A Police Union Official Hopes Fear Of The Defund Movement Will Propel Him To The Texas House

Republicans could lose their grip on the state House this November, and their control over the 2021 redistricting process hangs in the balance.

Meg O'Connor   |    October 1, 2020

The Texas capitol (Photo by Trac Vu/Unsplash)

This article originally appeared on The Appeal, which hosted The Political Report project.

A police union vice president who once compared Black Lives Matter protesters to the Ku Klux Klan is running for an important Texas House seat this November. Justin Berry, a 12-year veteran of the Austin Police Department with a history of alleged misconduct, is the Republican candidate for District 47—which includes part of Travis County and of Austin.

Democrats could flip the Texas House of Representatives for the first time in almost two decades this November. About 30 seats are seen as competitive, including the one in District 47, which flipped blue in 2018. To take the chamber, Democrats would need to pick up nine seats and defend all of their own—and District 47, where Democratic state Representative Vikky Goodwin is running for a second term, is among the most endangered.

If Democrats win the House, the GOP stronghold on the Texas state government would end. Their win would put a dramatic stop to conservatives’ ability to push their preferred policies on high-profile matters from abortion rights to energy policy, and it would give Democrats a seat at the redistricting table. It would also make it harder for the legislature to preempt progressive experiments at the municipal level, which has been a big issue in Austin.

Berry and Texas Governor Greg Abbott, who endorsed him, are hoping to scare voters into flipping the District 47 seat back. In August, the Austin City Council voted to cut roughly $20 million in funding from the Austin Police Department and move an additional $80 million out of the department’s budget by moving some civilian functions, like the forensics lab and dispatch, out of APD. 

Since then, Abbott has threatened to have state law enforcement agencies take control of Austin’s police force and limit property tax revenue for Austin and any other city that reduces police budgets. Berry, meanwhile, has repeatedly mischaracterized what the City Council’s proposal actually does and claimed Austin will soon have the highest homicide rate in the country. 

But none of that is true. Austin has one of the lowest homicide rates of any major city in the country. Contrary to Berry’s claim that “150 officers over night have lost their current jobs at APD,” the City Council’s budget proposal did not call for a single officer to be fired. Rather, it put hiring on hold, which the police department would have had to do anyway, since they are still revamping their troubled police academy‘s curriculum. And Berry blamed the defund movement for dissolving a slew of APD units. Though Austin Police Chief Brian Manley claimed the City Council proposal forced him to dissolve those units, he is the one who proposed cutting them. The only immediate budget cut from the City Council’s proposal comes mainly from delaying the cadet class and reducing overtime.

“He’s trying to fearmonger and do everything he can to try to keep hold of the state House,” Austin City Councilmember Gregorio Casar told The Appeal. “Having somebody [like Berry], who is so anti-civil rights, elected from Austin is a perch from which the anti-Black Lives Matter legislators can attack the civil rights gains we’re making here.”

Abbott and Berry are taking a page out of Trump’s playbook. Though nationwide protests over police brutality and racism have bolstered calls to take funding away from police departments and reinvest that money in social services, many U.S. cities are actually increasing police spending this year, or leaving police budgets untouched. But to hear Trump tell it, the country has descended into chaos and been besieged by lawless rioters. 

“I don’t believe this race for anybody is about anything but Donald Trump,” said Scott Henson, policy director at Just Liberty, a Texas-based nonprofit that advocates for criminal justice reform. “The Republicans are trying to use the Austin budget stuff to divert attention. … It’s so much of the Donald Trump messaging, the ‘American carnage’ messaging.”

“It’s so strange Governor Abbott would go to Fort Worth to complain about how unsafe Austin is, when their murder rate is so much higher than Austin’s,” Henson added. “It’s about electoral politics, not public safety.”

Across the country, Republican governors have likewise responded to police brutality protests with fearmongering and threats. Last week, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis put forth legislation to criminalize protesters and ban state aid to cities that cut funding from police departments. In Tennessee, lawmakers have moved to make it a felony to camp overnight around the state Capitol or trespass on the property of an elected official, police officer, or judge.

Berry has leaned into his career as a police officer throughout his campaign, yet his record with APD has received little coverage in local press during his run for state legislature.

In 2010, he was involved in a fatal shooting and placed on administrative leave after he and another officer shot at a 38-year-old father of four when responding to a domestic disturbance call three days after Christmas.

One year later, Berry made headlines for allegedly breaking a woman’s wrist during a traffic stop. On January 18, 2011, Milan Luna was sitting in the passenger seat of a friend’s vehicle when police pulled them over for not having headlights on, the Austin Chronicle reported. Luna, then a 42-year-old bass player, sat in the car while police spoke with her friend outside of the vehicle. According to Luna, when she rolled the window up to keep out the cold after she had talked to the cops, Berry rushed over to the pickup, forcibly opened her door, and told her to get out.

When she got out, Luna says she was slammed against the side of a different truck and two officers handcuffed her with hands behind her back. Luna alleges that Berry pulled on her hands and fingers with such force he pulled her off the ground and broke her wrist.

Then, in August 2012, Berry arrested activist and Iraq War veteran Antonio Buehler for filming him. A judge later dismissed the charges against Buehler, who co-founded the Peaceful Streets Project, a police accountability group that records police officers.

Berry has also used his influence as a police union representative to lobby for measures to protect police at the state capitol. The Austin Police Association has said Berry was instrumental in passing a 2015 law that made it a felony to post personal information about a peace officer and their family online.

Berry did not respond to emails seeking comment.

In 2012, Berry authored an alarmist memo calling police accountability groups domestic terrorists. In emails obtained through a FOIA request and published online, Berry claimed that a “nationwide movement has begun against the United States Government and all government officials including those at the local level and the police officers employed by these agencies.” 

He claimed Austin activists are “basically … basing all their movements” off of the film “V for Vendetta” and are manufacturing problems in order to bring about a revolution. He listed a range of activist groups in the email to his superiors, including the Peaceful Streets Project, Occupy Austin, Texans for Accountable Government, and the Institute for Justice.

Calling police reform advocates extremists is a common refrain of Berry’s. In a September 2018 appearance on a local radio show, Berry decried advocates’ desire to be included in civilian oversight of police. 

“Who is sitting on that panel?” Berry said. “We’re a country where you’re to be judged by your peers. And if the only people who want to get involved in that panel are activists with an agenda and a bias against law enforcement in general, without regard to facts, that’s no different than a person in the 1950s standing trial before an entire jury of KKK members.”

Now that Austin has moved to shrink the department’s budget and power, Berry has shared story after story of crimes committed in Austin on social media and painted each as a direct result of the City Council’s budget proposal which, by and large, has yet to even go into effect. 

“Justin Berry took the last major movement that resulted in mass protests and tried to turn that movement into something people needed to be afraid of,” said Kathy Mitchell, policy coordinator at Just Liberty. But such a campaign is “a very strange choice in Austin [today], because we are an extremely safe city. Our crime is among the lowest in the country for a city our size. So the fear mongering and hyperbole is sort of readily apparent.”