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Nine of the 19 Austin police officers facing charges for allegedly using excessive force during the May 2020 racial justice protests — including Texas House candidate Justin Berry — are accused of shooting lead-pellet beanbag rounds at the same woman, according to indictments released by the Travis County District Attorney on Tuesday.
Each of the 19 officers is charged with two counts of aggravated assault, a first-degree felony when committed by law enforcement. The charges are punishable by five to 99 years in prison, or a fine of up to $10,000.
The indictments accuse the officers of using deadly weapons to injure 11 demonstrators and threatening them with serious bodily injury during protests on May 30 and May 31, 2020, over the deaths of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Michael Ramos in Austin. The indictments do not provide many new details about the claims against the officers, but they allege that most of them used shotguns to fire beanbag rounds on the protesters and that one officer used a 40 mm launcher.
Nine officers — Todd Gilbertson, Alexander Lomovstev, Stanley Vick, Joshua Jackson, Jeremy Fisher, Christopher Irwin, Brett Tableriou, Joshua Blake and Berry — are accused of threatening and using shotguns to injure demonstrator Christen Warkoczewski, the indictments say.
According to the Austin Chronicle, Warkoczewski was on the Interstate 35 bridge with other protesters when police launched tear gas canisters. She told the Chronicle she placed a traffic cone over a canister and ran about 10 feet before officers shot her in the face and ankle. Warkoczewski said a lead-pellet beanbag round hit her jaw and that she had to go through surgery to have it removed.
Warkoczewski filed a lawsuit against the city in August, according to the Chronicle. Her attorney could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Berry, who is running in the Republican primary for Texas House District 19, has described the indictments as a political stunt from a Democratic district attorney who won office after promising to hold law enforcement accountable.
“The question is not how the prosecution will turn out,” Berry said in a statement late Friday. “We will be acquitted. The question is: When police are treated like this, who will want to become police officers?”
Central Texas’ House District 19 largely covers suburbs and Hill Country towns west of Austin.
Austin police officers John Siegel, Edward Boudreau, Derrick Lehman, Kyu An, Nicholas Gebhart, Joseph Cast, Jeffrey Teng, Kyle Felton, Eric Heim and Rolan Rast were also indicted.
Almost all the officers’ cases involve protesters who were hit by beanbag rounds or rubber bullets, according to Travis County district attorney's office documents. Austin police have described beanbag rounds as a “less lethal” weapon but stopped using them in crowd situations after the 2020 protests.
Defense attorney Doug O’Connell, who is representing eight of the indicted officers, said not all his clients fired their weapons on protesters. All of his clients were following orders from the department’s leadership during the protests, he added.
“The decision to impact these people or beanbags was ordered or otherwise authorized by the highest levels of APD command,” O’Connell said at a Monday news conference. “These aren't a few rogue officers doing what they wanted to do.”
Travis County District Attorney José Garza said in a news conference Thursday that protesters injured by law enforcement sustained significant injuries. “Some will never fully recover,” Garza said.
Some of the demonstrators named as victims in the indictments have also filed civil lawsuits against Austin. Justin Howell — whom Teng is accused of injuring — had a fractured skull and brain damage as a result of being struck with beanbag rounds. Austin police have said officers were aiming at a nearby man that had thrown a water bottle. Felton is accused of firing against Anthony Evans, who was hit by beanbag ammunition as he walked away from the demonstration. Evans sustained a fractured jaw as a result. In a settlement last week, Howell received $8 million, and Evans received $2 million.
The accused officers have been placed on administrative duty until the indictments are resolved at trial, but O’Connell said it could take up to a year for the cases to reach that point. It is too soon to tell if the officers will be tried separately or together, he added.
O’Connell said the eight officers he represents have all reported to Travis County jail, where they were fingerprinted, photographed and released on a $1 cash deposit bond after they received arrest warrant affidavits.