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Gov. Greg Abbott floats pardons for Austin police officers charged with excessive force in 2020 protests

By Joshua Fechter, The Texas Tribune

Gov. Greg Abbott floats pardons for Austin police officers charged with excessive force in 2020 protests” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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Gov. Greg Abbott on Wednesday blasted the indictment of 19 Austin police officers on assault charges stemming from the May 2020 racial justice protests — and dangled the possibility of potential pardons for them.

“Those officers should be praised for their efforts, not prosecuted,” Abbott said in a statement. “Time will tell whether the accusations against the courageous Austin police officers is a political sham. Time will also tell whether I, as Governor, must take action to exonerate any police officer unjustly prosecuted.”

With Wednesday’s declaration, Abbott threatens to once more stomp on Austin-area officials’ efforts to reform policing in the Texas capital and signals that he’ll make it difficult for other cities that try to do the same — all while shoring up his pro-police bona fides with the state’s Republican base ahead of Tuesday’s primary.

“It’s just a show that has no meaning right now,” said Kathy Mitchell, policy coordinator for the criminal justice reform group Just Liberty. “He is displaying his ‘I’m going to back the blue no matter what’ colors.”

Abbott’s move also comes as the officers’ indictments have thrust the yearslong, rocky push for police reform in Austin into a more complex and uncertain chapter.

Local control over policing 

The indictments accuse the 19 officers — including Texas House candidate Justin Berry — of using deadly weapons to injure nearly a dozen demonstrators and threatening them with serious bodily harm during the May 2020 protests against police brutality that followed the deaths of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Michael Ramos in Austin.

Each officer faces two counts of aggravated assault, a first-degree felony when committed by a law enforcement officer — punishable by up to 99 years in prison, or a fine of up to $10,000.

Travis County District Attorney José Garza’s office, which brought the indictments, defended the decision to pursue charges against the officers.

“Unlike the Governor, we believe that no one is above the law, and that our communities are safer when people see and believe that is true,” the office said in a statement Wednesday.

Abbott rarely pardons people and can’t do so on a whim. The governor would need a majority of the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, a board appointed by Abbott, to approve any pardon issued by his office — and only after a conviction.

Abbott doesn’t always agree with pardon recommendations handed to him by the board. For months, the governor didn’t act on the board’s suggestion that he pardon Floyd posthumously for a 2004 drug conviction in Houston. The board took back the recommendation in December.

Criminal justice and political experts see Abbott’s gesture Wednesday as an attempt to use his pardon powers for political posturing and a way to plant a flag on a wedge issue.

“It’s rare that governors will use the pardon power in an overtly political way,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. “It was never used as a kind of political wedge.”

Abbott’s move could also foreshadow that the state’s unabashedly pro-police GOP lawmakers won’t make it easy for the state’s most liberal hub to chart a largely untraveled path on police reform.

After the Austin City Council voted in 2020 to redirect part of its police budget to other city agencies in the wake of the protests, Abbott and state Republican lawmakers pounced, passing a law that would punish large cities that cut their police spending by forbidding them from raising property taxes. The Austin City Council later reversed course.

Texas Republicans have historically clashed with the Travis County District Attorney’s office, which for decades housed a unit aimed at prosecuting lawmakers for public corruption until then-Gov. Rick Perry defunded the agency.

Some Republican leaders and lawmakers have already started to bash Garza over the indictments.

“I support the cops that Garza wants to destroy,” Attorney General Ken Paxton wrote in a tweet. “They deserve the presumption of innocence until proven guilty.”

U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, whose district includes Austin, said the officers were “politically targeted by a radical leftist district attorney” and called on the Texas Legislature to “immediately step up and ensure that the capital city of the state of Texas is secure and is not a breeding ground for political corruption and targeting.”

“Very difficult to convict police officers”

Austin officials and activists sought to revamp the city’s police department in the wake of the police killings of Ramos in Austin and Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020. That November, Travis County voters elected a new district attorney — Garza, the former executive director of the Workers Defense Project who vowed to use the office to pursue greater police accountability.

Almost two years later, Garza has made what observers and police reform advocates called an ambitious gambit: spearheading the indictment of 19 police officers in connection with alleged violent acts during the 2020 protests that left several with critical injuries, including fractured skulls and jaws as well as brain damage.

No other police force in the country has seen as many officers charged in connection with the 2020 protests. Two Dallas police officers face charges stemming from accusations of excessive use-of-force during the demonstrations in that city. A former Philadelphia police officer was charged for beating a student with a baton. And a New York police officer was charged after shoving a woman to the ground.

For Austin activists, the indictments are a welcome change.

“All that’s happening now is that we hired a district attorney who ran on ‘I’m going to prosecute the cases as they come in,’” said Mitchell, with Just Liberty. “And he has done so.”

Chris Harris, policy director at the criminal justice reform group Austin Justice Coalition, said Austin residents signaled that they want to see more police accountability when they elected Garza. He noted that a Travis County jury in December awarded the family of a 24-year-old man gunned down by Austin police a whopping $67 million settlement.

“It’s just very clear that Austinites have no appetite for, no tolerance for police violence and want to see officers held accountable,” Harris said.

Austinites tend to believe that police officers are “not above the law, and can’t treat civilians any way they want to just because they’re a cop,” said David Butts, a longtime political consultant who helped elected Austin Mayor Steve Adler and his predecessor Lee Leffingwell. But at the same time, they don’t want to see police become a “punching bag,” he said.

“I would say that the majority of citizens of Austin recognize the need for the police,” Butts said. “They are not anti-police. They do believe that the idea that police can do no wrong is not true — and if they do wrong in any kind of serious way, they have to be held accountable for it.”

Legal experts believe it will be an uphill battle for Travis County prosecutors to get convictions for any of the 19 officers. It’s not easy for prosecutors to convince juries — typically sympathetic to police — that an officer acted with criminal intent because they have much wider latitude than civilians to use violent force, they said.

“It’s very difficult to convict police officers who are in the wrong,” said Howard Henderson, founding director of the Center for Justice Research at Texas Southern University. “It just almost never happens. They’re given so much deference.”

Prosecutors in most cities are wary of pursuing charges against police officers because they rely on those officers to pursue convictions against alleged criminals. It’s likely that Garza’s move will worsen existing tensions between his office and the Austin Police Department.

“I think even a lot of progressive prosecutors know that they have to have a really good working relationship with the police to be able to do their job in virtually every other context,” said Lauren Bonds, legal director for the National Police Accountability Project. “I think there’s just kind of a disincentive for a lot of prosecutors to rock the boat in that fashion.”

Despite the yearning for more accountability, local police reform advocates have expressed mixed feelings about the indictments.

“I’m just finding myself having difficulty feeling like this is anything extraordinary. It isn’t,” Mitchell said. “This is how the system is supposed to work. It just has never done so. And so it seems extraordinary.”

Staff writer Sneha Dey contributed to this report.

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