Texas Prosecutor Drops Charges Against 17 Austin Police Over Tactics Used During 2020 Protests

FILE - Demonstrators face members of the Austin Police Department as they gather in downtown Austin, Texas, June 4, 2020, to protest the death of George Floyd. A Texas prosecutor whose office oversaw indictments of more than 20 police officers in Austin over tactics used during the 2020 protests that followed Floyd's killing said Monday, Dec. 4, 2023, that he was dropping most of the cases and would ask the Justice Department to investigate instead. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)
FILE - Demonstrators face members of the Austin Police Department as they gather in downtown Austin, Texas, June 4, 2020, to protest the death of George Floyd. A Texas prosecutor whose office oversaw indictments of more than 20 police officers in Austin over tactics used during the 2020 protests that followed Floyd's killing said Monday, Dec. 4, 2023, that he was dropping most of the cases and would ask the Justice Department to investigate instead. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)
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AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — A Texas prosecutor whose office oversaw indictments against more than 20 Austin police officers for tactics used during the 2020 protests that followed George Floyd's killing said Monday he was dropping most of the cases and would ask the Justice Department to investigate instead.

The announcement is a sharp reversal for Travis County District Attorney Jose Garza, a progressive who was elected months after the protests and ran on promises to hold police accountable in the Texas capital. Garza, a Democrat, said his office would dismiss indictments against 17 officers but still move forward with prosecuting four others.

The slate of felony charges were by far the most indictments of officers from a single U.S. police department following nationwide protests in 2020 over racial injustice and police brutality. Some Austin police officers fired beanbag rounds in the crowd, critically injuring one teenager.

"This has been a difficult chapter for Austin. I look forward to turning the page. These announcements will allow police officers, whose lives were upended by the indictments, to return to their services to our community,” said Austin Mayor Kirk Watson, a Democrat who was not in office at the time of the protests.

In a statement, Garza did not explain why he was deciding now to drop most of the cases. Many of the officers were indicted in February 2022, none had gone to trial and Republican Gov. Greg Abbott had floated the idea of pardons after the charges were handed down by a grand jury.

Garza said his office “would continue to hold law enforcement who break the law accountable." In a letter to the Justice Department, Garza asked prosecutors to review Austin police’s use of force for crowd control during the protests.

Ken Ervin, an attorney who represents nine officers whose charges will be dismissed, called the indictments a “combination of politics and incompetence.”

“Mr. Garza has not really taken the chance to educate himself on police tactics,” Ervin said. "Maybe he’s finally done that.”

Despite widespread claims of heavy-handed or even illegal police tactics across the U.S. following the 2020 protests, few cities pursued charges. Two Dallas officers faced charges of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and official oppression, and a New York police officer was charged with assault after shoving a woman to the ground.

In October, a former Minneapolis police officer was sentenced to 15 days in the county workhouse, with eligibility for electronic home monitoring, after pleading guilty to assaulting a Black man during the unrest that followed Floyd's murder.

The City of Austin has paid out more than $18 million to settle lawsuits brought by protesters injured during the protests, including a college student who suffered brain damage after an officer shot him with a beanbag round. Eight other lawsuits are still pending, according to the city.

Austin Police Association President Michael Bullock said prosecutors had yet to prove any case where any officer committed wrongdoing.

“Our officers were faced with incredible and unprecedented challenges. In those extremely difficult times they acted within the law and upheld their oath to keep our city safe,” Bullock said.

The indictments widened the rift in Austin between police and Garza, whose 2020 campaign was backed by liberal allies including U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders and promised crackdowns on misconduct by law enforcement.

Garza was among a handful of progressive prosecutors who won office in 2020, when the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others sparked a national outcry over law enforcement’s treatment of Black people. He said the charges in Austin were not politically driven and emphasized that his office prosecuted more than 30 non-officers who also participated in the protests.

The announcement by Garza comes weeks after a mistrial was declared in a high-profile trial involving an Austin police officer who was charged with murder in the death of Michael Ramos, who was unarmed and shot as he tried to drive away from police who were attempting to arrest him in April 2020. The case was prosecuted by Garza's office and ended after jurors were unable to reach a verdict.

Weeks after Ramos' death, demonstrators in Austin invoked his name when they took to the streets to protest the killing of Floyd.