernando@texassignal.com | + posts

Fernando covers Texas politics and government at the Texas Signal. Before joining the Signal, Fernando spent two years at the Houston Chronicle and previously interned at Houston’s NPR station News 88.7. He is a graduate of the University of Houston, Jack J. Valenti School of Communication, and enjoys reading, highlighting things, and arguing on social media. You can follow him on Twitter at @fernramirez93 or email at fernando@texassignal.com

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