After thousands took to the streets this summer to protest police brutality and racial injustice, galvanized by the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, some Texas law enforcement agencies faced stiff criticism for their responses.
Allegations of excessive force prompted Austin to slash its police budget and other jurisdictions to adopt a series of reforms, from prohibiting the use of certain “less-lethal” weapons to requiring officers to intervene when they see another use extreme measures.
Now, with a contentious election just a month away and with a nation bitterly divided, police are again preparing for protests across the state. Agencies in at least four major cities — Austin, El Paso, San Antonio and Fort Worth — confirmed they are planning for potential unrest around the Nov. 3 election. Officials in other Texas cities declined to say whether they’re doing the same.
The intent of such preparations, said Tara Long, an Austin Police Department spokesperson, “is to ensure the safety of the community while protecting the rights of people to peacefully exercise their First Amendment rights.”
A San Antonio police official said the agency has a plan in place, “just as we have for the previous elections.” An El Paso police spokesperson said the agency has developed “unrest contingency plans.” In Houston, a police spokesperson said officers routinely monitor any major event, including elections, but declined to discuss plans for election night.
Howard Henderson, director of the Center for Justice Research at Texas Southern University, said police are right to prepare for potential unrest. But he stressed that law enforcement must balance public safety needs with protesters’ constitutional free speech rights.
“That’s the key: using the least amount of force possible and still allowing people to exercise their First Amendment right,” he said.
“More Americans than we’ve seen in a long time in this country have come out to protest in support of police reform,” Henderson added. “We’re at a turning point, we’re at a paradigm shift in this space.”
The summer’s demonstrations in Austin were propelled by the April death of Mike Ramos, an unarmed Black and Hispanic man who was fatally shot by police as he drove away from officers. APD’s actions came under further criticism in late May when police shot two protesters in the head with bean bag rounds, seriously wounding both.
In Dallas, where the county’s district attorney is probing allegations that officers used unnecessary force during otherwise peaceful protests earlier this year, officials wouldn’t say whether they are planning for protests during the elections.
Dallas police spokesperson Melinda Gutierrez said the agency “will continue to coordinate with other law enforcement agencies, to include our federal partners, to ensure that our officers are up to date on intelligence in our efforts to keep Dallas safe.”
The agency’s actions in late May drew widespread scrutiny, as police used chemical deterrents and rubber bullets to disperse gatherings. One man lost an eye after he was hit with a nonlethal projectile. On June 1, officers detained 674 protesters after they marched onto the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge. Police Chief Reneé Hall, who later said those demonstrators would not be charged, announced her resignation earlier this month after criticisms of police response.
At the same time, President Donald Trump has repeatedly claimed, without evidence, that the election will be rigged and has bucked calls to commit to a peaceful transition of power. Instead, he points to an increased reliance on mail-in voting during the novel coronavirus pandemic, which he says is rampant with fraud, though experts say voting fraud is rare.
During an interview with Fox News last month, Trump threatened to quash riots on election night should he win reelection and people take to the streets.
“Look, it’s called insurrection,” Trump told a Fox News host. “We just send in, and we do it very easy. I mean, it’s very easy. I’d rather not do that because there’s no reason for it, but if we had to, we’d do that and put it down within minutes.”
In Portland this July, federal agents in unmarked vans grabbed protesters from the streets. During a June protest in Washington, D.C., U.S. Park Police and National Guard troops fired tear gas into a peaceful crowd as Trump walked from the White House to a nearby church for a photo opportunity.
As mourners gathered in Pearland, near Houston, for George Floyd’s burial service, police asked other agencies for assistance in what they thought might be a massive gathering with protesters and counter-protesters. U.S. Customs and Border Protection planned a massive presence, including 66 paramilitary agents from CBP’s BORTAC unit. Law enforcement officers were authorized to use deadly force under certain circumstances, according to documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas.
Fears of violence escalated after Tuesday’s presidential debate, when Trump was asked to condemn white supremacists and instead told the Proud Boys, a far-right group, to “stand back and stand by” on election night. Members of the organization were emboldened by the president’s remarks and viewed them as a call to action.
“There’s really no precedent for this,” said Paul Brace, the Clarence L. Carter professor of political science at Rice University. “The legitimacy of the election is being called into question, which has the potential of energizing those who feel they are cheated to perhaps take to the streets.”
Experts note that due to the high percentage of mail-in ballots this election, it’s likely that there won’t be a clear winner on election night. That could further heighten tensions, especially as Trump casts doubt on the fairness of the contest.
“I don’t think anybody in Dallas who is anticipating a necessity for protests thinks that police are going to respond better,” said Kristian Hernandez, a member of Our City Our Future, a group that helped lead an effort to defund Dallas police that ultimately failed.
Clarification: A previous version of this story implied that multiple jurisdictions in Texas had cut police budgets because of allegations of excessive force. Austin is the only city to do so thus far.
Disclosure: Rice University has been a financial supporter 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.