Shoot First, Create a Law to Make It Legal Later

Texas bill ensures zero consequences for police who injure people with "less lethal" rounds

State Sen. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, who authored the bill that would remove consequences for officers who misuse "less lethal" rounds (Screenshot via the Texas Senate)

For more than a year, the Travis County District Attorney's Office has been preparing to try 19 Austin police officers on felony assault charges for shooting protesters in the head with "beanbag" rounds during the Black Lives Matter protests of May 30-31, 2020. Now, a bill that would wreck the prosecutions is moving quickly in the Texas Senate.

Senate Bill 2593, introduced quietly two weeks ago, removes criminal liability for any police officer who exhibits or uses a "less lethal projectile device" to assault or injure a citizen, including a child, elderly individual, or disabled individual, so long as the officer did not intend to cause serious injury or death. The term "less lethal projectile device" goes undefined, but would include shotguns modified to shoot bags of lead shot, known as beanbag rounds. SB 2593 passed the Senate Criminal Justice Committee on April 18 on a 6-0 vote. It's expected to receive quick approval in the Senate before moving on to the House.

At the April 18 hearing, SB 2593 was framed by its author, state Sen. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, and even by centrist state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, as a way to encourage police officers to use gentler, "less lethal" types of force in their encounters with citizens. Those opposing the bill said that removing criminal consequences for officers who shoot citizens will actually encourage more frequent uses of force. They added that the bill, like others at the Legislature this session, is an affront to Austin's self-governance, meddling with prosecutions already set in motion by Travis County grand juries.

Chris Harris, policy director of the Austin Justice Coalition, said SB 2593 would remove the last chance to bring accountability to the officers who shot protesters. "There's no administrative discipline that has occurred," Harris said, referring to the fact that the punishments handed out by APD leaders for excessive uses of force at the protests were few and shrouded in secrecy. "Because of that, the criminal courts are the last real opportunity for the community to know the full truth of the matter. They're the last chance to assign accountability for people who suffered multiple skull fractures, for a pregnant woman who was shot in the stomach, for medics and passersby who were shot. So without a system that allows there to be accountability, the criminal system is the last resort. Now they're trying to close that off, too."

Scott Hendler, who represents several people injured by APD at the protests, asked the committee if it would be appropriate to apply the standard outlined in the bill – that officers are innocent if they don't intend to cause injury or death – in cases of drunk driving: "If a drunk driver doesn't intend to kill people, should that drunk driver be immune from liability?" He said the bill would encourage violence from rogue police officers. "We want to ensure that our officers exercise personal responsibility for their actions," he said. "They are guardians of our safety, not warriors."

Others pointed out that the bill is very broad. In addition to modified shotguns, "less lethal projectile devices" would presumably include Tasers, used by police throughout the state, and grenade launchers, which fire hard rubber balls. Each can kill or blind a person. Justin Howell and Brad Levi Ayala almost died after being hit in the head with beanbag rounds during the 2020 protests. Sam Kirsch was blinded in one eye by a rubber grenade. Javier Ambler died in 2019 after being tased four times.

If SB 2593 passes, the officers involved in these cases, and at least a dozen others, will almost certainly be found innocent of the charges against them. "The message being sent is that the state doesn't want local police to be held to account for anything they do," Harris said.

* Editor's note Thursday, April 20, 11am: A previous version of this story mistakenly referred to state Rep. Drew Springer. Springer is a state senator (and former member of the Texas House). The Chronicle regrets the error.

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