IssuesLocal NewsAustin Police Leadership Allowed Defective Bean Bag Rounds in 2020 Riots, Officers’ Attorney Claims

The officers are facing potential indictment for using department-issued munitions during the protests that became riots of 2020.
February 9, 2022
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Up to 18 Austin police officers are facing potential indictment for the use of less-lethal bean bag rounds during the protests, many of which became riots, in June 2020.

Officers used bean bag rounds, which have since been claimed to have been defective, as crowd control against the mass of people from which projectiles were thrown. Those projectiles included rocks and bottles of water, some filled with urine.

The running tally of cases being evaluated by the Travis County District Attorney Office’s Civil Rights Unit lists 12 separate incidents of alleged malpractice by the officers who used the bean bag rounds.

A bean bag round consists of a cluster of lead BBs encapsulated by a small fabric pillow that is fired from a 12-gauge shotgun. It is considered less lethal because the round is designed to spread the impact out across a larger surface area, reducing the trauma absorbed from the fired round. They are used as crowd control tools by departments across the country.

As part of its protocol, the Austin Police Department (APD) permitted the use of bean bag rounds before the 2020 incidents, but they were discontinued shortly after due to pressure from the city council and community activists.

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Under direction from their superiors, the officers in question fired the rounds striking individuals in the crowd.

Each of the complainants was injured in some way by the rounds. One, Justin Howell, was in intensive care for three weeks. His head struck the ground, causing brain trauma, after the bean bag round knocked him out cold and triggered a fall.  Others suffered vision loss, fractured and broken bones, and lacerations.

Doug O’Connell, an attorney for “several” of the officers under investigation, told The Texan “Garza is targeting these junior officers for something that is not their fault.”

O’Connell said that the bean bag rounds used during the 2020 riots had expired, something he said the department was aware of.

APD did not return an inquiry on that accusation.

He added that neither the officers nor members of the department’s Special Investigations Unit, which examined these incidents, are being brought in by Garza to testify in front of the grand jury.

“Garza is not giving fair treatment to these officers so he can make a show of getting the indictments, all on the taxpayer’s dime,” O’Connell added. The list of investigations, O’Connell said, continues to grow because adjudication has been slow due to the court’s COVID-19 restrictions.

Garza won the Travis County District Attorney election in 2020 promising increased prosecution of police and relaxing bail and sentencing policy for some crimes. Last May, Garza followed through on the latter goal when he adjusted office policy to emphasize less strict bail and sentencing pursuits for various felonious crimes.

These prosecutions fulfill the other campaign promise and have been a focus since Garza took office.

“There may well be a righteous personal injury case against the city, but there is no case here against the officers for criminal offenses,” O’Connell concluded.

Last week, the City of Austin decided to settle with a woman who was struck in the back of the head by a bean bag round during the event, paying out $150,000.

The grand jury is expected to rule sometime this month. Grand juries do not rule on guilt, only whether the facts put before them indicate a preponderance of the evidence suggests a crime is likely to have occurred.

Grand juries’ rate of indictment is near total, leading to the saying that “A grand jury could indict a ham sandwich.” Because the prosecutor —  in this case, the district attorney — controls what evidence is presented, contrary evidence is not brought forward until the trial after an indictment is issued.

Garza’s office declined to comment on the ongoing investigations.

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Brad Johnson

Brad Johnson is an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.