Austin PD Chief Bans Beanbag Projectiles At Police Protests

Tony Cantu

AUSTIN, TX — Use of beanbag projectiles will no longer be used against crowds protesting police brutality after two demonstrators were hit in the head and hospitalized, Austin Police Chief Brian Manley said on Thursday.

Manley revealed the decision during a special meeting of the Austin City Council discussing tactics used by local law enforcement during protests over the weekend. The use of rubber bullets and beanbag projectiles have been used throughout the protests, along with pepper spray and smoke bombs.

“I will speak to some immediate changes to our deployment to protests this week, and that that the deployment of bean bag ammunition will not be used in a crowd situation," Manley said. "It is still an appropriate tool in other circumstances so it is still approved for use however not in crowd situations.”

A 16-year-old Hispanic boy and a 20-year-old African American man were seriously injured after being hit in the head by impact munitions during the protests. A third demonstrator, a pregnant African American woman, was struck in the belly by such a projectile as Manley confirmed earlier this week during a news briefing. Her condition is unknown.

Video showing the injured boy has been widely shared on social media. The video below shows the aftermath of a beanbag projectile having hit the teenager in the head. (Readers should note the images in the video are graphic and disturbing.)

At an earlier news briefing, Manley said the 20-year-old victim was "fighting for his life" at an area hospital. As a result of the injuries, Manley said such projectiles would no longer be used for crowd control.

District 4 councilman Grg Casar took issue with Manley's answer, referencing protesters' cell phone footage showing the teenager had been standing on a hill apart from the throngs of other protesters when he was hit with the projectile. "I've seen the video," Casar told the chief with palpable anger, noting that ending use of so-called non-lethal projectiles on crowds would not have made a difference in this case. "He was on a hill, not in a crowd," Casar said of the injured teen. "The answer is insufficient."

Watch Austin City Council Meeting Here

Powerful testimony brings council members to tears

During the council meeting held on Zoom, Casar and other members grew emotional as they listened to the raw testimony from the hurt teen's brother, Edwin. The grieving sibling had conveyed the extent of injuries sustained by his younger brother, saying the incident was the equivalent of having a softball hurled at his head at swift velocity.

"They said he had a puncture in his head and the risk of internal bleeding wouldn't be known until they'd gotten into the surgery," he said between sobs. "We thought he was going to die. I was there with my mom, and we prayed all night."

The young man said the doctors at Dell Children's Hospital where the teen was being treated said the beanbag projectile had a larger surface area than a rubber bullet, which caused a very large wound that created a contusion. The teen continues to undergo neurological testing.

His testimony was at times unintelligible as the young man howled with agony over his little brother's critical medical condition amid continued hospitalization — bringing some council members to tears. "You have no idea what we're going through," he told them of his family's anguish.

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Family members have since identified the injured teen as Brad Levi Ayala, and have set up a GoFundMe campaign to help defray medical costs — raising more than $142,000 at last check. "He is only 16 and his family is struggling to pay the medical bills and recover from this tragedy," family members wrote on the fundraising page, accompanying the narrative with photos of the bloody teen at the protest scene as well as images of the boy being treated at a hospital.

On Wednesday, the Texas A&M student newspaper The Battalion identified the injured 20-year-old protester — now in critical condition at an area hospital described by Manley as "fighting for his life" — as Justin Howell. The victim's brother, a writer for the student-run newspaper, wrote an op-ed detailing the extent of his brother's injuries that included a fractured skull and brain damage. A GoFundMe campaign also has been formed to help Howell's family deal with medical bills, raising nearly $90,o00 as of Thursday evening.

Ongoing protests decrying police brutality continued on Thursday, triggered by the deaths of George Floyd in Minneapolis and of Michael Ramos, an unarmed man fatally shot by police in Austin a month ago. The police presence in Austin increased exponentially last weekend after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott dispatched some 1,500 Texas Department of Public Safety officers and, later, National Guardsmen to help control the demonstrators and dissuade looting.

Mayor Voices Support For Demonstrators

Austin Mayor Steve Adler expressed support for demonstrators, calling protests an offshoot of the ideals of free expression enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. "As a community, we need better answers and more transparent police policies," he wrote on Twitter. "#ATXCouncil is listening to our community today. We will continue this conversation tomorrow at 9 a.m. where we will both look in to APD's crowd control response and discuss the demands of the movement."

Adler said the disruptive nature of protests have been historically key in effecting needed societal change: "By interrupting business as usual, protests also disrupt patterns of thought and policy in important ways," Adler said. "We have to rise to this occasion. I look forward to #ATXCouncil ’s discussion both tomorrow and beyond. Our work towards real change starts now."

Council Members Call For Systemic Change At APD

Each council person who spoke at Thursday's meeting called for reform and accountability at the Austin Police Department following last weekend's injuries. The mayor and others took pains to note that calling for systemic change was not at odds with support for those police officers who perform their duties with professionalism. "I support meaningful police and criminal justice reform as I support police serving this community with respect and dignity," District 9 council member Kathie Tovo said in illustrating the sentiment.

District 6 City councilman Jimmy Flannigan said the weekend events laid bare the cracks within the police department: "We discovered that Austin is broken," he said. "For years the divisions in our society have grown into giant canyons of distrust and despair, and what we witnessed this weekend is just the tip of the iceberg. We need justice, we need reform, we need it now. That includes changes in leadership and changes in the budget."

