'Less lethal shotguns' suspended in Austin, Texas, after officers used munitions on 15-year-old girl

AUSTIN, Texas — Austin Police Department officials have suspended the use of "less lethal shotguns" that wounded Black Lives Matter protesters in 2020 and raised new concerns by prosecutors on how they were used on a 15-year-old girl suspected of no crime.

The latest police directive followed a July 28 memo, obtained by the American-Statesman, part of the USA TODAY Network, from Travis County District Attorney José Garza to Austin Police Chief Joe Chacon. In the memo, Garza highlighted the case involving the 15-year-old girl — which prosecutors did not present to a grand jury but believe could have resulted in charges of assault, official oppression or deadly conduct against the officers involved.

Assistant Police Chief Robin Henderson, chief of staff for Chacon, said in a Friday memo to the department that the directive was the result of recent conversations with the county district attorney’s office about the weapons’ “pattern of use and legal implications, including the potential for future prosecutions therefrom."

"Effective immediately, all sworn personnel will cease the use of less lethal shotguns," the memo added. “This cessation may be temporary as APD and the (District Attorney’s office) complete their dialogue."

After the social justice protests three years ago, the department said they would not use the "less lethal" weapons, which fire beanbag rounds as a means for crowd control but have also been used in other instances. The use of the weapons during protests had resulted in several serious injuries and 19 indictments against Austin police officers, with all but one of those cases still pending.

Henderson wrote in the department email that police want an opportunity to give prosecutors more information on the basis of the department’s training and policies concerning the munitions. 

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Before Friday’s order, Austin police were allowed to use the munitions if a person was engaging in “riotous” behavior such as throwing objects at officers or buildings; if a person was armed and the munitions might cause the person to drop a weapon; if the person had made a credible threat about hurting themselves or others; or if a person was refusing to obey orders and there was a belief that they had already committed a violent crime. Officers were also required to give a warning before firing the weapon.

Police have said they were thrown into an unprecedented situation in which thousands of protesters overtook Austin streets and Interstate 35, and that the munitions did not function properly. The city has paid $18.9 million in settlements to the 15 people injured during the protests.

The Austin Police Department's decision also follows national criticism over the police weaponry, which was initially endorsed as safe and nonlethal for decades. Since the George Floyd protests in 2020, where thousands of people protested in streets across the country, the use of these weapons have highlighted decades of harm and systemic issues.

Thousands of protesters march from Huston-Tillotson University to the Capitol in June 2020. In social justice protests that summer, several participants received serious injuries from beanbag rounds.

'Less lethal' weapon used on girl, prosecutors say

In June 2021, police were serving an arrest warrant related to a shooting 10 days earlier. Police were seeking the 15-year-old girl’s older brother, who was a suspect in the shooting, according to a lawsuit filed in January 2022.

The Statesman reported that Shivon Beltran, the mother, was the first to exit the home when officers arrived, followed by her son, who was taken into custody without incident

Officers then instructed the girl to exit. She walked backward as instructed and turned around so she would not fall. The girl was then shot in her left thigh and fell injured to the ground, according to the lawsuit.

"Rather than help her as she lay wounded, upon information and belief, the shooter and other APD officers yelled at her to crawl back to them," the lawsuit stated.

Police then handcuffed her, the suit said. Austin police cleared the officers of any wrongdoing in the case.

In his letter, Garza said that prosecutors, using their discretion, chose not to take the case to a grand jury and to instead engage in a conversation with the department and city about a “concerning pattern” in the use of the munitions. 

He said he believes a grand jury could have “reasonably concluded” that officers might have shot the girl because she was slow to put down her cell phone and “not because they were justified to do so under the law.” Garza also wrote that he did not present the case because it did not result in serious injury or death.

“It is the expectation of the (district attorney’s office) that the city will use this incident as an opportunity to examine and address its training and policies governing the use of shotguns with modified munitions,” he wrote.

Attorney Jeff Edwards, who represents the 15-year-old girl, said: "While I would have preferred the police department would have changed its practices as result of hurting so many innocent people, rather than the fear of future prosecutions, the decision by the department will protect the community from this obviously dangerous and too often misused weapon."

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Use of police weaponry has drawn scrutiny over years

An investigation by USA TODAY and Kaiser Health News in 2020 revealed a pattern in the use of police weaponry in the United States.

For decades, peace officers have targeted civilian demonstrators with munitions causing people to suffer from various injuries, including head wounds such as bone fractures, blindness and traumatic brain injuries. Activists and critics of these weapons have long urged police to stop the use of "less lethal" weapons for crowd control.

Incidents have shown a pattern of victims filing lawsuits, cities paying millions of dollars in settlements, and police departments attempting to reform their policies. But the pattern appears to repeat itself every few years.

Last month, New York City agreed to pay more than $13 million to Floyd protesters, settling a federal lawsuit against the city's police department.

Since the protests, several major U.S. cities and states have enacted or proposed restrictions or bans on the use "less lethal" projectiles.

According to a 2020 report from the Physicians for Human Rights, at least 115 people were injured that summer during the protests where protesters and law enforcement officers clashed over racial injustice and police brutality.

The organization had identified Austin, Texas; Portland, Oregon; and Los Angeles as hotspots for these incidents. But the number of injuries is believed to be an undercount due to reports with inadequate evidence and publicly available data.

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