AUSTIN, Texas — Two Austin police officers have been indicted for using force on a man in a case nearly two years old that police officials closed with no findings of wrongdoing against the officers.
Officers Chance Bretches and Gregory Gentry face felony assault by a public servant charges in Travis County court. The extent of the man's injuries as a result of the force was not immediately clear.
"The potential criminal conduct in question came to the attention of the Office's Civil Rights Unit last year," a written statement from the Travis County District Attorney’s Office stated. "Two experienced senior Assistant District Attorneys reviewing the narcotics case were sufficiently concerned by the conduct they observed and independently alerted the case to the unit. The investigation was opened and approved for presentation to a grand jury last year."
The cases have already touched off a blistering response to new Travis County District Attorney Jose Garza by police union officials and attorneys representing the officers.
The March 2019 incident was captured on body camera footage, which was not released Friday. The case involved an investigation over drug activity and recent shooting incidents.
The indictments mark the first time since 2018 that an Austin police officer has been indicted in a force case. The 2018 case resulted in acquittals at trial against those officers.
The officers' attorneys, Ken Ervin and Doug O'Connell, said in a statement that the incident was reviewed by multiple people within the department and found that the force was within policy and law.
"Mr. Garza's job is to see that justice is done," they said in a statement. "It is not to accumulate police officer indictments to make good on a campaign talking point."
Austin Police Chief Brian Manley released the following statement Friday morning:
The Austin Police Department is aware that a Travis County Grand Jury indicted Officers Greg Gentry and Chance Bretches for an incident that occurred in March of 2019. Officers were engaged in a drug interdiction operation in response to a recent complaint regarding increased drug activity and recent shooting incidents. Officers observed two subjects, one who appeared to be engaging in multiple narcotics transactions, and approached the subjects to investigate. As officers approached, the second subject was taken into custody, however, the subject observed in suspected narcotics dealing did not comply with officers directions and resisted their attempts to secure him in handcuffs. A significant struggle ensued as the officers attempted to overcome the suspect’s resistance, resulting in injuries to both the suspect and the officers. The suspect was transported to the hospital for treatment of his injuries. This incident was presented to the Grand Jury and resulted in the two indictments.
This incident was reviewed in accordance with APD policy in 2019 and the officers’ actions were deemed compliant with policy and training. This review included members of the APD Executive Team, the Special Investigations Unit (for compliance with criminal statute), and the Force Review Board (who reviewed the incident from a tactics and training perspective). The Office of Police Oversight reviewed this incident on April 19, 2019, including video of the incident, with members of the APD Executive Team. Additionally, APD staffed this case with the former District Attorney and based on the Department’s findings that the officers’ conduct was within policy, the case was not forwarded to the DA’s Civil Rights Division.
APD respects the role the Grand Jury holds in the criminal justice process and will continue to cooperate with the District Attorney’s Office as needed on this case. As with anyone charged with an offense, these officers are presumed innocent unless found guilty through the criminal process. In respect of their right to a fair trial, we will not be commenting further. Both officers have been placed on administrative duty at this time and will remain in that status through the conclusion of the criminal proceedings.
Defense attorney Ervin and O’Connell's full statement can be read below:
This use of force was reviewed by the Austin Police Department’s Special Investigations Unit, the Force Review Board, the officers’ chain of command including Chief Manley, and former elected DA Margaret Moore. The collective experience among these individuals spans decades. The consensus was that the officers’ use of force was lawful and appropriate. We are gravely concerned that the judgment of newly elected DA Garza, whose lifelong prosecution experience consists of seven weeks, is that both officers committed first-degree felonies punishable by life in prison.
We are forced to conclude the grand jury that heard this case was only given information calculated to produce indictments. Once again, we call on Mr. Garza to fulfill his promise of transparency and record and transcribe all grand jury proceedings involving law enforcement officers so that judges, defense attorneys, and ultimately the public can be confident in fair and thorough proceedings. Mr. Garza’s job is to see that justice is done. It is not to accumulate police officer indictments to make good on a campaign talking point.
We are pleased to see Chief Manley joining us in taking a stand against these improper indictments and we expect to see the officers acquitted at trial.
