Pressure Grows for Austin to Settle With Protesters Injured by APD

Nearly a dozen of those most seriously injured last summer are suing the city

Christen Warkoczewski was among the protesters most seriously injured by APD’s lead-pellet rounds last summer (Courtesy of Jeff Edwards)

To the Austin Police Department, the thousands of people who gathered Down­town to protest for Black lives over the weekend of May 30-31, 2020, were rioters. So APD responded to the demonstrations, particularly those near its headquarters at East Eighth Street that at times spilled onto I-35, with violence intended as riot control. They beat and gassed protesters and shot dozens with "less lethal" munitions, such as lead-pellet "beanbag" rounds.

Nearly a dozen of the most seriously injured survivors are suing the city of Austin, and while the Travis County District Attorney's Office prepares to present cases of alleged excessive force to a new grand jury to be empaneled in October, the Office of Police Oversight and justice advocates have loudly decried APD Internal Affairs' handling, or not handling, of the Eighth Street cases. As attention returns to last year's events, stories like that of Tyree Talley are resurfacing.

Talley, a 27-year-old Black and deaf Austinite, attended the protests out of curiosity. On the evening of May 30, he was signing with a friend in front of the rows of police guarding APD Headquarters when he felt something hit his ear. A lead-pellet round had been fired at his head by a still-unidentified officer, missing his eye by an inch. A second later, another round hit Talley in the groin.

"That's when I fell down on the ground," Talley told the Chronicle through an American Sign Language interpreter. "And then my eyes were closed and [the shots] just kept going. I tried to protect my eyes; as a deaf person they're so critically important to me."

“The fact that there’s multiple people who had to have surgery to have these rounds removed is pretty horrific.” – Christen Warkoczewski

As he lay in the street in a fetal position, Talley was hit 10 more times with lead-pellet rounds in the ankle, legs, arms, and back. When the firing stopped, a friend – who had also been shot – drove him to the hospital. For days afterward, Talley lay in bed, enduring the worst pain he'd ever experienced. "I just felt like I was trying to limit my movement because it hurt so bad," he said. "I didn't do anything but sleep, really, just for a few days. That's all that I was able to do."

Before the shooting, Talley had been a bartender and sous chef. As he recovered, he was unable to work, unable to pay his bills. He was evicted from his apartment and slept on friends' couches and in a tent. During February's winter storm, he went days without food. He finally got back into housing in July; he is working as a server and delivering meals in a borrowed car.

Talley's suit, filed in March, could easily wind up taking years to resolve. His attorney, Rebecca Webber of Hendler Flores Law, is calling on City Council to acknowledge that APD's violence that weekend was excessive and settle the lawsuits brought by the Eighth Street survivors. (Under state law, the city is responsible for individual officers' defense in civil litigation.) "With all their rhetoric about accountability and reforming how we do policing and reimagining public safety, they should be accepting responsibility and resolving this," Webber said.

Christen Warkoczewski filed suit against the city in August. The 30-year-old Austinite, who grew up in West Lake Hills and works as a wildlife biologist, attended the protests on the afternoon of May 31. She was in a group of protesters on I-35 when a line of heavily armed police launched tear gas canisters. As gas drifted toward the group, Warkoczewski picked up a traffic cone sitting on the highway and placed it over a smoking canister. She turned and ran approximately 10 feet before being shot in the face and ankle.

The lead-pellet round penetrated the outer layer of skin near the hinge of Warkoczewski's jaw, lodging next to a pocket of muscle but not continuing all the way into her mouth. Limping and choking on tear gas, she was led off the highway to volunteer street medics.

"I couldn't talk at all because I couldn't breathe," Warkoczewski said. "I couldn't catch my breath. So these two people carry me down the embankment and get me down to the curb, at which point there's just blood pouring from my face ... And I remember being really concerned about my hat for some reason, because it was my hat that I wear for fieldwork. But in the meantime, I have this foreign mass hanging out of my face."

Hours later, Warkoczewski underwent surgery to have the round removed – one of four who required such surgery. She is still coping with the physical and emotional effects of the injury. For months, she was unable to return to work. Crowds and loud noises now cause anxiety. Eating can be exhausting, as she can only use one side of her mouth.

Warkoczewski signed on with longtime civil rights attorney Bobby Taylor after the shooting. Taylor recently joined forces with Jeff Edwards, who is representing many protesters hurt by police at the protests, including Justin Howell and Anthony Ev­ans, whose devastating injuries the Chron­icle reported on last February. Edwards also represented the family of Jason Roque, who was killed by APD officers while experiencing a mental health crisis in May 2017; the city settled with the Roques earlier this month for $2.25 million.

Warkoczewski is very disappointed that no APD officers have been disciplined for their actions during the protests. "The fact that there's multiple people who had to have surgery to have these rounds removed is pretty horrific," she said. "It's so disheartening, all the legal news and the lack of consequences."

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