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A protester watches as tear gas is used to clear out I35 during a protest in Austin, Texas on May 31. (Sergio Flores for AMERICAN-STATESMAN) A protester watches as tear gas is used to clear out I35 during a protest in Austin, Texas on May 31. (Sergio Flores for AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

A protester watches as tear gas is used to clear out I35 during a protest in Austin, Texas on May 31. (Sergio Flores for AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

Madlin Mekelburg
By Madlin Mekelburg June 5, 2020

Have Austin police officers been 'authorized' to use live rounds, deadly force?

If Your Time is short

  • No live rounds have been fired on demonstrators in Austin, who marched in protest of racism and police brutality after the death of George Floyd.
  • Officers do not need specific authorization to use deadly force — it is always an option available to officers under the Texas Penal Code, so long as the circumstances meet the parameters outlined by law.

Law enforcement officers in Austin used pepper spray, tear gas and less-lethal ammunition against demonstrators during daily protests against racism and police brutality following the death of George Floyd and in remembrance of Mike Ramos, an unarmed man who was shot and killed in late April by Austin police officers.

Floyd was a 46-year-old black man who was arrested by police in Minneapolis and died after an officer knelt on his neck for eight minutes while handcuffed.

Social media posts circulating online suggested that Austin Police officers were using live rounds and "lethal force" against protesters over the weekend.

One post included an image that appears to be a screenshot of an Instagram story that read:

"APD has been authorized to use LIVE ROUNDS, and lethal force. Confirmed by multiple police radio scanners. If you are deciding to stay and protest be VERY aware of your surroundings, and get out before you can’t anymore."

In a direct message on Twitter, the original poster, whose name on Twitter is "DeathwishDena," said they got the information from a friend, but "I did not 100% verify it."

"I didn’t necessarily want to spread false information, but also didn’t want people being out and unaware if something (were) to go sideways," they said.

Multiple other social media posts being shared online include similar claims, attributed either to chatter from police scanners or people in the area. Other posts include the same warning about different cities.

But is this post about Austin accurate? 

Officers with the Austin Police Department do not need prior authorization to use deadly force, so long as an officer is acting within the scope of the Texas penal code. Any time an officer uses deadly force, there is an investigation within the department to determine whether the officer violated policy and an investigation to determine whether they violated the law.

Department guidelines outline levels of force available to officers to use in response to resistance, ranging from de-escalation communication techniques to the use of chemical agents and kinetic projectiles (less-lethal rounds) to the use of deadly force.

Police Chief Brian Manley said no live rounds were fired on protesters during a video chat with reporters on Monday.

"The Austin Police Department did not fire any live rounds for any type of duty pistol or rifle this weekend, and the ammunition that was fired was that less lethal bean bag round that I talked about earlier," he said.

Officers with the department used pepper spray, "less lethal impact munitions," hand-thrown smoke cylinders and hand-thrown CS gas (or tear gas) for crowd management, Manley said, noting that conditions on the ground met the required criteria for the use of these tactics. Some individual cases are still under review.

In a video distributed to officers ahead of the city’s first protest on May 31, Manley said Floyd’s death is "a stain on our profession" that "comes on the heels of many instances like this that have played out across the country over the decade."

"I urge you in the days and weeks ahead to be mindful of this and to understand that we have a community that is hurting right now,a community that has a lot of questions," Manley said. "Give that extra ounce of care when you are out there; that extra ounce of deference, understanding where we’re at right now as a society coming to terms with what happened."

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Several people were injured by bean bag rounds fired by officers during the protests that followed, including a 16-year-old and a 20-year-old who were both shot in the head by these munitions.

Ernesto Rodriguez, Chief of the Austin-Travis County Emergency Management Services, described some of the more serious injuries during an Austin City Council meeting on Friday. No injuries with live rounds were reported.

Rodriguez said these injuries are potentially lethal and could involve significant recovery time and medical care.

On Thursday, Manley said officers would stop using bean bag projectiles in crowd situations. 

Deadly force in the penal code

The Austin Police Department’s General Orders include a section about the department’s "philosophy, values and mission," which includes a mention of the possible use of deadly force while on duty.

"As such, all employees will strive to preserve human life while recognizing that duty may require the use of deadly force, as a last resort, after other reasonable alternatives have failed or been determined impractical," the manual reads.

The manual goes on to reference Texas law surrounding the use of deadly force and states that it is only justified to the extent an individual officer "reasonably believes the deadly force is immediately necessary" to protect him or herself or others from an imminent threat of death or serious injury. 

It is also justified under law when an officer is making an arrest or preventing an escape after an arrest and has probable cause to believe the person has inflicted serious injury or death or intends to commit such an act.

"Lethal force as a response to a lethal threat is always available," said Margaret Moore, the Travis County District Attorney, pointing to the state penal code statute on "justifiable force."

"But you can’t just unleash the police to go kill people," she said. "The same law is going to apply no matter what and we’re still going to have the inquiry." 

Moore said the "law of justification" for deadly force is the same for law enforcement officers as it is for civilians.

The Texas Penal Code states that a person is justified in using deadly force in self-defense, in defense of another person, in protection of life or health, or in protection of property.

If an officer uses deadly force, it prompts a law enforcement investigation and possible charges from Moore’s office, depending on whether they believe the officer was "justified" in using deadly force under the law.

Our ruling

A post on Twitter said officers with the Austin Police Department have been "authorized to use LIVE ROUNDS, and lethal force" against demonstrators protesting police brutality. 

Law enforcement officers do not need authorization to use deadly force, so long as a situation meets the criteria outlined in the Austin Police Department’s handbook and in state law. 

Officers with the department have not used live rounds on protesters during demonstrations in the city, but have fired less lethal projectiles like bean bag bullets. Several people were injured during protests over the weekend.

Law enforcement officers always have deadly force as an option, but they were not specially ordered to use this force during the protests, as the post implies. We rate this claim Half True.

Our Sources

Austin American-Statesman, Third day of protests in Austin sees I-35 blocked again, more standoffs with police, May 31, 2020

Austin American-Statesman, Austin City Council sets emergency hearing to review police tactics during protests, June 1, 2020

Austin American-Statesman, Austin Police chief responds to weekend protest against police violence, June 1, 2020

Austin American-Statesman, ‘This is not what we set out to do,’ chief says after police injure some during protests, June 1, 2020

Radio Television Digital News Association, Guidelines for Use of Information from Police Scanners, accessed June 1, 2020

Twitter, Lara Korte, May 31, 2020

Twitter, Austin Police Department, June 1, 2020

Phone interview with Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore, June 2, 2020 

Austin Police Department, General Orders, Feb. 6, 2020

Austin Police Department Video, Chief Manley's message to APD staff, received June 3, 2020
 
Austin City Council Meeting, June 5, 2020

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