District 2 council member Delia Garza also called for police reform while expressing disappointment having enthusiastically endorsed Manley's ascension to the city's top cop position in June 2018 after Art Acevedo took the reins of the Houston Police Department

"Our police officers behave as they are trained to, as how they are allowed by leadership," said Garza, a former firefighter with families who have served in law enforcement. "I truly believe there is a space in our community to demand police accountability and reform while understanding the complexities of our police department."

Garza called for measurable action by city council beyond the drafting of resolutions: "This council can pass resolutions all day every day, but they mean nothing if police leadership continues to ignore council's direction," the council member said. "We must listen to our community demanding change, and I am prepared to do everything in my power to seek that change."

District 8 council member Paige Ellis echoed similar sentiments: "What we have seen this weekend should not be reflective of Austin, but sadly it is," she began. "This city council has begun work to address allegations of racism, homophobia and over-policing in certain parts of our community while under-policing in others. I stand with our community in anger and disbelief, and I promise to be an ally and amplify the voice of people of color."

Added District 5 council member Ann Kitchen: "I want everyone to know I am greatly disturbed," she said. "I am appalled and very saddened with what happened last weekend in Austin. It is totally unacceptable that people were injured in Autin. We all are due an open and transparent and complete review of these incidents, and we need accountability."

Kitchen, too, suggested a call for reform with respect for most officers are not irreconcilable concepts: "I do respect and say thank you for the police officers who served our city honorably." But, in the next breath she added: "It is necessary, absolutely necessary and not up for debate that we will hold our police department, leadership and chief accountable for their actions."

Noting he had spoken with the family of the teen injured at last weekend's protests, Casar noted those demonstrating did so in spite of the ongoing threat of the coronavirus — illustrative of their passion to help effect change. "Pepole don't want to protest in a pandemic, but they feel they have to," Casar said. "People shouldn't be in the hospital for attending a demonstration. We've got to make transformational change in policing from top to bottom."

The body's sole black council member, Natasha Harper-Madison, was the most emotional — dabbing her tears, gazing heavenward and intermittently turning off her camera to collect herself, as she explained to her colleagues on the dais.

"Black life matters!" she said, urging those protesting to keep their focus on the aim of their demonstrations and not be taken off course by agitators seeking to incite acts of violence. "If that's not why you are out here demonstrating, if you're a person who would take advantage of this opportunity to push your agenda and it's not about black life, shame on you! Don't let people who think this is a party — that this Lollapalooza, and this is a great time — don't let them confuse you and get you hurt. If you don't know that person, don't talk to them. Don't let them confuse your mission."

Airing such opening comments with her colleagues before allowing citizens to voice their views, Harper-Madison also called for swift action toward police reform. "Right now, at this moment, it just so happens it's the loudest it's ever been," she said of the seemingly inexorable protests taking place downtown each day since since last week. "But it's not a new sound. It's time to listen to the people telling us their truth. We need action, we need justice, and we need it right now."

At each utterance of the phrase "black lives matter" by residents addressing concil, Harper-Madison reflexively put her fist in the air in solidarity. The first time she did so provided one of the few moments of levity during a long, sobering chorus of anger when the mayor asked if she was raising her hand to speak. No, Casar interjected, raising his fist as the councilwoman explained it was a response to the civil rights mantra. Just making sure, the mayor replied.

Anger Of Police On Full Display

Across social media platforms, demonstrators consistently have conveyed the quick ease by which police use munitions amid what have largely been peaceful protests. Illustrative of this tactic, cell phone video shared on Reddit on Wednesday shows Austin police reflexively firing on a crowd after someone splashed water on the front flank of officers standing guard outside police headquarters downtown.

On Saturday, protesters literally took over streets — eschewing sidewalks to walk into roadways in paralyzing traffic. "How do you spell murders?" a protest leader with a megaphone prompted the crowd. The loud rejoinder: "APD!" Demonstrators chanted this repeatedly as they meandered along downtown streets well into the night.

(Warning: The following video contains rough language.)

Video by Tony Cantú/Patch staff.

The level of ire also was demonstated by the long queue of residents lining up to speak in a process that took hours to complete. Many residents called for Manley's firing and prosecution of the officers responsible for injuries. Others demanded that police video be released. Still many others gave eyewitness accounts of the violence from last weekend, and more spoke of being injured by projectiles themselves.

One speaker told council members of injuries to an eye, a broken nose and several bones in his cheek broken. He said he was due for another surgery in the coming days that carries the risk of losing his vision entirely in the affected eye. He told council members he has been left damaged physically, emotionally and soon, financially.

All told, 334 residents signed up to address council members during the remote meeting, and the mayor said it would likely be midnight by the time they each had an opportunity to speak. The queue of speakers actually ended an hour earlier, eight hours after the meeting's start time.

Council members scheduled an hour-long dinner break at 6 p.m. before resuming the special meeting. For the most part, Manley sat quietly, listening to the long procession of disembodied voices airing their views — many calling for his firing — via teleconferencing as a safeguard amid growing illness. Minutes after the meeting ended, a message from the Austin Police Department emerged on Facebook accompanied by more peaceful interactions between police and protesters. "Thank you for speaking with us tonight," the message read. "We see you. We hear you. We're with you."

Outside, even as the hours-long meeting ended, downtown Austin protests continued late into the night, and a petition calling for Manley's firing neared 27,000 signatures. As postscript the next day, the Austin Police Department noted no arrests were made on Thursday:

This article originally appeared on the Austin Patch