Abbott taps indicted Austin cop, GOP candidate for Texas law enforcement panel

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott last week said he was appointing Justin Berry, one of the 21 Austin police officers accused of using excessive force during racial justice protests in 2020, to the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, or TCOLE, the state agency that regulates standards for law enforcement officers.

The announcement Friday of the assignment demonstrates a calculated political move by the governor ahead of the November general election, who has been campaigning on a strong message of law and order that includes supporting police departments and cracking down on border security.

“What Barry's under indictment for is his activities in one of these monumental, game-changing huge events in the 21st century,” said Brian Smith, professor of political science at St. Edward’s University in Austin. “What Abbott is saying is, the people who are not going to vote for me, aren't going to vote for me, regardless of who I decide to appoint on this committee."

Abbott's idea, Smith said, "is to get the conservative base out. How do I do that? By appointing conservatives, by playing up the law-and-order angle, and then trying to force now Beto O'Rourke to come to the table and say, ‘OK, O'Rourke, what is your strategy on crime and law enforcement?’ ”

Austin Police officer Justin Berry points a shotgun with so-called less-lethal rounds at protesters gathered in front of Austin City Hall on May 31, 2020, to protest the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police a few days earlier. Berry is one of 21 Austin police officers accused of using excessive force during the protests.

Berry is one of 21 Austin police officers under indictment on charges that accuse them of using excessive force during protests against police brutality in the summer of 2020. Though the charges against Berry remain pending, Smith says indicted Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is an example of how indictments against politicians in Texas can last for a extended period while the political risk for Abbott, such as the one he is taking by appointing Berry, remains fairly low.

“Indictments can turn into trials which can then turn into convictions, and if that happens in a very quick amount of time, Greg Abbott now has one thing that he didn't expect to have hanging over his head in the fall election,” Smith said. “But if the indictment never goes anywhere, then Greg Abbott says, ‘See, I appointed somebody who was part of a political witch hunt by one of these uber-liberal Austin types.’ And it's just the game that we see.”

The decision flies in the face of Travis County District Attorney José Garza, an Austin Democrat who ran on a platform of criminal justice reform. He is pursuing felony assault charges against Berry and 20 other police officers for their use of so-called less-lethal ammunition, such as beanbag rounds or rubber bullets, during the 2020 protests.

The Austin Police Department was heavily criticized for the officers’ conduct after several protesters who were struck by the less-lethal rounds were taken to the hospital, with some requiring emergency surgery. The city of Austin has settled seven lawsuits filed by wounded protesters, paying out a total of nearly $15 million. Twelve cases remain pending, as do the trials for Berry and the other officers fighting their felony charges.

More:Austin to pay $10 million to two men injured by bean bag munitions in 2020 protests

“What else is going on is this big, big battle that we've seen time and time again, between the state Capitol and the city of Austin, and we know that District Attorney Garza has been a thorn in the Republican side. So in this case, Gov. Abbott is trying to stick it to the district attorney of the city of Austin,” Smith said.

Conservatives have rallied around Berry and the other indicted officers, describing the criminal charges as “political persecution” by the Travis County district attorney.

“These cases were vetted by the chief and heavily investigated by the department, and they found no wrongdoing, not even policy violations, which is a much less burden to prove,” said Ken Casaday, the president of the Austin Police Association. “Justin was very instrumental in getting some laws changed in the state on doxxing police officers and other issues before he ever ran (for public office), and we totally 100% support the governor appointing him to one of these positions.”

In a statement to the American-Statesman, Renae Eze, a spokesperson for Gov. Greg Abbott, said, “here in Texas, we back the blue. Justin Berry is a proven public servant who has selflessly worked to protect his community and his fellow Texans."

The statement continued: "In 2020, Texas experienced violent protests that wreaked havoc on our cities. Law enforcement officers, including Justin, defended the Texas Capitol from criminal assault, protected the Austin Police Department headquarters from being overrun, cleared the interstate from being shut down, and disrupted criminal activity in areas across the city. Many officers were physically attacked while protecting Austin. Those officers deserve to be praised, not prosecuted.”

Abbott had previously endorsed Berry in his 2022 campaign to be the Republican nominee for an open Texas House seat representing part of the Hill Country.

Berry lost in a May runoff election to former Austin City Council Member Ellen Troxclair, who will compete to represent Texas House District 19 in the November general election.

Berry also previously ran for office as a Republican in 2020 against state Rep. Vikki Goodwin, D-Austin, to represent House District 47, which covers a large portion of western Travis County. Goodwin defeated Berry with 49.3% of the vote, while Berry garnered 48.3%.

Berry did not immediately respond to the American-Statesman’s request for comment, but tweeted Friday, thanking Gov. Abbott for the appointment.

“The demands and expectations of today's professional police officer have never been so great,” Berry wrote on Twitter. “I look forward to ensuring Texas has the best police officers in the world. Ensuring those who answer the call to serve their respective communities have the training and resources necessary to be set up for success are a priority to not only keeping Texan's safe but ensuring trust is earned and maintained by those very communities.”

The announcement drew strong condemnation from Texas Democrats.

State Rep. Jarvis Johnson, D-Houston, tweeted Friday, “Nothing says ethical law enforcement standards quite like appointing a police officer charged with aggravated assault from his actions during the George Floyd protest ... which were about police brutality. Absolutely reprehensible.”

Criminal justice reform advocates expressed that while they oppose Berry’s appointment, they were unsurprised by the announcement.

“Gov. Abbott has been very adamant that he's very much pro-police, I would even go as far as to say that he's very anti-cause for police accountability,” said Chas Moore, executive director of the Austin Justice Coalition.

Moore described Berry as “a Gov. Abbott wannabe, but he can't even win a local election," and characterized the TCOLE appointment as "a pat on the back from Gov. Abbott, saying 'thank you my loyal liege … I'm going to put you on a commission although you have proven in your local department that you are not trustworthy, that you don't know what good policing is, if that's even a thing.' ”

“That makes sense if you're Gov. Abbott, and only Gov. Abbott or a far right-wing Republican," Moore said. "But to any other person with any common sense it’s wild. But it's also on-brand for who this governor is.”

This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: Abbott appoints indicted APD officer Justin Berry to TCOLE