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Chacon says police were 'underprepared' for May 2020 protests

Police point weapons at people getting off the highway.
Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon
/
KUT
Austin police clear demonstrators from I-35 near police headquarters on May 30, 2020. The demonstrators took over the highway during a protest of the police killings of George Floyd and Mike Ramos.

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The Austin Police Department wasn’t ready for the massive protests on I-35 and outside police headquarters in May 2020, APD Chief Joseph Chacon said Friday.

“I think that we had never faced anything of this scale. We were prepared for something that would have been much lower in scope,” he said at a news conference to announce the findings of an internal report. “We’re the state capital, we deal — particularly in the summer and then during legislative sessions — with protests every weekend. We were underprepared for this event without a doubt.”

The long-awaited report detailed the police department’s response to the protests following the police killings of George Floyd and Mike Ramos. The report outlines 17 points of improvement that Chacon said the department has been working toward since the protests.

The city has paid out more than $15 million in settlements so far in lawsuits related to police response to the protests, and 19 officers have been indicted on charges of using excessive force.

Officers' use of lead-pellet-filled rounds fired from shotguns seriously injured scores of protesters, and Chacon's predecessor, Brian Manley, swore off using them to control crowds shortly after the demonstrations.

Chacon has maintained the beanbag rounds, considered "less lethal" munitions, were defective and didn't function properly when deployed. On Friday, he said the department will use so-called pepper ball rounds as a replacement. Those are paintballs filled with a substance similar to pepper spray.

APD and the Office of Police Oversight were flooded with complaints in the wake of the protests. APD's after-action report said the department acted quickly to address those, setting up a dedicated task force to determine which should be reviewed by the department's internal affairs office or its special investigation unit.

In the two weeks surrounding the protests, APD staff fielded just over 1,000 "response-to-resistance" reports, which are filed internally whenever an officer uses significant force.

The report said just 16 of those were submitted for internal review or investigation, and suggested the process for documenting and investigating use-of-force could be more consistent. APD said it has created a dedicated unit to make the review process more "cohesive" and "objective."

The report also suggested police command could have better communicated orders to officers working the protests. APD says it has since embraced a system that better cements the roles of everyone within the chain of command. The report said APD has adopted a system that makes roles clear to officers responding or to commanders in APD headquarters.

"There were instances when managers did not know if they had the authority to issue orders or to authorize actions due to lack of familiarity with the ... model," the report reads. "In other instances, requests for information and requests to submit information were sent to wrong locations."

Chacon said Friday the report was initially ready last spring, but that Manley's departure and his own hiring stalled its release.

Read the report below.

Andrew Weber is a general assignment reporter for KUT, focusing on criminal justice, policing, courts and homelessness in Austin and Travis County. Got a tip? You can email him at aweber@kut.org. Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.
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