Texas put hundreds of hours into finding and arresting police brutality protesters. Lawyers call it a “witch hunt."
Two days of unruly protests at the Texas Capitol in May left graffiti on the historic building and cuts and bruises on state police officers. Since then, the Texas Department of Public Safety has spent the summer naming and arresting suspects, the majority of whom are accused of misdemeanors.
* Editor's note: This story contains explicit language.
Nearly a month after Keegan Godsey attended an unruly protest against police brutality at the Texas Capitol in May, state police officers arrested the 23 year old at gunpoint while he was getting into a car in Austin, his lawyer said.
He’s accused of spray painting the doors of the historic building.
More than a month after that, Texas Department of Public Safety officers showed up at the home of Jordan Teal’s grandmother, guns drawn, and interrogated the 18 year old’s relatives, his attorney said.
State police believe he threw a water bottle at an officer during the May protest.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick indicated this week that without intervention from the state’s law enforcement agency, the Austin protests would have turned into unfettered chaos. DPS Director Steven McCraw, the state’s top cop, said days after the unrest in May that “violent extremists” who exploited the protests to cause destruction would be pursued.
Since then, DPS has arrested more than a dozen Texans as part of its highly publicized, resource-laden investigation into the Capitol protests. Special agents have spent hundreds of hours this summer poring through social media posts, surveillance footage and YouTube videos to identify protesters they believed engaged in criminal activity, the agency said. The department has also publicly announced arrests and repeatedly offered up to $1,000 in cash for the public’s help in naming the often-masked Capitol protesters seen in grainy screenshots investigators pull from compiled footage.
But protesters’ attorneys call the DPS probe an unparalleled political “witch hunt” against protesters in which the state’s police force is using tactics far too aggressive for the suspected crimes. Several have argued the reaction is an attempt to distract the public from recently heightened criticism of American law enforcement’s use of force against Black people and instead bolster the perception of officers as protectors.
“I think it’s completely fucking absurd that they’re wasting time and energy to be tracking down kids with petty misdemeanors to throw them back in jail during COVID,” said Austin defense attorney Carl Guthrie. “If anyone has any ideas that politics don’t affect policing, I hope that ... gets put away.”
The majority of the 14 people DPS says have been jailed as part of the investigation so far are suspected of only misdemeanor crimes, like pushing onto closed Capitol grounds or tossing water out of a bottle onto an officer, according to DPS press releases and arrest affidavits. But some are facing felony charges and years behind bars for allegedly kicking the door panel of a police SUV or hitting an officer with a tossed water bottle.
Most are accused of participating in a riot. And some were arrested multiple times for actions during the same protest, with new warrants issued weeks or months after initial arrests and police taking people from their cars and homes and putting them back into jail. Nearly half of the arrestees are Black. Almost all are in their teens or early 20s, according to DPS releases and court records. At least one other DPS case has already been rejected by prosecutors.
DPS reported 11 officers were injured with cuts and bruises from assaults during Capitol protests that weekend, and tens of thousands of dollars worth of property damage was done. The agency dismissed accusations against the department in an email to The Texas Tribune Wednesday, saying there was no indication of officer misconduct or complaints filed. The agency said descriptions of arrests and interrogations told by defense attorneys and protesters were “riddled with inaccuracies or completely false.” No further specifics were given by Friday afternoon when asked about falsehoods.
“Those who were arrested were not peaceful protestors; they were engaged in various types of crimes – some of them felonies – that jeopardized the safety of citizens and officers,” the statement said. “Anyone who attacks the state Capitol or the DPS Troopers who are sworn to protect it will be investigated, charged and arrested when there is sufficient evidence to do so.”
The weekend after the May 25 death of George Floyd, a Black man who died after a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck long after he lost consciousness, protests across Texas and the nation erupted in a revived movement against police brutality and racial injustice. In Austin, the demonstrations were also propelled by the April death of Mike Ramos, an unarmed Black and Hispanic man who was fatally shot by Austin police as he drove away from officers.
One such protest moved to the Texas Capitol in Austin on May 30. Protester and media recordings show people spray painted the building and monuments with anti-racist and anti-police remarks, dented and smashed windows of DPS SUVs, overturned a water fountain and roughly shoved at least one trooper to the ground. Another trooper tackled a fleeing teenager, prompting a scuffle between officers and protesters.
A few blocks away that same weekend, Austin police officers seriously injured two nonviolent protesters — a 20-year-old Black man and 16-year-old Hispanic boy — after shooting them in the heads with bean bag rounds. The shootings intensified criticism of Austin police, and the rising community backlash eventually prompted the Austin City Council last week to cut its police budget, largely through plans to move some departments out from under law enforcement oversight.
The move by the progressive council further widened a long-running divide between Austin’s elected officials, who see a need for substantial changes to a criminal justice system whose officers disproportionately use force against people of color, and state leaders, who fear that pulling resources from law enforcement will endanger public safety.
The budget decision drew ire this week from the top three elected officials in a state government whose law enforcement arm continues arrests of people suspected of committing crimes at a protest nearly three months ago.
