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Police brutality in Texas

Texas police using tear gas and rubber bullets on protesters incites more violence, experts say

Organizers and protesters say the use of force by police during protests in Texas cities highlights the underlying discord between law enforcement and residents that underpinned the protests in the first place.

Police fire tear gas and rubber bullets at several demonstrators in Austin on May 31, 2020.

As tens of thousands of Texans took to the streets over the past five days to protest police brutality against black people after the death of George Floyd, police departments in the state’s largest cities brought varying levels of force to bear on the protesters.

In Austin, police officers repeatedly fired “less-lethal” ammunition, like bean bag rounds, and tear gas canisters into crowds of protesters. The shots critically injured at least one man, who police say was not their intended target, and sent more to the hospital.

Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo instructed officers Friday not to use tear gas or rubber bullets to disperse growing crowds in Floyd’s hometown. During days of protests, however, his officers used pepper spray and arrested protesters, and video captured a protester trampled by an officer on horseback. The person's identity and condition are not known.

Dallas police have said publicly that they fired tear gas to disperse large crowds, but local media also reported officers shooting rubber pellets, injuring both a bystander and protesters over the weekend, with one man losing his eye. And on Monday, they kenneled a large group of protesters on a bridge, leading to mass arrests.

Law enforcement officials defended the use of force, pointing to steady reports of people throwing bottles and rocks at officers, sometimes injuring them, damaging police cars and breaking into stores. Some cited the need to fend off agitators coming in from outside the region to wreak havoc, an assertion yet unproven.

But protesters are furious that police used violent tactics against their own communities. And organizers have condemned actions they say injure residents and could incite crowds rather than deescalate tension. The show of force, they argue, heightens fear and anger and highlights the underlying discord between police and residents that underpinned the protests in the first place.

Floyd, a black man, was killed in police custody last week after a white Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, kneeled on his neck until and after he had lost consciousness. Chauvin and three other officers on the scene were fired, and Chauvin has been arrested on charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. The state's attorney general is planning to increase his charge to second-degree murder and charge the three other officers, according to U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.

Since Floyd’s death, protests have erupted across the nation against the latest high-profile case of lethal police force used on a black person. As Texas police watched police cars and buildings burn in other states, officials had to decide how many officers to deploy and what to equip them with in their own cities’ protests.

In many major Texas cities, protesters were met by police in riot gear, with shields, helmets and batons. As some protests sparked violence and vandalism, local news outlets and social media posts captured bloodshot eyes and bruised, bloodied protesters and bystanders, a few grievously wounded at the hands of police.

“I think [law enforcement] has to do more, and we should expect them to do more. That’s why people are protesting,” said Chas Moore, an Austin organizer involved with organizing at least one of the protests over the weekend. “I don’t in the least bit think that they tried to get creative in how they can deescalate tensions.”

Police shootings are typically the instant decisions of one or more officers on scene.

But as protests such as the ones following Floyd’s death take hold, police chiefs and their top aides decide ahead of time how they will dispatch their forces, the weapons they can carry and their instructions on use of force.

Such tactical decisions are made on a case-by-case basis, police say, based on what they are hearing and what they anticipate. They know forceful crowd-control methods, like rubber bullets or tear gas, mean bystanders could get hurt.

“When you start dispersing crowd tools … bystanders are going to get the gas,” said Mike Gentry, a retired Texas police chief and training director for the Texas Police Chiefs Association. “There’s no clean way, absolutely perfect way to deal with an unclean, imperfect scenario.”

People hold a bean bag shell, a canister and a rubber bullet during a protest over the killing of George Floyd by police in …

But, he added, "most of the crowd control methodologies that we see in movies, most of those are prohibited. … Most policies don’t allow the use of individual less-than-lethal weapons in crowd contexts." A study detailed in Kaiser Health News showed that 3% of people hit by less-lethal rubber bullets were killed. Their use in protests around the world has sparked outrage, and an online petition created after Floyd’s death has hundreds of thousands of people calling to ban the projectiles as a crowd control measure.

Brian Higgins, a former New Jersey police chief and crowd control expert who teaches at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said less-lethal ammunition, like bean bag rounds, is less precise and should be a last resort in a crowd. If used, he said, it should be shot at a person’s lower body.

“You never fire at the head with this ammunition. Never,” Higgins said.

On Monday, Austin police Chief Brian Manley reported that two people protesting over the weekend were shot in their heads with bean bag rounds. Rubber bullets were also on the ground after the city’s protests. Manley said one of the protesters hit, a 20-year-old black man, was in the hospital “fighting for his life.” The officer who fired was aiming for someone else, he said.

In Dallas, a black man protesting who said he was hit by a rubber bullet lost his eye, Fox 4 reported.

The Dallas Morning News said the police used rubber pellets over the weekend, reporting that a woman walking home from the grocery store Saturday evening, uninvolved in the protests, was also apparently shot in the face by such a pellet.

Dallas police Chief Reneé Hall said her department used tear gas at a Friday protest, defending the decision as a way to disperse “very large crowds” while causing “minimal injury.”

