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Anticipating election protests, Council members ask Austin police how they plan to avoid injuries

Friday, October 30, 2020 by Audrey McGlinchy, KUT

Four City Council members sent a letter Thursday to the chief of police asking him to explain how he plans to keep protesters safe during anticipated demonstrations following the results of the presidential election next week.

“As we’re sure you agree, what happened at previous Austin protests this year represented a failure to keep people safe,” Council members Greg Casar, Jimmy Flannigan, Delia Garza and Natasha Harper-Madison wrote in a letter to Police Chief Brian Manley.

“We request updates on how, under your leadership, APD will maintain an environment where free speech and assembly are not only tolerated, but welcomed, without injury either to the public or our own public servants,” the members said.

During protests in late May, Austin police seriously injured at least two people after shooting lead pellet-filled bags, also called beanbag rounds, and other so-called less-lethal munition at protesters; APD is currently investigating 10 incidents where police allegedly injured demonstrators. Local doctors say these bullets caused serious injuries, including brain bleeds, and one patient remained in the hospital for 23 days before being discharged to a rehab center.

In response, Manley said police would no longer shoot lead pellet-filled bags into crowds. Council members went a step further, passing a resolution in June asking APD to ban the use of any less-lethal ammunition and tear gas during protests.

In their letter, Council members ask Manley for an update on whether he’s decided to adopt these bans and any changes he’s made to how officers will be trained to handle potential demonstrations.

“Please provide relevant current updates on how these changes are being implemented from the resolution, updates on other changes you have made to address training and equipment, and what guarantees the harm caused at these protests by our own department will not happen again,” the Council members wrote.

In a press conference on Oct. 13, APD Assistant Chief Joseph Chacon said the department would be on “tactical alert” during the week of the election. He explained that every officer would be in uniform and ready to respond to protests, but did not say anything more.

“(E)very officer regardless of where they work will be in uniform and will have their equipment and be ready to respond wherever necessary if a protest or some kind of unrest that were to become unlawful were to occur,” Chacon said.

Council members also asked Manley to detail how he plans to handle extremist groups that may join the protests, citing the case of a self-described member of the Boogaloo Bois whom APD released after stopping him for a traffic violation.

“People in Austin should be able to demonstrate peacefully, without fear that they will be hurt by anyone,” the letter reads. “We all recognize the important social justice movement we are in right now and want to ensure the safety of everyone, both residents and officers, is a priority for you.”

Council members have asked Manley to respond to their letter by Tuesday, Election Day. APD said Manley was out of town until next week and would respond then.

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT.

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