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An Inside Look at Austin's Prosecutor-Police Showdown

Travis County District Attorney José Garza in Austin had no experience as a prosecutor when he was elected last year after George Floyd’s death and nationwide protests against police. He promised to end the over-prosecution of the poor and people of color. His office has obtained indictments of five Austin police officers, two county deputies, an assistant county attorney and a sheriff on charges including tampering with evidence and murder. He also is prosecuting three officers who were indicted by the prior district attorney. In many other criminal cases, he has sought sentences that emphasize rehabilitation over punishment. Those efforts have fueled one of the nation's most heated showdowns between police and prosecutors who have vowed to overhaul the criminal justice system, from San Francisco to Chicago to Baltimore. Those prosecutors have come under criticism as violent crime has risen. San Francisco’s top prosecutor is facing a recall elections. St. Louis' prosecutor accused the police union in a lawsuit of interfering with her reform efforts.

Austin's Garza gave the Washington Post a rare look inside his office during the first year of his administration. He allowed a reporter to attend weekly leadership team meetings and to conduct regular interviews with his top executives. The Post also interviewed police leaders and officers, the police union president and attorneys for the indicted officers. None of the officers has gone to trial. The tension and distrust between Garza and Austin police has damaged their relationship. Within Garza’s office, with 100 attorneys, his approach has triggered strife about whether he is going too far, too fast. Nineteen prosecutors have resigned, in many cases disagreeing openly with the level and pace of change. Garza has fired a handful for alleged misconduct. He said that his office is in the midst of a “significant cultural change” but that other like-minded district attorneys have faced greater turnover.The police union and some local activists say Garza’s agenda jeopardizes the safety of one million Austinites, pointing out that the annual homicide count — nearly 90 so far this year — is higher than it has been in decades. Supporters of Garza note that the increase is homicides is not unique to Austin and say that an influx of guns and strained community relations with police are to blame.

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