After dozens were arrested at the Capitol and in downtown Austin during the May protests, there was little publicly disclosed state police action regarding the events in the following month. Then, on June 25, DPS announced a new arrest — 23-year-old Godsey, who is white, was picked up on suspicion of a felony criminal mischief charge. Godsey is accused of spray painting “Fuck the Police” on the Capitol’s southern doors after agents studied another protester’s YouTube livestream video.
The arrest — and the 13 other jailings the agency has since announced in press releases through this month — was a result of DPS special agents’ extensive review of social media and surveillance videos.
More arrests are expected as warrants are fulfilled and the agency seeks more tips from the public on additional suspects. The continuing arrests were foreshadowed at a press conference in early June when McCraw, the DPS director, spoke about the violence and disorder at anti-police brutality protests.
He said the agency had a “long memory” and was investigating criminals, “violent extremists” and antifa groups — loosely-affiliated, far-left activists that have used violence to oppose fascism, white supremacy and far-right ideologies. McCraw said such people used the constitutionally protected protests against Floyd’s death as an opportunity to commit crimes.
“We do have special agents embedded trying to identify criminals that are leveraging these or using this as an opportunity — exploiting these demonstrations,” he said three days after the first Capitol protest while seated near the governor. “We’re going to identify them, and we already have identified some of them and we will be arresting them, but not at this particular moment.”
Prominent racial justice advocates in Austin agreed that destruction led largely by white people had taken over protests early after Floyd’s death. The Austin Justice Coalition canceled a protest for May 31 after the previous day’s chaos at the Capitol and downtown.
Executive director Chas Moore said in a video announcing the cancellation that “white people ... have used Black pain and Black outrage to just completely become anarchists in this moment.” Moore did not respond to The Texas Tribune for this article.
The lieutenant governor said in a statement to the Tribune Thursday that he was enormously grateful for DPS state troopers’ work and “calm professionalism” during the May protests.
“I have been on the Capitol grounds with state troopers on several nights and have witnessed their patience and discipline in the face of demonstrators who were cursing them, spitting on them, throwing things at them and doing whatever they could to provoke them,” Patrick said.
But the arrestees’ lawyers are upset with what happened after the streets and Capitol grounds were cleared. They said the people DPS has spent so much time searching for and sometimes repeatedly arresting are not suspected of serious offenses or tied to any organized destruction, yet they are still being harshly interrogated. Godsey’s attorney, Jessica Bernstein, said she assumed DPS is trying to find evidence of a conspiracy to start a riot at the Capitol, but she said there was no such plan.
Travis County Attorney David Escamilla, who handles misdemeanor prosecutions in Texas’ capital city, said earlier this month that most of the cases presented by DPS are still being reviewed on an individual basis to determine whether to accept or reject them — and none have yet been accepted. District Attorney Margaret Moore, who prosecutes felonies, said all cases are being reviewed. They both have said the review often involves getting through an immense amount of video footage. At least one DPS case has already been rejected, but it was not one the agency has announced in its many press releases on its investigation.
DPS obtained an arrest affidavit last month for one protester whose video footage was used to identify others accused of criminal activity, according to records. The agency accused the Black 25 year old of participating in a riot, according to the affidavit, and the Travis County jail said he turned himself into jail earlier this month. But the affidavit, while describing the protester capturing footage of other criminal activity, didn’t portray him engaging in any illegal behavior, Escamilla said.
"He was with the protesters, it seems like documenting that," Escamilla said. "When we read the probable cause affidavit, we really can't justify [prosecution] … he didn’t partake."
Austin defense attorney George Lobb called the investigation and arrests “bullshit,” and accused the state of trying to steer public discourse away from a narrative that is critical and mistrusting of police and point instead to antifa groups as a distraction.
“DPS is using antifa as a modern day boogeyman to justify their existence and their unnecessarily aggressive tactics,” Lobb said. “The best way to manufacture a crisis is to create a response that is disproportionate to the perceived threat, perceived being the operative word.”
Teal, an 18-year-old recent high school graduate, was counting down the weeks until college when he found out he was wanted on suspicion of a felony in July.
Two months prior, a DPS drone camera captured a Black teenager throwing an item, “possibly a water bottle,” toward state police just outside the Capitol grounds as tension rose among the swell of protesters, according to Teal’s arrest affidavit. The footage captured multiple objects being thrown from the crowd, but this suspected bottle hit a DPS sergeant’s head, cutting him.
After DPS published screen grabs of the teen and offered up to $1,000 in cash reward, an anonymous tipster pegged Teal as the suspect, which was corroborated by department analysts, the affidavit said.
He faces up to 20 years in prison on a potential second-degree felony charge of assault of a public servant.
Shortly after Teal found out about the warrant, he learned how seriously the agency was looking for him when they showed up at his grandmother’s house, according to the teen’s lawyer, Kenavon Carter.
