5 officers investigated over use of force at Austin protests

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Five Austin police officers are on paid administrative duty amid an investigation into the use of what authorities call “less lethal” force during May protests against police brutality and racial injustice, according to the police department.

The investigation follows public outcry after two people participating in protests in Austin sparked by the death of George Floyd were seriously injured by officers’ bean bag rounds — ammunition that law enforcement deems “less lethal” than bullets.

Officers Nicholas Gebhart, Kyu An, John Siegel, Derrick Lehman and Kyle Felton were placed under investigation as of Friday, and their duties have been limited.

A spokeswoman for Austin police said in an email Tuesday that the department could not confirm whether the officers were involved in the cases of 20-year-old Justin Howell or 16-year-old Brad Levi Ayala, who were both hospitalized after being unintentionally shot in the head with bean bag rounds during protests the last weekend of May.

The statement cited ongoing investigations in its reasoning for limiting the release of information.

The Austin Police Association did not immediately respond to The Associated Press for comment Tuesday.

Paid administrative duty limits the type of work officers can do while they are under investigation. Austin police policy says officers can be placed on paid administrative duty pending investigations into any force that resulted in serious bodily injury requiring hospitalization and the use of impact weapons.

The Austin Police Special Investigations Unit and the Internal Affairs Division are working to identify other officers involved in protest-related incidents, according to the statement.

Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, died May 25 after pleading for air while a white Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee onto Floyd’s neck for nearly eight minutes. His killing catalyzed global protests against racism and police brutality. Protesters in Austin and across the nation took to the streets, and the force used by police during some clashes, while not fatal, had devastating consequences.

From 1990 to 2014, rubber bullets caused 53 deaths and 300 permanent disabilities among 1,984 serious injuries recorded by medical workers in over a dozen countries, according to Rohini Haar, an emergency room doctor in Oakland, California, and primary author of the 2016 Physicians for Human Rights report.

The Austin Police Department Chief Brian Manley said Austin police would no longer use less lethal munitions in crowd situations during a special Austin City Council meeting on June 4. More than 300 people signed up for public comment during the meeting to speak on police use of force witnessed during the late May protests.

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Acacia Coronado is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for america Statehouse News Initiative. Report for america is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

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