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San Marcos settles lawsuit over law enforcement response to 2020 'Trump Train' incident

Colin McLaren, an advance staff member for the Biden-Harris campaign in Texas, speaks to Democrats at Vera Minter Park Wednesday in downtown Abilene on Oct. 28, 2020. Days later, the bus was involved in a highway altercation with Trump supporters.
 Ronald W. Erdrich
Reporter-News via Reuters
Colin McLaren, an advance staff member for the Biden-Harris campaign in Texas, speaks to Democrats at Vera Minter Park Wednesday in downtown Abilene on Oct. 28, 2020. Days later, the bus was involved in a highway altercation with Trump supporters.

San Marcos police officers and professional staff must receive training on responding to political violence and voter intimidation and ways to develop community trust as part of a legal settlement approved Tuesday over a 2020 incident in which a caravan of Trump supporters were accused of harassing a Biden campaign bus as it drove on Interstate 35.

The city will also pay $175,000 to four individuals on the bus: former state Sen. Wendy Davis, who was running for Congress at the time; former Biden campaign staffer David Gins; campaign volunteer Eric Cervini; and bus driver Timothy Holloway. They accused San Marcos law enforcement in a 2021 lawsuit of ignoring multiple requests for a police escort as they traveled on I-35 from San Antonio to Austin days before the 2020 presidential election. They said they were surrounded by the Trump supporters who allegedly drove dangerously close to the bus while honking and shouting, forcing it to slow to a crawl.

The San Marcos City Council discussed the lawsuit behind closed doors Tuesday. San Marcos Mayor Jane Hughson later publicly stated during a council meeting that council members had "given staff direction," on the lawsuit, but did not elaborate. City officials did not immediately respond to further questions Wednesday.

The Texas Tribune obtained a copy of the settlement Wednesday that was signed by the staff members named in the lawsuit and City Manager Stephanie Reyes. The officers named remain employed by the city. They are San Marcos police corporal Matthew Daenzer; Chase Stapp, San Marcos’ former director of public safety and current assistant city manager; and Brandon Winkenwerder, a an assistant police chief.

The lawsuit plaintiffs said law enforcement "turned a blind eye to the attack — despite pleas for help — and failed to provide the bus a police escort.” The lawsuit alleged that by refusing to help, law enforcement officers violated the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 because they were aware of “acts of violent political intimidation” but did not take appropriate steps to prevent the Trump supporters from intimidating eligible voters.

The Klan Act bars groups from joining together to obstruct free and fair federal elections by intimidating and injuring voters, or denying them the ability to engage in political speech.

“Our clients have achieved an important victory for free and fair elections by holding to account law enforcement who refuse to protect them from harassment,” said lawyer John Paredes, who represented some of the plaintiffs, in a statement. “We must be able to rely on law enforcement to protect the fundamental right of every American regardless of political beliefs, to support and advocate for the candidate of their choice and engage in the peaceful process of democracy.”

According to the settlement, the city is also required to issue a public statement within three days.

"While the City of San Marcos continues to deny many of the allegations in the lawsuit, the City of San Marcos Police Department’s response did not reflect the Department’s high standards for conduct and attention to duty," the statement reads, according to the settlement. "The City regrets that Mr. Cervini, Ms. Davis, Mr. Gins, and Mr. Holloway had this unfortunate experience while traveling through the City of San Marcos. Following this event, the City of San Marcos Police Department has been committed to improving its operations."

According to the settlement, police training must start by July 20, 2024 and attendance is mandatory. Any police department staff hired within 18 months of the training must also participate.

The confrontation between the Biden bus and the Trump supporters made national news after it was captured on video shortly before the 2020 presidential election. It involved at least one minor collision between a Biden volunteer and Trump supporter and led Texas Democrats to cancel three scheduled campaign events.

In the days after the incident, Trump praised his supporters’ behavior, which occurred months before the former president’s backers violently stormed the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to stop Congress from certifying the results of his reelection loss. The Klan law was also cited in the federal lawsuit against Trump after the Jan. 6 insurrection.

Throughout October 2020, a group of Trump supporters who documented their progress on social media, had followed the group throughout the Texas campaign. On Oct. 30, 2020, a social media user using the hashtag #TrumpTrainTexas posted on the social media platform X, then-known as Twitter, “Trolling is FUN.” The user called for other Trump supporters to “escort the Biden [bus] coming through San Antonio.”

Once they left San Antonio, dozens of trucks with Trump and American flags surrounded the bus, shouting and honking at it, and tried to slow it down. The campaign canceled an event in San Marcos and continued on to an event in Austin. But plaintiffs said they struggled to get police to respond as they continued north on I-35.

In one transcribed recording, Daenzer, a San Marcos police corporal on duty the day of the incident, refused to provide an escort when recommended by another jurisdiction.

“No, we’re not going to do it,” Daenzer told a 911 dispatcher, according to the amended filing. “We will ‘close patrol’ that, but we’re not going to escort a bus.