Carter said on July 28, seven DPS officers in five police cars showed up at the house with guns drawn. Teal wasn’t there, but his family was questioned and harassed, the lawyer said. His grandmother was told if Teal didn’t show up or turn himself in soon, other agencies who see the warrant may come back at night with a no-knock warrant, which allows police to forcibly enter homes without warning, Carter said. The lawyer interpreted the statement as a threat based on the harshly criticized death of Breonna Taylor, who was killed by Louisville officers serving such a warrant.
“This is a … high school student who is on his way to Texas A&M [Commerce] on a full scholarship," Carter said. "They show up [five cars] deep at his grandma’s house. It’s kind of wild that they would go to those lengths … cops with guns drawn, there’s no telling what would happen.”
The next day, Teal walked into the Travis County jail, with Carter by his side, to turn himself in. Carter said DPS had asked that Teal turn himself directly in to the agency, but the attorney declined. Teal was booked, had his fingerprints taken and bonded out within the hour without being questioned by DPS, Carter said.
Two weeks later, he did it all again.
Another arrest warrant had been issued, this time on suspicion of a misdemeanor offense of participating in a riot during the May 30 protest.
Teal’s story is not unique. Bernstein, Godsey’s attorney, said her client, suspected of spray painting the Capitol doors, was arrested at gunpoint while getting into a car nearly a month after the protest.
“He remembers 3 or 4 firearms pointed at him and one at the female driver of the car he was in,” Bernstein said in an email to the Tribune. “He has no history of arrest for anything serious and was offering no resistance.”
Bernstein said DPS also obtained a warrant to track and trace Godsey’s phone prior to the arrest, which she had never seen before. She assumed they were looking for evidence of a conspiracy to riot.
Cassidy Nordstrom said she was jailed for two days after being arrested on Interstate 35 in May, near the Capitol protest, but police didn’t file paperwork so she was released. She was then booked back into jail in July for actions during the same protest, she said. Nordstrom is accused of refusing to leave the highway and throwing water on an officer during the protest, facing misdemeanor charges of participating in a riot and obstructing a highway, according to her arrest affidavit and court records.
After she was unexpectedly taken from her Austin home during the second arrest, Nordstrom, who is white, said law enforcement officers in plain clothes interrogated her in a truck in her apartment’s parking lot and asked if she was involved in any socialist organizations before taking her to the jail.
“They’re looking for anyone who they can construe as an enemy of the state,” said the 26 year old, who specified every protest she’s been to has been peaceful on the part of the protesters. “I said I’d rather talk to a lawyer … I think they just wanted to interrogate me.”
DPS rejected depictions by protesters and their lawyers, but did not respond to specific questions from the Tribune about officers’ actions regarding protesters. The agency said department officials “look forward to making our case in the appropriate venue.”
Paul Quinzi, another Austin defense attorney, said the repeat arrests are unnecessary even if DPS has filed for new criminal charges, like Teal’s misdemeanor riot case added on top of his earlier felony assault of a public servant allegation. The people have already been booked, Quinzi said, and can be summoned to court without a new arrest.
“The way DPS is doing it … is that they will arrest them again ... screw up their day and then get bonded out again” Quinzi said.
Representing arrested protesters for years, often from the Capitol, Quinzi added he has “never seen [DPS] act the way they’re doing now.”
A political fight
The broader, national debate over law enforcement’s role in society that was sparked after protests over Floyd’s death is one that will likely be center stage in the 2021 Texas Legislature. At a press conference Tuesday, Gov. Greg Abbott and other state leaders pledged a legislative measure that, if passed, would freeze property tax revenues for cities, like Austin, that divert funds away from police.
Patrick specifically praised DPS actions during the Austin protests in the press conference, saying without the state police, Austin’s leadership would have put the city’s residents in danger.
“It is only because of our DPS force ... that came to the aid and rescue of the brave officers at APD that Austin didn’t turn into a potential Seattle or Portland,” he said, mentioning cities that have experienced months of sometimes violent protests and controversial intervention of federal agents.
A spokesperson for Abbott did not respond to Tribune questions about the ensuing DPS investigation this week.
The defense attorneys claim the investigation is part of the political fight to protect law enforcement from deep changes Texas leaders say would endanger public safety. Carter, Teal’s lawyer, said he thinks the wounded reputation of law enforcement after Floyd’s death and the budget cuts have spurred the intensity of DPS’s reaction.
“It’s ... to try to make an example, to kind of stifle civil disobedience, protests in the future,” Carter said. “The state is out there saying if you participate in these types of protests, we are going to come after you.”
To Leonard Moore, the ongoing arrests and interrogations seems to be an overreaction to property damage and minor injuries. Pointing back to the Boston Tea Party at America’s onset, the vice president for diversity and community engagement at the University of Texas at Austin said destructive behavior is sometimes the only way to get people to pay attention to aggrieved communities. For example, he doubted the officers involved in Floyd’s death, now facing criminal charges, would have been prosecuted if people hadn’t taken to the streets.
“What I sometimes hear is people valuing property more than lives,” Moore said. “Law enforcement feels like they’re under attack, so I think this is maybe their way of standing up for themselves … but this is not the way to do it.”
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