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An Austin cop is charged with police misconduct. That might actually help his Texas House campaign.

Austin Police officer Justin Berry during a protest in front of Austin City Hall on May 31, 2020. Berry, who is running for the Texas House, is among 19 police officers indicted over officers' response to protestors in 2020.
Jordan Vonderhaar for The Texas Tribune
Austin Police officer Justin Berry during a protest in front of Austin City Hall on May 31, 2020. Berry, who is running for the Texas House, is among 19 police officers indicted over officers' response to protestors in 2020.

Republican Justin Berry’s Texas House campaign has centered largely on his 14-year tenure as an Austin police officer. He vows on his website to use that professional experience to “protect our neighborhoods, schools and private property.”

But less than two weeks before the March 1 GOP primary, Berry was among 19 Austin law enforcement officers indicted and accused of using excessive force on anti-police brutality protesters in 2020. Berry and law enforcement groups quickly pushed back on the development, which they portrayed as a political stunt from a Democratic district attorney who won office after promising to hold law enforcement accountable.

“The question is not how the prosecution will turn out,” Berry said in a statement late Friday. “We will be acquitted. The question is: When police are treated like this, who will want to become police officers?”

That messaging — and the indictments themselves — could spur Republican voters in the predominantly white and mostly Republican Central Texas district to back Berry, political experts and local Republicans say.

“It's rocket fuel to his campaign,” said Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University. “There's not a lot of sleep lost or concern over excessive use of force against demonstrators in Austin.”

A 2020 University of Texas / Texas Tribune poll conducted after that year’s protests against police brutality found a stark partisan and racial divide in whether voters had a favorable or unfavorable view of law enforcement. In that poll, 84% of Republicans had a favorable opinion of law enforcement, while only 30% of Democrats did. Among white voters, 69% had a favorable opinion, but only 33% of Black voters and 43% of Hispanic voters did.

Central Texas’ House District 19 largely covers suburbs and Hill Country towns west of Austin where 82% of eligible voters are white. The mostly Republican district was redrawn during last year’s redistricting process. Former President Donald Trump would have carried the district in 2020 by nearly 40 percentage points. That means the Republican nominee will likely beat the lone Democrat seeking the seat in the November general election.

"Republican primary voters are very pro-law enforcement,” said Travis County GOP Chair Matt Mackowiak. “And I think a lot of Republican primary voters are going to view these indictments as an outrage. So it could be the kind of thing that raises his profile, that gives him a cause to cite on the campaign trail to galvanize supporters. "

Protesters across the state and country flooded the streets for weeks in 2020 after a Minneaopolis police officer murdered George Floyd, a Black man. The protests divided Americans along partisan lines. Black Lives Matter supporters say the demonstrations were an outcry against police officers’ use of force on Black people, who are killed at disproportionately higher rates in police custody. But critics, including Republican officials across all levels of government, depicted the protests as violent and destructive uprisings.

In a statement late Friday, Berry echoed those GOP portrayals of the demonstrations as violent when he criticized Travis County District Attorney José Garza for pursuing the indictments.

“DA Garza promised in his campaign to go after law enforcement officials even when they are risking their lives protecting Austin from being burnt to the ground,” Berry said. “He is keeping that deadly promise.”

Garza announced the indictments at a press conference Thursday, but said his office was not disclosing details about the charges until individual officers are arrested and booked into jail. That means it’s not yet publicly known what crime or crimes Berry is accused of committing during the 2020 protests. A police union official said the officers face accusations of excessive force. Berry’s lawyer declined to comment until the indictment against his client is made public.

Austin Police Chief Joseph Chacon defended his officers this week. He and City Manager Spencer Cronk said they did not think officers should face criminal charges.

In announcing the indictments, Garza said many of the protesters injured were innocent bystanders. But Berry said Garza “demonizes police” and “demands that police abandon their oaths.”

Police said demonstrators threw bottles and rocks at officers, sometimes injuring them, damaging police cars and breaking into stores. But advocates and protesters expressed outrage over police officers turning to violent crowd-control measures, including bean bag rounds.

Cities and communities in Texas continue to grapple with the aggressive tactics that police waged against protesters that year. Police officers all over Texas and the nation have faced charges for how they dealt with protesters. Last week, the Dallas County district attorney's office issued warrants for two Dallas police officers’ arrest for their alleged use of force during the 2020 racial justice protests in that city.

The Austin indictments are among the highest tied to a single city’s police force in connection with the 2020 protests so far, according to the Associated Press.

Earlier Thursday, the Austin City Council unanimously approved a settlement with two demonstrators who suffered severe head injuries in 2020. Justin Howell will receive $8 million — the highest amount ever awarded in an excessive force case involving an Austin police officer, the Austin American-Statesman reported. Anthony Evans, another protester, will get $2 million.

Craig Murphy, a spokesperson for Berry’s campaign, said the Texas House candidate and the other officers followed orders, and expects the jury to find them not guilty.

“They did exactly what they were told to do with the tools they were given and with the training they were given,” Murphy said.

In the primary, Berry faces former Austin City Council member Ellen Troxclair, former legislative staffer Nubia Devine and military veteran Perla Hopkins. Devine declined to comment on the indictment. Hopkins and Troxclair did not respond to requests for comment.

According to the candidates’ Jan. 31 campaign finance reports, Troxclair had the financial edge heading into the primary’s homestretch. She had more than $412,000 cash on hand in January. Berry had more than $36,000, Devine had nearly $23,000, while Hopkins trailed behind with almost $2,300.

Democratic candidate Pam Baggett, whom the Republican nominee will face in November, said there is not enough information to determine how Berry was involved.

“We're going to have to wait and see what actually is the charge. We don't know yet,” Baggett said.

With the March 1 primary election less than two weeks away, The Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas executive director Charley Wilkison said the timing of the indictment was intended to drive voter turnout for “anti-police candidates.” The Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas has previously endorsed Berry.

The proceedings against Berry and the 18 other police officers could take months or years to resolve. Mackowiak said that creates uncertainty among voters, and could take Berry’s attention away from the campaign.

The scheduling of indictment proceedings against Berry was unusual, Mackowiak, the Travis County GOP chair, added.

“We don’t see candidates get indicted days before an election,” Mackowiak said. “In fact, generally, law enforcement, whether it's federal, state or local, bends over backwards not to indicate candidates around the time of an election because they want to appear apolitical.”

Reese Oxner and Joshua Fechter contributed to this story.

Disclosure: Southern Methodist University has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

From The Texas Tribune

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