Texas House candidate Justin Berry is among Austin officers indicted on excessive force charges, union president says

Justin Berry is running for Texas House District 19. (Social Media, Social Media)

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Republican Texas House candidate Justin Berry was among 19 Austin police officers indicted Thursday and accused of using excessive force during 2020 protests, Austin Police Association president Kenneth Casaday told The Texas Tribune.

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The indictments, which have not yet been made publicly available, stem from the 2020 protests in Austin after a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd, an unarmed Black man. In Austin, protesters were also spurred by the local police killing of Michael Ramos, an unarmed Black and Hispanic man, which took place a month before Floyd’s murder. The officer, Christopher Taylor, has been charged with murder.

Berry’s attorney declined to confirm or deny his indictment Thursday, and it is unknown what specifically prompted his indictment. The cases against the Austin officers could take months or years to resolve. The Austin American-Statesman first reported that Berry was among those indicted.

Berry is one of four Republicans seeking the GOP nomination in the March 1 primary election for Texas House District 19, a district west of Austin that includes Fredericksburg, Boerne and Burnet. It was not immediately clear how the indictment would affect his campaign.

The district’s boundaries were redrawn during the redistricting process last year. The seat is currently held by state Rep. James White, a Hillister Republican, who isn’t seeking reelection because he is challenging Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller next month.

During the summer of 2020, thousands of people flooded Austin streets and highways during Black Lives Matter protests, leading to clashes with police officers that turned violent. Videos from protests showed protesters lobbing water bottles at police, and officers firing bean bag rounds into large crowds. Police reported rocks were thrown at them, and patrol cars were damaged.

While Berry’s role in the police response is unclear, Austin officers grievously wounded at least several people after shooting them with the “less lethal” ammunition in the head, including a 20-year-old Black man police said was not their intended target after a nearby man tossed a water bottle and backpack up toward steps where police were in formation. Video showed a 16-year-old Hispanic boy collapsing to the ground after police fired a bean bag bullet at him while he was standing alone near the freeway.

The violent police tactics during the protests against police violence were heavily criticized. Also on Thursday, the city of Austin agreed to a $10 million settlement with two men shot by police with bean bag rounds, including the 20-year-old.

The number of officers indicted is among the highest tied to a single city’s police force in connection with the 2020 protests so far, according to the Associated Press.

Austin Police Chief Joseph Chacon defended the actions of his officers in a press conference following the indictments Thursday. Chacon said his officers were overwhelmed by crowds that were often “riotous and violent.”

In his own press conference Thursday, Travis County District Attorney José Garza said that he believed many people injured during the protests were innocent bystanders and that some people who suffered serious injuries will never recover.

In 2020, Garza won his election as DA on a platform that included holding law enforcement officials accountable.

Casaday, who said he is a friend of Berry and was present with the indicted officers Thursday, joined Chacon and police backers in decrying the move.

Casaday accused Garza of trying to score political points, and the union is asking him to pause the indictments until after the March 1 primary.

“These officers did what they were told to do by their supervisors, and the DA indicted them for it,” Casaday said.

Jolie McCullough and Reese Oxner contributed reporting.

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