“Less deadly than a bullet, that’s not a high bar”

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AUSTIN, Texas (AP) – When an attendee at an Austin gathering to protest police brutality threw a stone at a row of officers in the Texas state capital, agents responded by firing beanbags – ammunition that killed law enforcement officers’ less then find bullets.

A beanbag broke 20-year-old Justin Howell’s skull and, according to his family, damaged his brain. In addition to the pain, police admitted that the Texas State University student was not the intended target.

Protesters took to the streets in Austin and around the country after the murder of the George Floyd police in Minneapolis on May 25. In some cases, the police reacted so violently that, although they did not intend to kill, the consequences were devastating.

Pressure has increased for a change in police tactics since Howell was injured. He was not charged with any crime. He was hospitalized in critical condition on May 31 and was discharged on Wednesday to a rehabilitation center for long-term intensive neurological, physical and occupational therapy. His brother has wondered why no one is talking about the police using less deadly yet dangerous ammunition.

“If we are only talking about police work in terms of policies and processes or the weapons that the police use when someone dies or when they are ‘quite deadly’ and no less deadly, we miss much of the conversation,” said Josh Howell , a computer science student at Texas A&M University.

Austin police said in a press release that before June 1, its officers used Def-Tec 12-gauge beanbag ammunition on protesters. According to the manufacturer’s website, they have a speed of 184 mph. Howell said that any ammunition fired at such a speed can be fatal.

“Anything shot at 90 miles per hour is deadly,” Howell said.

Ishia Lynette, a spokeswoman for the Austin Justice Coalition, said her group had rallied with an expected 10,000 attendees, but that was canceled after Howell was shot. With anger flaring on both sides, the organization that advocated racial justice feared confrontations.

“In a way, I feel safe, but it’s always in the back of my mind, what if? Other people can incite violence, be it other protesters or the police, “said Lynette.

Austin City Council has since launched a police review, banning the use of less lethal ammunition and tear gas in crowds participating in free speech, and banning the use of chokeholds and strongholds. The Howell attack is one of over 100 under investigation. Austin police chief Brian Manley said he changed departmental policies to ban the use of less deadly ammunition in protests.

Lynette praised the city’s efforts to change, but said it seemed that not all members of the police had taken them to heart. Her organization calls on Manley to resign.

“They’ve recently banned chokeholds, rubber bullets, bean bags,” she said. “These are small things, but we need them to take more actions to stop hurting protesters. I have since seen videos of them working the same way. If they stick to what they said, that’s not enough, but it’s a start. ‘

David Foster, who videotaped the moments after Howell was shot, said he saw protesters throwing fist-sized stones and water bottles at the police over an overpass. Then he saw Howell fall. He bled profusely and had a seizure, Foster said.

While red-cross medical volunteers on their arms helped Foster move Howell to a safe place, the officers re-opened fire. Foster’s video shows the police shooting at them.

Manley said at a news conference that Howell was not the intended target, and insisted that the officer target the person he said attacked the police line at Austin Police Headquarters.

“One of the officers apparently fired their less deadly ammunition at that person, but this victim was hit instead,” said Manley. “Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and we hope his condition will improve soon.”

Howell was not the first person at the Austin meetings to be injured by the police. A day earlier, 16-year-old Brad Levi Ayala, who watched a protest remotely, was also shot in the head with a beanbag.

“We can’t really find comfort in the phrase ‘less deadly,'” said Josh Howell. “Because if what we mean is less deadly than a bullet, that’s not a high bar to clear.”

He declined to comment on the steps the city and the police chief said they took because he doesn’t live in Austin.


Acacia Coronado is a member of the Associated Press / Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a national non-profit service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercover-related issues.

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