Travis County District Attorney José Garza campaigned on shaking up the status-quo approach to holding law enforcement accountable (or not) for misconduct. Three weeks into his administration, he is delivering on that promise.
Garza announced today, Jan. 22, that two Austin Police Department officers, Gregory Gentry and Chance Bretches, were indicted by a special grand jury on Jan. 20 for aggravated assault by a public servant, a first-degree felony under the Texas Penal Code. A third, unnamed officer was no-billed by the grand jury; the two felony cases are awaiting trial in Judge Karen Sage’s 299th District Court.
The indictments stem from a violent arrest at a Northeast Austin apartment complex in March 2019; charging documents indicate that officers struck the suspect with their hands, elbows, and knees. The arrest received no public attention at the time, and the officers were cleared in an APD Internal Affairs investigation into the case. Therefore, the indictments secured by Garza have sent shockwaves through the local police power structure, provoking unusually prompt and blunt statements from Police Chief Brian Manley, the Austin Police Association, and Ken Ervin and Doug O’Connell, the defense attorneys representing Gentry and Bretches (among other officers facing potential charges from Garza).
In 2016, Bretches and two other APD officers were sued by plaintiff Hunter Pinney, who alleged he was subject to false arrest and excessive force in 2013; it’s unclear how that case was resolved. Bretches is also one of the APD officers under criminal investigation by Garza’s office in connection with the May 30-31 Black Lives Matter protests; he’s alleged to have injured volunteer medic Maredith Drake with a “less lethal” lead-pellet round as she attempted to carry another injured protester to safety. Garza expects the May 30-31 cases to be presented to a grand jury in the early fall of 2021. APD declined to tell the Chronicle if Bretches was disciplined for his alleged involvement in either of these incidents.
Consternation over the indictments was reflected in a statement from Ervin and O’Connell. “We are gravely concerned that the judgment of newly elected D.A. Garza, whose lifelong prosecution experience consists of seven weeks, is that both officers committed first-degree felonies punishable by life in prison,” the statement reads. They also called on Garza to “record and transcribe all grand jury proceedings involving law enforcement officers” so the public can be “confident in fair and thorough proceedings.” These proceedings are generally secret, as the lawyers know, and the D.A.’s Office could face legal challenges if it intends to disclose them.
A statement from Manley – a rare response to such indictments – says of the arrest: “This incident was reviewed in accordance with APD policy in 2019 and the officers’ actions were deemed compliant with policy and training.” The statement also indicates that the case was reviewed by the APD Executive Team, the Special Investigations Unit which handles investigations into officers accused of criminal conduct, the Office of Police Oversight, and staff attorneys under then-D.A. Margaret Moore. “Based on the Department’s findings that the officers’ conduct was within policy,” the statement continues, “the case was not forwarded to the D.A.’s Civil Rights Division.”
Sara Peralta, a spokesperson with OPO, said in a statement that the office was briefed on the case on April 19, 2019, and at the time, OPO director Farah Muscadin “expressed concerns on the level of force used to the APD Executive Team.” In October 2019, OPO received a complaint from the individual involved in the arrest, which OPO then forwarded to APD as a formal complaint. That led to APD opening an internal complaint into the incident; however, the internal and external complaints were closed “without any formal investigation,” according to OPO.
“OPO strongly believes,” the statement concludes, “that complaints from the community, particularly those involving use of force should be automatically investigated to ensure appropriate external review and procedural justice for community members.”
Manley’s statement prompted a response from Garza. “The potential criminal conduct in question came to the attention of the Office's Civil Rights Unit last year,” the second statement reads. “Two experienced senior Assistant District Attorneys reviewing the narcotics case were sufficiently concerned by the conduct they observed” to independently alert the CRU, whose director Dexter Gilford – hired by Moore and retained by Garza – brought the case forward to the grand jury last year, but by the time it was ready for presentation in March 2020, COVID-19 had hit Travis County and forced grand juries to disband.
Reached by phone Friday afternoon, Moore said she could not recall the specifics of why the office had not initially moved forward with a case. “I don’t recall if the case was referred to us by SIU,” Moore told the Chronicle, noting that such a referral is just one way the D.A. can come across evidence that merits an investigation of law enforcement. “There have been communications with me in the past by the police administration … instances where they had reviewed a case and decided policy was not violated, and were not going to send it to us” for criminal prosecution. “But sometimes cases were opened after our own internal review, [or after] other attorneys bring evidence.”
Moore noted she had structured the CRU so it could operate as independently as possible. “I gave them a great deal of authority to pursue their own cases. It would not be unusual for them to work on a case without me knowing until it was ready for presentation,” Moore told us. The former D.A. speculated that by the time grand jury proceedings resumed with COVID-19 safety protocols in place, other cases may have gained higher priority. “We were spending a great deal of time on the [Javier] Ambler case,” Moore said, referring to the 2019 death of an unarmed Black man during an arrest by APD officers and Williamson County Sheriff deputies. “Because of limited grand jury time and other investigations that were taking place that involved deaths, [the Gentry and Bretches] case would have been waiting for time to be presented.”
Body cam footage of the 2019 arrest has not been released publicly, but multiple sources who have seen it described it as disturbing. APD declined to answer questions about the arrest or indictment posed by the Chronicle, including a request to release the body cam footage, which Garza said he supports. “To the extent that Chief Manley and others have concerns about the conclusions reached by the Travis County grand jury, I urge them to release all the relevant video footage so our community can review it.”
APA president Ken Casaday was surprised at the indictments because the case had been reviewed by APD investigators, OPO, and the former D.A. “Nobody, including myself, likes bad corrupt cops,” the union boss told us. “There are some cases being reviewed right now that are highly suspect, but this one surprises me. Any use of force looks bad, but I am just floored with the D.A.’s decision. I think he will have an extremely tough time prosecuting when all those people listed could be called in as witnesses.”
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