“We’re not talking about protesters. We’re talking about criminals,” she said at a Saturday news conference, referencing those who destroyed property.

On Friday night, at the corner of South Griffin and Young streets, Hall said her team had to “protect the officers as well as our property,” as two police cars were set on fire. Dallas instituted a curfew mandating that people stay indoors in certain neighborhoods from 7 p.m. to 6 a.m., under penalty of arrest.

But two protesters who attended Friday and Saturday Dallas marches told The Texas Tribune they saw the police escalate their response before the demonstrators did, firing tear gas onto a diverse crowd, sometimes without warning. And in the days since, activists have criticized media and officials for focusing on vandalism and break-ins when most protesters have been peaceful, according to the Morning News.

“They started tear gassing, hitting everyone with rubber bullets. Even though people were throwing water bottles … they were empty water bottles being thrown at people wearing armor,” said Jennifer Miller, co-chair of the Dallas Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, which organized Saturday afternoon’s protest. “The protesters did not come in armor.”

Decades of research on protests has shown that deploying police in riot gear and using methods like tear gas often incite violence instead of preventing it, according to a report by The Marshall Project. Scott Bowman, an associate criminal justice professor at Texas State University, said the visual of riot gear is often part of what the protesters are protesting.

“It’s the idea or perception that … that’s the manner in which police interact with citizens … that are perceived as dangerous,” he said. “Part of the concern being that not always but more often than not, that’s how young African American males are viewed.”

Gentry said he understands why people’s perception shifts to escalation when officers show up in helmets, shields and batons, but he argues the protective gear can also reduce the chances of an officer reacting to protesters’ actions with force.

“If I’m not wearing it, I’m injured more easily, I have to escalate more easily,” he said. “I can take a bottle or a rock thrown at me if I’m geared for it.”

But protective gear did not preclude Austin police from firing less-lethal rounds into a crowd Saturday from the stairs of their police building.

“The police are very savvy in how to frame their action in a way that makes it seem as if they are not engaging in excessive uses of force,” said Christen Smith, an associate professor of African and African diaspora studies and anthropology and director of the Center for Women and Gender Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. “But if we actually break down what's going on — tear-gassing peaceful protesters, cornering peaceful protesters so that they can be pepper sprayed, Macing peaceful protesters, shooting rubber bullets in crowds — these things are harmful, and they are excessive whether or not they are lethal.”

Houston was the sole major Texas city where police officers did not use tear gas or rubber bullets, after receiving instruction from Acevedo. According to department spokespeople, they did, however, use pepper spray after protests escalated.

Floyd, who died at age 46, had spent most of his life in Houston’s historically black Third Ward neighborhood after moving to the city as a child, according to a Houston Chronicle profile. He moved to Minneapolis a few years ago looking for work. His body will be returned to Houston in the coming days for burial.

The Houston Police Department’s use of pepper spray continued Tuesday night “in moderation,” according to a spokesperson, when a march memorializing Floyd reportedly saw roughly 60,000 people. And while there were reports of tear gas at the march, department spokesperson Kese Smith told the Tribune on Wednesday that officers did not deploy any of it.

“[Acevedo] has publicly stated and reiterated multiple times that the use of tear gas or rubber bullets is something that will have to be directly authorized by him, or, in his absence, the two executive assistant chiefs,” Smith said.

Across the state, it remains unclear days after the protests exactly who was responsible for the physical destruction to buildings, roads and vehicles. Some organizers and officials alike suggest outside agitators were the driving force behind the damage — a familiar line that has proved overstated after past uprisings. Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson said Tuesday that most of those arrested in his city were not from Dallas, but data shows the vast majority were from the metropolitan area.

State and federal leaders, too, have escalated their response to the protests. On Saturday and Sunday, Abbott activated the state’s National Guard, declared a state of disaster, and sent state troopers to Dallas, Houston, Austin and San Antonio, even authorizing federal agents to act as Texas peace officers during the protests.

“We must promote peaceful protest and also promote criminal justice reform that promotes justice for all, but at the same time, we must protect our communities from criminal looting and property destruction,” Abbott said. “There is a way that we can come together and support the family and friends and community of George Floyd and protest against what people dislike about this country, without ripping communities apart."

After reporting that his officers injured multiple protesters, Manley, the Austin police chief, said that law enforcement’s primary focus over the weekend had been “protecting peaceful free speech and giving people the space to come out and express their concerns” — and that certain criteria defined by the department had been met before officers began using tear gas and bean bag rounds.

But Moore, the activist who serves as executive director and founder of the Austin Justice Coalition, said he thought the department could have used different tactics in an attempt to deescalate the violence. Moore had organized a protest for Sunday but canceled hours before it was set to begin, citing concerns over black protesters’ safety.

Protesters still showed up, including Moore, gathering on Capitol grounds before eventually heading back to Interstate 35. Moore said he saw protesters trying to talk with officers to no avail. They looked like they were “trying to talk to a wall,” he said.

“This whole moment we’re in right now is about people feeling heard,” Moore said.

Naomi Andu contributed to this report.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin and Texas State University have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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