DA drops most charges against Austin police officers accused of excessive force in 2020 protests

Demonstrators gather outside Austin Police headquarters for another night of protest against police violence towards people of color, in Austin on June 4, 2020.
Demonstrators gathered outside Austin Police headquarters to protest against law enforcement violence toward people of color on June 4, 2020. Credit: Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune

The Travis County district attorney dismissed criminal charges against a majority of Austin police officers accused of excessive force during May 2020 protests over police brutality and social justice, the office announced Monday afternoon.

Instead of pursuing those charges, District Attorney José Garza also announced his office and the city of Austin have requested the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division investigate the police response to the protests. Garza was elected months after the 2020 protests on a platform to hold police accountable for abuse.

Of the 21 police officers charged with aggravated assault during the 2020 protests, 17 officers have been cleared of charges, according to the Austin American-Statesman, who first reported the development.

“These announcements will allow police officers, whose lives were upended by the indictments, to return to their services to our community,” Austin Mayor Kirk Watson said in a statement Monday. “And the request for a targeted third-party performance review is meant to enhance transparency for our community and inform future actions as we continue our focus on building respect and trust for our police.”

Garza told the Statesman that in the two years since his office has investigated the Austin Police Department, “systemic change is really necessary to make sure this never happens again in our community.” An investigation by the Department of Justice was the best way to achieve that, Garza said.

In April 2020, Austin police officer Christopher Taylor shot and killed Michael Ramos, who was Black and Hispanic. One month later, a white Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd, setting off months of civil unrest and demonstrations against police brutality toward people of color. Ramos became the face of Black Lives Matter protests in Austin.

Garza’s effort to charge Taylor with murder ended in a mistrial, the second time this year, after the jury deliberated for four days last month, but could not agree if the Austin police officer murdered Ramos.

Those protests, during which 21 officers were accused of using excessive force, resulted in a traumatic brain injury and broken bones after police used less-lethal munitions such as bean bag rounds and rubber bullets. The city has since paid protestors more than $18 million in civil lawsuits. There are eight civil lawsuits pending, according to the letter sent to the Department of Justice.

Since then, the city stopped the use of less lethal shotgun munitions and cycled through two police chiefs.

Garza and Watson requested the federal government conduct a “pattern-or-practice” investigation into the Austin police’s response to demonstrations that took place May 30 and 31, when a number of protestors were injured by bean bag rounds in an effort to “control crowds and protect property.”

The Justice Department declined to comment on The Texas Tribune’s inquiry as to whether the federal agency would launch an investigation Monday evening.

The district attorney’s office said it would continue prosecuting four of the original 21 Austin police officers, but it was not clear Monday evening which individuals were still under indictment.