The lawsuit was originally filed in June 2021 against Stapp and the San Marcos city marshal’s department. A few months later, the plaintiffs filed an amended lawsuit that also named Daenzer, Winkenwerder, and the city itself.

The plaintiff’s lawyers included 911 transcripts in the updated lawsuit, showing that San Marcos police and 911 dispatchers fielded multiple requests for assistance from Democratic campaigners and bus passengers who said they feared for their safety from a pack of motorists, known as a “Trump Train,” allegedly driving in dangerously aggressive ways. The lawsuit also stated that San Marcos police continued to receive 911 calls from other witnesses warning them of reckless driving along I-35.

The amended filing also stated that law enforcement officers “privately laughed” and “joked about the victims and their distress.”

While Stapp, the then-public safety director, told the Biden supporter that San Marcos police would send backup, he did not order an escort. The complaint said he sent the information to Winkenwerder, the assistant police chief. Winkerwerder also did not order an escort or assistance, the complaint alleges. Instead, he told officers to “close patrol” the area near the university.

When the Biden bus entered San Marcos’ jurisdiction, a New Braunfels 911 dispatcher attempted to get San Marcos police to take over the escort that city had provided along the highway.

The 911 dispatcher in San Marcos put the New Braunfels dispatcher and the Biden campaign staffer who was pleading for assistance on hold and called Daenzer, the police supervisor on duty.

“I am so annoyed at New Braunfels for doing this to us,” the dispatcher tells Daenzer, who answered the call and began laughing, according to the transcribed recording in the filing. “They have their officers escorting this Biden bus, essentially, and the Trump Train is cutting in between vehicles and driving — being aggressive and slowing them down to like 20 or 30 miles per hour. And they want you guys to respond to help.”

“No, we’re not going to do it. We will ‘close patrol’ that, but we’re not going to escort a bus,” Daenzer responds.

The transcript shows that the 911 dispatcher passes along information about the sense of danger expressed by the Biden campaign staffer who called for assistance as he was trying to caravan behind the bus in a white SUV.

“[T]hey’re like really worked up over it and he’s like breathing hard and stuff, like, ‘they’re being really aggressive.’ Okay. Calm down,” she said to Daenzer.

The transcription shows that Daenzer said the Biden bus should “drive defensively and it’ll be great.”

“Or leave the train,” the 911 dispatcher responds. “There’s an idea.”

According to the transcription in the complaint, the dispatcher gets back on the phone with the Biden staffer and tells him there would be no escort.

“If you feel like you’re being threatened or your life is threatened, definitely call us back,” she told him.

“Are you kidding me, ma’am?” the staffer responded before saying “they’ve threatened my life on multiple occasions with vehicular collision” and again asking for an escort.

The dispatcher repeated that officers would be there to monitor traffic infractions, but said there would be no escort and indicated that decision was made by a high-ranking police official the lawsuit claims is Winkenwerder.

One of the plaintiffs, Cervini, alerted Cole Stapp, a deputy in the city marshal’s department who was at the campaign stop in San Marcos, that the event was canceled and told him the bus “could really use your help,” the filing stated.

When Cole Stapp called 911 dispatch to relay the message that the Biden event in San Marcos was canceled, he did not share that the bus needed help, according to another transcribed audio recording in the amended filing.

Instead, he told Cervini the people on the bus should call 911 if they needed emergency services. When Cervini informed him the bus had already called 911 and shared the bus’ exact location, Cole Stapp noted the bus was near the police headquarters, the filing states.

It wasn’t until the bus reached Kyle around 3:46 p.m. that a police escort from that city arrived and the Trump supporters moved away from the vehicle, the lawsuit alleges.

But when the Kyle police escort departed at the Travis County line, the filing stated, the trucks of Trump supporters “resumed their threatening behavior.” It wasn’t until the bus was able to make it to a campaign stop in Austin that those onboard were able to get off.

Cole Stapp left the department in November 2021.

Earlier this year, a federal judge sanctioned San Marcos for failing to preserve his phone and email records related to the incident. The plaintiffs had asked the judge to sanction the city for failing to preserve evidence from three people who no longer work for the city.

A magistrate judge ruled the city should’ve preserved the email account and cellphone for Cole Stapp, a former city deputy marshal and son of Chase Stapp who was named in the lawsuit, after he was served with a subpoena to testify. But the judge ultimately ruled that while the city was negligent, there was no evidence city officials did not maintain those records in “bad faith.”

In court documents, the city said the only evidence lost came from Cole Stapp’s deposition, where he described how he learned the campaign bus would be in San Marcos on Oct. 30, 2020.

The plaintiffs also filed a second lawsuit in 2021 against eight Trump supporters who they accused of participating in a “politically-motivated conspiracy” by closely following, honking at and slowing down the bus. Earlier this year, two of the eight defendants, Hannah Ceh and Kyle Kruger, settled in that case. The terms of that settlement were not made public, but Ceh and Kruger issued public apologies for their involvement in the incident.

The case against the other six remains pending.

From The Texas Tribune

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