Austin City Council presses APD chief on tactics used against protesters

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Photo Credit: Angela Wang | Daily Texan Staff

After several days of protests over police brutality, Austin Police Department Chief Brian Manley said “less lethal” pellet bags, which left at least one Austin protester in critical condition last weekend, will no longer be shot into crowds. 

The policy change came at a special City Council meeting held Thursday and Friday to discuss police tactics during demonstrations spurred by the deaths of George Floyd in Minnesota and Michael Ramos in Austin. During the meeting, council members heard from the police department, police oversight office and emergency medical services workers who tended to people injured by officers during the protests.

Manley said tear gas and “less lethal” weapons like pellet bags were used in response to protesters on Sunday who were throwing rocks and bottles at officers. The police chief said he is aware of eight injuries that occurred from pellet bags hitting protesters’ head or neck area last weekend. 

“We saw some horrific outcomes, outcomes that no one expected,” Manley said. “I have changed policy already and that tool is not allowed to be fired into crowds again. It is a tool that is meant for not indiscriminate use but instead use directed at an individual.”

Mayor Steve Adler and council member Greg Casar said they felt the weapons were not dispelled discriminately, citing a video of a protester standing on a hill alone who was struck by munition. By Friday afternoon, at least two council members, Casar and Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza, had called for Manley’s resignation.

“There was something that happened this weekend that didn’t feel like or look like Austin,” Adler said. “I’m glad that there’s a change in policy in respect to firing guns at Austinites that gather to protest … but the trouble in my heart goes beyond the specific analysis of these officers.”  

The Austin protests coincided with demonstrations across the country and in Texas over the death of Floyd, who was killed on May 25 in Minneapolis police custody after a white officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Ramos was shot and killed in late April by an Austin police officer, according to the Austin American-Statesman.

Ernesto Rodriguez, the Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services chief, said EMS received 53 calls for protest-related medical care over last weekend, and 11 people were sent to the hospital. He said his team responded to injuries such as an open skull fracture, a fractured jaw and broken ribs.

Manley said the weapons used at protests last weekend were approved tools for that circumstance, adding that investigations will look into the incidents that took place. APD has made 56 protest-related arrests since May 29, Manley said. 

Farah Muscadin, the director for the Office of Police Oversight for the City of Austin, said they had received 159 formal complaints to internal affairs between Monday and Thursday, which she called unprecedented. The office currently has 250 emails about the injury of Justin Howell, a 20-year-old Texas State student who was hit during the protest by “less lethal” ammunition and is currently in critical condition.

Council members also asked questions and raised concerns about Manley’s plans for protests this weekend and the protocols for “less lethal” weapons. Manley said police officers receive training for “less lethal” weapons once a year, but there has been no specific training to prepare the police force for interacting with protestors for this upcoming weekend. 

Council member Natasha Madison questioned the use of “less lethal” weapons now and not in other instances, such as when people protested lockdowns meant to curb the novel coronavirus. 

“Even during the course of this unprecedented series of events, we've watched, frankly, white people with guns behave badly and they don't get shot at,” Madison said. “I'm really just trying to figure out why it was appropriate to deploy that level of force. … I simply cannot, for one moment, understand why it was appropriate now and it hasn't been before.”