Travis County district attorney race pivots to police officer accountability

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Candidates for the Travis County district attorney race entered their final month of campaigning for the July 14 runoff elections and have shifted the focus of their campaigns to criminal justice reform in response to ongoing protests against police brutality.

Incumbent Democrat Margaret Moore has said she wants to hold police officers accountable and increase sexual assault prosecutions, according to her reelection website. Democrat José Garza said he would shift the focus of the criminal justice system away from working-class people and people of color to help restore trust in the district attorney’s office, according to his campaign website. 

University Democrats President Alexandra Evans said the student organization endorsed Garza because of his progressive stance on criminal justice reform. Multiple UT alumni and Austin residents have attempted to sue Moore, claiming the district attorney’s office has not properly investigated sexual assault cases, according to previous reporting by The Daily Texan. A federal judge dismissed the class-action lawsuit in February. Evans said Moore’s handling of sexual assault cases was “heinous.”

“When you get involved in these local races … it's incredibly important that you use your voice,” said Evans, a Plan II sophomore. “It's a change that you're going to be able to see when you elect people locally … you can definitely see a change in local officials and electing local judges, district attorneys, etc. So it's very important to be involved, and it's very important to be aware.”

Jovita Pardo, senior consultant in Moore’s campaign, said the incumbent wants to help fight mass incarceration and ending cash bail.  

In 2017, Moore created the Civil Rights Unit of the Civil Rights Division in her office. The unit reviews whether or not cases of police brutality should proceed to a grand jury, where details of the case would remain confidential. If the unit decides the case cannot be prosecuted, its details are released to the public and it does not go to a grand jury. 

“She thought it's a little bit of a cop-out to say ‘Oh, well every case is going to go to a grand jury and it's not on my hands,’” Pardo said. 

In 2018, the Civil Rights Unit reviewed 15 cases of official misconduct and six cases of use of force, according to the Travis County District Attorney website. The office has not convicted any police officers in the last four years. 

Mike Ramos, who was shot and killed by an Austin Police Department officer in April, is still listed as part of a pending investigation on the district attorney’s website. Moore said she plans on sending Ramos’ case to a grand jury, according to reporting from The New York Times.

Garza said he would like to take all cases to a grand jury within 30 days. He said he would expand the scope of the Civil Rights Unit to include complaints filed against off-duty officers and plans to hire prosecutors with experience in prosecuting law enforcement.

“The district attorney has a responsibility to be a part of and to be responsive to the movement that we are seeing all across this country and right here in Travis County to reimagine our criminal justice system,” Garza said in an interview. “Part of that responsibility is helping to redefine our understanding of what public safety is. What public safety is, is stability, and we need a criminal justice system that prioritizes those things that keep us safe.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include details regarding the district attorney’s office handling of sexual assault cases.