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Crime & Justice

Abbott says he could pardon Austin police officers if they're convicted over 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.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott floated possible pardons for Austin police officers accused of aggravated assault during the 2020 protests over racial justice and police killings.

Abbott released a statement Wednesday calling Travis County District Attorney José Garza's investigation into the 19 officers a "political sham," suggesting he could use his executive powers to pardon them, if convicted.

The officers face felony charges related to their use of force during the May 2020 protests outside APD headquarters and on I-35 in downtown Austin. Eighteen of the charges were related to injuries resulting from police use of "less lethal" beanbag rounds — lead-pellet bags fired from shotguns. One case involved an officer firing a foam-tipped projectile from a 40-mm launcher.

In his statement, Abbott said the police "should be praised ... not prosecuted" and that many were injured during protests that summer.

"Time will tell whether the accusations against the courageous Austin police officers is a political sham," he said. "Time will also tell whether I, as Governor, must take action to exonerate any police officer unjustly prosecuted."

The Texas Criminal Code would allow Abbott to pardon the officers if they were convicted, but it would have to be approved by the state’s Board of Pardons and Paroles.

The officers were charged by a grand jury last week. All of them face aggravated assault charges, which, under state law, are boosted to a first-degree felony if the accused is an on-duty police officer.

Abbott also decried Austin's efforts to reduce police funding, a target of state lawmakers last year. He suggested decreased funding led to the city's record-high murder rate in 2021.

While the argument comes as Abbott is in the home stretch of a contested primary race for the Republican nomination for governor, he's not the first to characterize Democratic District Attorney Garza's prosecution of police as politically motivated.

Justin Berry, one of the indicted officers, is running for a Texas House seat that includes stretches of western Travis County. Shortly after he was booked and released on bond Friday, he called the DA's investigation Garza's "continued war on police" — adding that he was cleared by APD's special investigations unit.

Attorneys representing Berry and a handful of other indicted officers said Monday they intend to take the cases to a jury trial.

The City of Austin and APD currently face 14 civil lawsuits over the use of the ammunition, which hospitalized at least 19 people over a two-day period in May 2020. Surgeons at an Austin trauma center a few blocks north of the protests said the beanbag rounds fractured patients' skulls, penetrated a patient's chest cavity and became lodged in one patient's jaw.

Austin City Council on Thursday approved an $8 million settlement with Justin Howell and a $2 million settlement with Anthony Evans, who were both severely injured by police during the protests.

Garza told reporters last week that his office's investigation into the use of these "less-lethal" rounds is ongoing.

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