Texas put hundreds of hours into finding and arresting police brutality protesters. Lawyers call it a “witch hunt.”
Two days of unruly protests at the Texas Capitol in May left graffiti on the historic building and cuts and bruises on state police officers. Since then, the Texas Department of Public Safety has spent the summer naming and arresting suspects, the majority of whom are accused of misdemeanors.
Nearly a month after Keegan Godsey attended an unruly protest against police brutality at the Texas Capitol in May, state police officers arrested the 23 year old at gunpoint while he was getting into a car in Austin, his lawyer said.
He’s accused of spray painting the doors of the historic building.
More than a month after that, Texas Department of Public Safety officers showed up at the home of Jordan Teal’s grandmother, guns drawn, and interrogated the 18 year old’s relatives, his attorney said.
State police believe he threw a water bottle at an officer during the May protest.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick indicated this week that without intervention from the state’s law enforcement agency, the Austin protests would have turned into unfettered chaos. DPS Director Steven McCraw, the state’s top cop, said days after the unrest in May that “violent extremists” who exploited the protests to cause destruction would be pursued.
Since then, DPS has arrested more than a dozen Texans as part of its highly publicized, resource-laden investigation into the Capitol protests. Special agents have spent hundreds of hours this summer poring through social media posts, surveillance footage and YouTube videos to identify protesters they believed engaged in criminal activity, the agency said. The department has also publicly announced arrests and repeatedly offered up to $1,000 in cash for the public’s help in naming the often-masked Capitol protesters seen in grainy screenshots investigators pull from compiled footage.
But protesters’ attorneys call the DPS probe an unparalleled political “witch hunt” against protesters in which the state’s police force is using tactics far too aggressive for the suspected crimes. Several have argued the reaction is an attempt to distract the public from recently heightened criticism of American law enforcement’s use of force against Black people and instead bolster the perception of officers as protectors.
“I think it’s completely fucking absurd that they’re wasting time and energy to be tracking down kids with petty misdemeanors to throw them back in jail during COVID,” said Austin defense attorney Carl Guthrie. “If anyone has any ideas that politics don’t affect policing, I hope that … gets put away.”
The majority of the 14 people DPS says have been jailed as part of the investigation so far are suspected of only misdemeanor crimes, like pushing onto closed Capitol grounds or tossing water out of a bottle onto an officer, according to DPS press releases and arrest affidavits. But some are facing felony charges and years behind bars for allegedly kicking the door panel of a police SUV or hitting an officer with a tossed water bottle.
Most are accused of participating in a riot. And some were arrested multiple times for actions during the same protest, with new warrants issued weeks or months after initial arrests and police taking people from their cars and homes and putting them back into jail. Nearly half of the arrestees are Black. Almost all are in their teens or early 20s, according to DPS releases and court records. At least one other DPS case has already been rejected by prosecutors.
DPS reported 11 officers were injured with cuts and bruises from assaults during Capitol protests that weekend, and tens of thousands of dollars worth of property damage was done. The agency dismissed accusations against the department in an email to The Texas Tribune Wednesday, saying there was no indication of officer misconduct or complaints filed. The agency said descriptions of arrests and interrogations told by defense attorneys and protesters were “riddled with inaccuracies or completely false.” No further specifics were given by Friday afternoon when asked about falsehoods.
“Those who were arrested were not peaceful protestors; they were engaged in various types of crimes – some of them felonies – that jeopardized the safety of citizens and officers,” the statement said. “Anyone who attacks the state Capitol or the DPS Troopers who are sworn to protect it will be investigated, charged and arrested when there is sufficient evidence to do so.”
The weekend after the May 25 death of George Floyd, a Black man who died after a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck long after he lost consciousness, protests across Texas and the nation erupted in a revived movement against police brutality and racial injustice. In Austin, the demonstrations were also propelled by the April death of Mike Ramos, an unarmed Black and Hispanic man who was fatally shot by Austin police as he drove away from officers.
One such protest moved to the Texas Capitol in Austin on May 30. Protester and media recordings show people spray painted the building and monuments with anti-racist and anti-police remarks, dented and smashed windows of DPS SUVs, overturned a water fountain and roughly shoved at least one trooper to the ground. Another trooper tackled a fleeing teenager, prompting a scuffle between officers and protesters.
A few blocks away that same weekend, Austin police officers seriously injured two nonviolent protesters — a 20-year-old Black man and 16-year-old Hispanic boy — after shooting them in the heads with bean bag rounds. The shootings intensified criticism of Austin police, and the rising community backlash eventually prompted the Austin City Council last week to cut its police budget, largely through plans to move some departments out from under law enforcement oversight.
The move by the progressive council further widened a long-running divide between Austin’s elected officials, who see a need for substantial changes to a criminal justice system whose officers disproportionately use force against people of color, and state leaders, who fear that pulling resources from law enforcement will endanger public safety.