Last week, Travis County District Attorney José Garza announced felony indictments against nineteen Austin police officers related to the riots during the summer of 2020. The charges carry prison sentences of five to ninety-nine years or life.
There are legitimate questions about what evidence was presented to the grand jury. To ensure public confidence in the process, the district attorney should step aside and ask the court to appoint a special prosecutor for these cases.
At a news conference last Thursday, Chief Joseph Chacon said, “I am not aware of any conduct that, given the circumstances that officers were working in, that would rise to the level of a criminal violation by these officers.” City Manager Spencer Cronk said criminal indictments of these officers are not the “correct outcome.”
Statements by some elected officials and media coverage ignore much of what happened nearly two years ago.
Mayor Steve Adler said, “No one should be injured merely exercising their constitutional rights.” Undoubtedly true, but the mayor doesn’t mention that in addition to peaceful protesters, police were faced with rioters assaulting them, attempting to breach headquarters, and blocking an interstate highway. Rioters attacked officers with asphyxiate- and paint-filled balloons, boards, frozen water bottles, rocks, smoke grenades, and other objects.
As far as we know, the tactics used by the officers were within department policy and state law.
These cases are not likely to reach trial for more than a year, given court backlog. Indicted officers are placed on administrative duty, which means they can’t perform law enforcement responsibilities. What damage has or will be done to their careers and reputations?
Since taking office last January, District Attorney José Garza’s actions have caused concern, such as refusing to take some felony cases to trial.
The district attorney’s office has lost at least nineteen prosecutors. Some who left cite dysfunction and questionable directives.
Garza and his first assistant district attorney have made prejudicial statements about prosecuting police officers, such as vowing to take all allegations of excessive force to the grand jury regardless of the evidence.
Garza’s office withheld evidence that would benefit a police officer in a case involving expert testimony about the justified use of force.
If these charges are unfounded, the community will hold the district attorney accountable. These indictments bring serious consequences. Police morale, recruiting, and staffing are already suffering.
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