Texas House Candidate Indicted for Excessive Force Amidst Early Voting

2020 protest
Police and protesters clashing at the Austin Police Department headquarters on May 30, 2020. | Image by Jay Janner / American-Statesman

Nineteen Austin Police officers were indicted by Travis County grand jurors on February 17 for their alleged use of excessive force during the 2020 protests that resulted from the death of George Floyd.

Republican candidate for the Texas House of Representatives, Officer Justin Berry, is among the officers indicted. However, the timing of the indictments, just two weeks before the March 1 Republican primary, has led to questions about the true motivations for the charges.

“This has nothing to do with justice, has nothing to do with any wrongdoing,” Berry told Fox News. “This is simply about politics and a political agenda that has taken place with these radical liberal district attorneys.”

Berry criticized Travis County District Attorney José Garza for pursuing the indictments now, when the alleged crimes had taken place in 2020.

“He’s had two years to go through and move forward with this, but he waits till right now, waits until a primary that’s taking place,” Berry said. “I’m not gonna be intimidated by that.”

Garza was elected into office in 2020 as a member of the Democratic Socialists of America party. A central tenet of his campaign was holding police officers accountable for misconduct.

Berry said Garza “demonizes police” and “demands that police abandon their oaths.”

“DA Garza promised in his campaign to go after law enforcement officials even when they are risking their lives protecting Austin from being burnt to the ground,” Berry said. “He is keeping that deadly promise.”

During the summer of 2020, thousands of people protested in the streets and highways of Austin after George Floyd’s death. Protesters clashed with the police on numerous occasions. Videos showed protesters throwing water bottles and rocks at police. Some officers were injured, and patrol cars were damaged.

Videos also showed police firing beanbag rounds into crowds of people, which seriously injured some protesters. The Austin City Council voted unanimously last week to pay $10 million to two protesters who were seriously injured by bean bag rounds.

According to the Austin American-Statesman, one of those injured, Justin Howell, will receive $8 million, the highest amount ever awarded in an excessive force case involving an Austin police officer. Howell suffered a cracked skull and brain damage after being hit by a beanbag round.

Anthony Evans, another protester whose jaw was fractured by a beanbag round, will get $2 million.

During the press conference announcing the indictments, Garza said that he believed many people injured during the protests were innocent bystanders. He also stated that some who suffered severe injuries would never recover.

“A thorough investigation was conducted before our office’s presentation to a grand jury,” Garza said. “The facts discovered in that presentation are disturbing.”

“Our community is safer when our community trusts enforcement,” he added. “There cannot be trust if there is no accountability when law enforcement breaks the law.”

Berry’s role in the police response to the protests is unclear. His campaign has focused on his 14-year career as an Austin police officer. His website states that he vows to “protect neighborhoods, schools, and private property.”

“We were responding to a riot,” Berry told Fox News. “People throwing Molotov cocktails at us, frozen water bottles, bottles filled with urine, bottles full of gasoline, and they were engaging in criminal activity by obstructing the passage road that goes to the main hospital.”

“Our actions were not unlawful by any means at all,” he added.

Berry and the other officers were charged with aggravated assault by a public servant, a first-degree felony when committed by a law enforcement officer. It is punishable by 5 to 99 years in prison or a fine of up to $10,000.

Both Austin police chief Joe Chacon and city manager Spencer Cronk said they did not think the officers should face criminal charges. Law enforcement groups have also criticized the indictments and their timing.

“I am not aware of any conduct that, given the circumstances that the officers were working under, would rise to the level of a criminal violation by these officers,” said Chacon.

“It is evident that these questionably timed charges are a continuation of DA Garza’s efforts to destabilize the criminal justice system in Travis County by his own personal agenda, rather than by any pursuit of justice,” said the Texas Municipal Police Association in a statement.

Charley Wilkison, executive director of the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, said the indictment’s timing was purposeful. He believes the intent was to increase voter turnout for “anti-police candidates.”

Austin Police Association President Kenneth Casaday said the union asked Garza to pause the indictments until after the March 1 primary.

“These officers did what they were told to do by their supervisors, and the DA indicted them for it,” Casaday added.

Republican Travis County Chairman Matt Mackowiak said the timing of the charges was unusual. He added that he believes it stirs uncertainty within voters and could force Berry to take his focus away from the campaign.

“We don’t see candidates get indicted days before an election,” Mackowiak said. “Generally, law enforcement, whether it’s federal, state or local, bends over backwards not to [indict] candidates around the time of an election because they want to appear apolitical.”

Still, some political experts and Republican officials predict that the indictments could motivate Republican voters to vote for Berry.

“Republican primary voters are very pro-law enforcement,” Mackowiak told The Texas Tribune. “I think a lot of Republican primary voters are going to view these indictments as an outrage. So it could be the kind of thing that raises his profile, that gives him a cause to cite on the campaign trail to galvanize supporters. “

“It’s rocket fuel to his campaign,” said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University. “There’s not a lot of sleep lost or concern over excessive use of force against demonstrators in Austin.”

Berry is one of four Republicans in the March 1 primary election for Texas House District 19, a district west of Austin that includes Fredericksburg, Boerne, and Burnet. The district is seen as a safe Republican district. Redrawn during last year’s redistricting process, Former President Donald Trump would have won the district in 2020 by almost 40 percentage points with the current configuration. This means that the Republican primary winner will almost assuredly win the seat.

Berry faces former Austin City Councilmember Ellen Troxclair, former legislative staffer Nubia Devine, and military veteran Perla Hopkins in the primary.

The cases for the indicted police officers could take months or even years to resolve.

Support our non-profit journalism

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Continue reading on the app
Expand article