The Austin Police Association also issued a letter to the public:
To our Austin Community:
As you may have heard by now, two of our officers have been indicted by a Travis County Grand Jury. It is important to lay out the facts, so people have a full understanding of how we got to where we are and why the Austin Police Association is doing what we are doing.
Towards the end of March 2019 (yes, almost 2 years ago), Officers Chance Bretches and Greg Gentry were assigned to the Street Narcotics Unit within the Organized Crime Division. At the time, our city was seeing an uptick in violent crime in North-East Austin, particularly in the Northgate area. Many of these cases had a narcotics component of some sort and officers were responding to an unusually high number of robberies, shootings, and murders. As a result of this uptick, the Street Narcotics Unit was tasked with doing proactive work in the area in an attempt to arrest people who were selling drugs, committing assaults and robberies and any other crimes in the area that might tend to make the area less safe for the community that lives in the area. Specifically, the night before this incident, there was a shooting in the exact apartment complex that this arrest happened.
While working this proactive assignment, Officers conducted surveillance and observed two males who appeared to be engaged in the sale of narcotics. In fact, Officer Gentry personally observed multiple hand-to-hand transactions and officers moved into effect arrests in this case.
When you get an opportunity to see the body cam video from this case, you will see that one subject is compliant and is taken into custody with minimal issue. The other subject actively resists arrest and while doing so, reaches towards his waistband with both hands. In response to this resistance, force is used to place this individual under arrest. He was charged with and eventually plead guilty to 3rd Degree Felony Possession of a Controlled Substance (crack cocaine) and Tampering with Evidence and is currently serving a 3-year sentence for those crimes.
Folks, this is the ugly part of the job. It never looks pretty when we are put in situations where we must respond to someone else’s force and/or resistance with force of our own. It has never looked pretty, and it never will.
Now that you have the back story, we move on to what happened over the past few weeks. In the first work week of January, we were advised that Former District Attorney Margaret Moore had helped the new DA, Jose Garza, pick a Grand Jury to start the year. We also learned that this case, one where a man pleaded guilty and is currently in the prison for his crimes, was going to be presented to the Grand Jury for consideration of filing charges against our officers.
You see, it is important to understand that when this use of force happened back in March of 2019, it was investigated by our own Special Investigations Unit (SIU) and the findings were presented to the Chief. The then District Attorney Margaret Moore was even briefed on the case. The chain of command reviewed the response to resistance like normal and even 6 commanders and an attorney from City Legal on the Force Review Board looked at the case from a tactics/training/equipment standpoint. Chief Manley signed off on the use of force as objectively reasonable as did the chain of command and the investigation was closed. This case was not forwarded to the DA’s office for review because it was clear that through the thorough review, the force used was objectively reasonable.
The facts are there aren’t any policy violations in this case. There aren’t any law violations in this case. The suspect in this case pleaded guilty because the department had overwhelming evidence to convict him of the crime. There is also overwhelmingly strong evidence that the force used in this case was objectively reasonable and by its very definition, did not violate any policy or law of the State of Texas.
So why are we here? The biggest reason we are here is because District Attorney Garza believes his sole role is to prosecute officers. Instead of going after violent criminals who continue to terrorize our city, he uses his time to maliciously prosecute these officers in an attempt to gain political favor from the activist community that he seeks to serve.
Mr. Garza, hear this. The Austin Police Association will not stand idly by while you use the hardworking men and women of the Police Department as pawns in your delusional game of political chess. We will proactively monitor the actions of your office having potential for extreme negative ramifications on our officers and the community in Austin, Travis County. The APA will take an active stance highlighting to the community your anti-police agenda and motivations behind your political decisions to unjustly prosecute officers who were lawfully fulfilling their duties to keep Austin safe.
Signed by the Austin Police Association’s Executive Board
The Travis County DA's Office on Friday also announced the return of a third indictment, charging Travis County Sheriff's Office Corrections Officer Shannon D. Owens with the felony offenses of aggravated perjury and tampering with a governmental record with the intent to defraud or harm another. His case will be prosecuted and is currently pending in the 450th Judicial District Court for Travis County, Texas.
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