Austin will pay $8 million settlement to San Antonio man critically injured by police at 2020 protest

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click to enlarge Justin Elliott Howell, a college student from San Antonio, was shot in the head by a "less lethal" bean bag round and suffered brain damage. - Screen Capture / GoFundMe
Screen Capture / GoFundMe
Justin Elliott Howell, a college student from San Antonio, was shot in the head by a "less lethal" bean bag round and suffered brain damage.

The city of Austin will pay $8 million to settle a federal lawsuit filed by a San Antonio man critically injured by law enforcement officers during a May 2020 anti-police brutality protest, the Austin-American Statesman reports.

That payout to Justin Howell, who suffered a severe head injury from so-called "less-lethal" bean bag rounds fired by Austin police, is the city's largest-ever settlement in an excessive force case, according to the paper.

Austin City Council approved the payment Thursday. It also agreed to a $2 million settlement with Anthony Evans, who also suffered a head injury from a police bean bag round that night, the Statesman reported.

In a statement, the city of Austin said both men will need long-term care as a result of their injuries.

Approval of the settlements came the same day as a Travis County grand jury indicted 19 officers on accusations they used excessive force during the protest, the Texas Tribune reports. The incidents occurred as thousands gathered in downtown Austin to decry the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer and the shooting of Michael Ramos by a member of Austin's police force.

“We believe many protesters injured by law enforcement officers during the protest were innocent bystanders. We also believe that the overwhelming majority of victims in the incidents that were investigated suffered significant injuries,” Travis County District Attorney José Garza said during a Thursday press conference, according to the Tribune. “Some will never fully recover.”

Howell, a 20-year-old political science major at Texas State University at the time of his injury, suffered both skull fractures and brain damage, according to his family.

In a news conference following the protest, Austin's then-police chief, Brian Manley, said an officer struck Howell after attempting to fire at someone else who'd thrown a projectile.

Video circulated on social media showed officers continuing to fire as protesters tried to carry the critically wounded Howell to safety. 

"[I]f you really want to know what happened, there is no substitute for the raw, unedited video," Howell's older brother Joshua wrote in a college newspaper editorial. "In it, you will see five people carrying Justin’s limp body toward police headquarters, begging the officers to get him medical attention. As they do, the police fire some 15 rounds (many of which were at the protesters carrying my brother) over the course of about 30 seconds."

Howell's injury was among roughly three dozen reported by participants hit by police bean bag rounds at the protest, according to the Statesman. Earlier this month, Austin agreed to pay $150,000 to Arianna Chavez, who suffered a concussion after one of the rounds struck her in the back of the head, the paper reported.

Jeff Edwards, an attorney for Howell and Evans told the Statesman he hopes the settlement will prompt soul searching by Austin police officials.

"What happened at the protests is as bad as it gets," he said. "Not only did numerous officers attack innocent people in crowds with deadly weapons, the very highest level of the departments knew what was happening and did not stop it. If APD’s leadership simply acknowledged this, then maybe the department could repair its image and improve its policing. But that, unfortunately, is not something a settlement can achieve. That comes from within."  

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