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Council opts to pursue settlements in police brutality suits, puts limit on legal spending

Tuesday, December 14, 2021 by Chad Swiatecki

City Council has chosen to pursue settlements in two lawsuits stemming from protests last summer outside the Austin Police Department headquarters.

Council last week unanimously approved two resolutions to cap legal spending on the cases brought by Justin Howell and Anthony Evans, who were injured due to police action in two separate incidents that occurred during the protests that were motivated by concerns over police brutality in other cities. Mayor Steve Adler was not present for the vote.

The city has hired the outside law firm of Richards Rodriguez & Skeith for representation in both of the lawsuits, and the resolutions authorize spending to the firm to amounts below what would be required for full discovery and other phases of going to trial, with the intention of reaching a settlement instead.

In the Howell case the legal costs are now limited to $249,000, while in the Edwards case the cap is $550,000. Council would have to authorize further spending increases if the law firm is unable to reach a settlement in either case.

Council Member Greg Casar said the best move for the city is to end the cases so the men involved can move on with their lives and the city can save some of the legal expenses that would come from a full trial process.

“In my view we need to do right by these injured young men and their families rather than spending resources fighting them in court,” he said. “These young Austinites deserve an apology and help with their medical expenses, and I believe that if we approve the item as laid out here it will encourage settlements of these lawsuits rather than continued litigation.”

Council members Pio Renteria, Alison Alter and Mackenzie Kelly expressed some concern over the move to make a settlement the city’s sole outcome of the suits. Alter said the spending amounts gave a clear limit on how far the defense team is supposed to proceed, but asked Casar for clarity on moving forward in a future executive session to discuss specifics of each case with legal staff.

“I’m wondering if there is a way to authorize those amounts today that you’re suggesting, then provide direction to the city manager to come back to us in January with a legal session and, as appropriate, find some resolution,” she said. “I would be more comfortable if we could find a way forward that … would allow us to get that information.”

Casar said an executive session held at the first Council meeting in January will give city leaders the chance to discuss the particulars of each case, potentially including possible settlement terms.

“This indicates that it would be our desire not to go to trial and instead to spend our limited resources helping these young people rather than fighting them in court. It would give us the opportunity to discuss next steps in executive session and we could make whatever decision we wanted about moving forward based on the facts and information that were delivered to us,” he said.

Speaking before discussion on the resolution, Emily Gerrick, policy director for the Texas Fair Defense Project, said Council members who spoke out last year against police brutality are making the right move by pursuing the settlements.

“There have been countless complaints of excessive force at protests that have gone unanswered, and the city needs to start providing support for all of the families who have been through the absolute worst trauma, terror, loss of abilities and even life for practicing their First Amendment rights,” she said. “Many of you spoke out against police brutality taking over a city, and yet there has been so little accountability from the department and city as a whole. Although this is happening later than preferred, this truly is a step toward accountability.”

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