Travis County District Attorney José Garza announced Feb. 17 that his office expects multiple indictments of Austin law enforcement officers will be coming in the next few days following a grand jury investigation into the police response to city protests in May 2020.

Details of the special grand jury proceedings leading up to the possible indictments are not yet public. However, Garza said an investigation into the actions of Austin Police Department officers during the racial justice and police accountability protests uncovered "disturbing" facts about the use of force on civilians that could have "serious repercussions" for the community.

"We believe many protestors injured by law enforcement officers during the protests were innocent bystanders. We also believe that the overwhelming majority of victims in incidents that were investigated suffered significant and lasting injuries. Those injuries include significant and serious injuries to the head, face and body. Some will never fully recover," Garza said during a Feb. 17 press conference.

In a separate press conference following Garza's announcement, APD Chief Joseph Chacon pushed back on the statements from the district attorney's office. Flanked by police and city leadership, Chacon said he does not believe any actions by officers during the 2020 protests rose to a criminal level and credited police for dealing with a chaotic situation police leadership had underestimated.

"Officers were prepared for hundreds when instead they faced thousands, placing them in potentially the worst possible circumstances to manage escalating crowds," Chacon said. "While certainly not every moment of the protests could be classified as a ‘riot,’ there were significant portions of times that the crowds were riotous and violent."

Austin police and city leaders gathered to respond to Garza's announcement Feb. 17. (Screenshot via Austin Police Department)

He said officers were, in many cases, simply trying to protect themselves and protestors while handling weapons that did not always function as intended. He added that "less-lethal" ammunition that allegedly injured and disfigured many in attendance is now banned for crowd control under department policy.

"As we go through this process, I have been and remain supportive of the hardworking men and women of the Austin Police Department. I also want to re-emphasize my commitment to transparency and the rebuilding of trust between APD and the community," Chacon said. "I’m extremely disappointed in today’s announcement and will be waiting to hear further details from the district attorney’s office.”

Other legal action

Garza's announcement came hours after Austin City Council voted to spend $10 million on settlements of two cases brought against the city by attendees at the 2020 protests alleging "brutal and excessive force" by APD officers. The suits from Justin Howell and Anthony Evans said the unarmed plaintiffs were struck by potentially lethal projectiles in the head and face, respectively, breaking Evans' jaw and leaving Howell with a traumatic brain injury.

Council's latest settlement vote came just two weeks after city officials approved settling a similar complaint brought by plaintiff Arianna Chavez for $150,000. Chavez said an APD officer shot her in the back of the head with a projectile leading her to suffer a "serious head wound."

City Manager Spencer Cronk said that, while city officials wished the protests had not resulted in injuries, Austin is seeking to compensate those affected and is also disappointed with Garza's office's move.

"Any indictments will heighten the anxiety of our officers and will impact the staffing shortages we are experiencing. We are disappointed to be in this position, and we do not believe that criminal indictments of the officers working under very difficult circumstances is the correct outcome," Cronk said in a statement.

During his Feb. 17 statement, Garza also pushed back on "nonsense" claims that his office is targeting police actions during the protests while letting others off the hook. Garza said the county has already prosecuted 33 cases for criminal conduct during the events of spring 2020, and that the potential indictments stem from a desire to hold all in the community accountable.

"Our community is safer when our community trusts law enforcement, when it believes that law enforcement follows the law and protects the people who live here. When the community does not believe that that is true, it is less likely to report crime. People are less likely to act as witnesses. People are more likely to take the law into their own hands," he said.