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Local groups call on Justice Department to investigate APD's use of excessive force

An Austin police officer in a dark blue uniform and wearing a face shield holds a weapon  during a protest in front of Austin City Hall on May 31, 2020.
Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon
KUT News
Austin Police have promised to stop using the so-called "less lethal" beanbag rounds.

A group of local organizations has asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the Austin Police Department's alleged pattern of violating residents' constitutional rights.

In a letter sent to the DOJ on Feb. 22, the groups point to police officers' use of excessive force and the "less lethal" ammunition used during the 2020 racial justice protests.

"Austin’s current approach to law enforcement results in a pattern of unnecessarily aggressive and unlawful policing; a toxic culture that reinforces fear, hostility, and harmful stereotypes of communities police are supposed to serve — including people who are Black, Brown, experiencing homelessness, have a disability, and other vulnerable communities; and a culture of impunity," the letter said.

It was signed by the Austin Area Urban League, Austin Community Law Center, Austin Justice Coalition, Austin NAACP, Equity Action and American Civil Liberties Union of Texas. In December, Mayor Kirk Watson, Travis County District Attorney José Garza, and U.S. Reps. Greg Casar and Lloyd Doggett made a similar call to investigate the police department's actions during the 2020 protests.

Yasmine Smith, vice president of justice and advocacy for the Austin Area Urban League, told KUT the request is about addressing what she calls longstanding systemic deficiencies within the department.

“This call for an investigation is not to put shame upon individuals who wear that badge with dignity and honor,” she said. “This is about a system of patterns and practices over decades and decades that have hurt vulnerable populations.”

She said it's about coming together to ensure the safety of everyone in Austin.

A report published earlier this month by the Austin American-Statesman found that APD higher-ups knew the beanbag rounds used during the 2020 protests were dangerous. The so-called "less lethal" ammunition contains lead pellets and is fired from a 12-gauge shotgun. More than a dozen demonstrators were seriously injured by the projectiles, including a 16-year-old boy who sustained brain damage.

The Austin Police Department had promised to stop using the rounds on crowds, but months later the city quietly restocked the ammunition, according to an investigation by KUT and The Trace.

The Travis County District Attorney's Office pursued assault charges against 21 officers for using the beanbag rounds, but in December charges were dropped against 17 of those officers.

Smith told KUT the group hopes an investigation will shed light on the issues and hold decision makers accountable for their actions.

The Austin Area Urban League, Equity Action, the Austin Justice Coalition and other organizations have spent years fighting for police reform, including support for civilian police oversight.

“This is a call out for us to evolve,” Smith said. “Not for us to shame. Not for us to argue. But for us to come together to ensure the safety of our streets.”

Luz Moreno-Lozano is the Austin City Hall reporter at KUT. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on X @LuzMorenoLozano.
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