Sneha Dey

WNBA star Brittney Griner’s detention in Russia extended at least six more months pending trial

The detention of Brittney Griner, the WNBA professional basketball player from Houston who was arrested in Russia more than four months ago, has been extended by six months pending the outcome of her trial, her lawyer told CNN on Monday.

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Griner’s trial is scheduled to start Friday. The Phoenix Mercury player, who plays in Russia during the American league’s off-season, has been held in detention since mid-February and faces charges punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

Griner was arrested at Sheremetyevo International Airport near Moscow after arriving from New York. Russian officials claimed to have found vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage.

U.S. State Department officials have classified Griner as “wrongfully detained,” which sparked a growing movement for the player’s release led by her wife, Cherelle Griner.

The Women’s National Basketball Players Association, along with dozens of civil and human rights organizations, signed a letter this month demanding President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris strike a deal for Griner’s release.

U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, who represents Griner's hometown of Houston, said she discussed Griner’s detainment at a meeting with Biden. Fellow WNBA players have also taken to social media to increase pressure on the Biden administration.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said that the release of the WNBA player is a “priority” but has not shared details as to how that might happen.

“I’ve got no higher priority than making sure that Americans who are being illegally detained in one way or another around the world come home,” Blinken said on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday.

Blinken also said he was in contact with Cherelle Griner, who has told the Associated Press she is not confident that the Biden administration is making her wife’s case a priority.

Griner’s detention comes amid U.S. efforts to support Ukraine in that country’s continued invasion by Russia, and her supporters have expressed fear that Griner is being used as a political pawn.

The Russian news agency TASS has hinted that the U.S. and Russia could reach a deal to exchange Griner for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who is serving a 25-year prison sentence in the U.S. for agreeing to sell arms to a Colombian terrorist group. When asked about the likelihood of such an exchange at a May press briefing, a U.S. State Department spokesperson declined to comment, saying, “I’m not going to get into — I’m not going to entertain that.”

Another Texas native who was being held in jail by Russia, former Marine Trevor Reed, was released in April in a prisoner exchange.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/06/27/wnba-brittney-griner-russia-detention/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

US Justice Department will review Uvalde response as furor mounts over law enforcement actions

May 29, 2022

"U.S. Justice Department will review Uvalde response as furor mounts over law enforcement actions" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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The U.S. Department of Justice will review the law enforcement’s response to the Uvalde school massacre as local police face intense scrutiny for not acting quickly enough to confront the shooter.

“The goal of the review is to provide an independent account of law enforcement actions and responses that day, and to identify lessons learned and best practices to help first responders prepare for and respond to active shooter events,” Anthony Coley, a spokesperson for the U.S. Justice Department, wrote in a statement Sunday.

Uvalde Mayor Don McLaughlin requested the Justice Department investigation, Coley said.

Police officers made a crucial error in waiting to stop the 18-year-old gunman rampaging at Robb Elementary School because the school district's chief of police wanted to wait for backup and equipment, said Steven McCraw, director of the Texas Department of Public Safety. Meanwhile, students were still trapped inside with the gunman, repeatedly calling 911 for help.

By the time a specialized team of federal officers arrived and entered the school, more than an hour had passed since the shooter had arrived at the school, McCraw said.

“From the benefit of hindsight, where I’m sitting now, of course it was not the right decision,” McCraw said. “It was the wrong decision, period. There's no excuse for that.”

“When it comes to an active shooter, you don't have to wait on tactical gear, plain and simple,” he said.

After the mass shooting at Colorado’s Columbine High School in 1999, law enforcement moved away from the tactics of waiting and setting a perimeter during an active shooter situation. Police are now trained to immediately enter and try to stop the shooter.

Since the shooting, state law enforcement officials have given vague and conflicting answers on what exactly happened after the gunman arrived at the school. In the days after the massacre at Robb Elementary, officials with the Texas Department of Public Safety said the shooter was met by a police officer employed by the school district — and gave conflicting accounts about whether the officer fired at the gunman.

Agency officials now say there was no police officer on campus when the shooter first arrived — but did not explain why they first believed there was.

Gov. Greg Abbott has also walked back some of his initial statements about the shooting, saying he was “misled” about the police response.

“I am livid about what happened,” Abbott said during a Friday conference in Uvalde. “The information I was given turned out, in part, to be inaccurate, and I am absolutely livid about that.”

U.S. Rep Joaquin Castro called for the FBI to intervene and launch an independent investigation into the police response to the shooting.

Uvalde County Commissioner Ronald Garza on CBS’ “Face the Nation” said he “welcomed” a federal inquiry. Garza said he was “still in the dark” over the slow law enforcement response to the shooting.

“We need to learn more,” Garza added. “As tragic as this may seem, we need to learn from this, you know. And parents deserve answers.”

Abby Livingston contributed reporting.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/05/29/uvalde-shooting-response-justice-department/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

An Austin cop has been charged with police misconduct. That might actually help his Texas House campaign

Feb. 19, 2022

"An Austin cop has been charged with police misconduct. That might actually help his Texas House campaign." was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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Republican Justin Berry’s Texas House campaign has centered largely on his 14-year tenure as an Austin police officer. He vows on his website to use that professional experience to “protect our neighborhoods, schools and private property.”

But less than two weeks before the March 1 GOP primary, Berry was among 19 Austin law enforcement officers indicted and accused of using excessive force on anti-police brutality protesters in 2020. Berry and law enforcement groups quickly pushed back on the development, which they portrayed as a political stunt from a Democratic district attorney who won office after promising to hold law enforcement accountable.

“The question is not how the prosecution will turn out,” Berry said in a statement late Friday. “We will be acquitted. The question is: When police are treated like this, who will want to become police officers?”

That messaging — and the indictments themselves — could spur Republican voters in the predominantly white and mostly Republican Central Texas district to back Berry, political experts and local Republicans say.

“It's rocket fuel to his campaign,” said Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University. “There's not a lot of sleep lost or concern over excessive use of force against demonstrators in Austin.”

A 2020 University of Texas / Texas Tribune poll conducted after that year’s protests against police brutality found a stark partisan and racial divide in whether voters had a favorable or unfavorable view of law enforcement. In that poll, 84% of Republicans had a favorable opinion of law enforcement, while only 30% of Democrats did. Among white voters, 69% had a favorable opinion, but only 33% of Black voters and 43% of Hispanic voters did.

Central Texas’ House District 19 largely covers suburbs and Hill Country towns west of Austin where 82% of eligible voters are white. The mostly Republican district was redrawn during last year’s redistricting process. Former President Donald Trump would have carried the district in 2020 by nearly 40 percentage points. That means the Republican nominee will likely beat the lone Democrat seeking the seat in the November general election.

"Republican primary voters are very pro-law enforcement,” said Travis County GOP Chair Matt Mackowiak. “And I think a lot of Republican primary voters are going to view these indictments as an outrage. So it could be the kind of thing that raises his profile, that gives him a cause to cite on the campaign trail to galvanize supporters. "

Protesters across the state and country flooded the streets for weeks in 2020 after a Minneaopolis police officer murdered George Floyd, a Black man. The protests divided Americans along partisan lines. Black Lives Matter supporters say the demonstrations were an outcry against police officers’ use of force on Black people, who are killed at disproportionately higher rates in police custody. But critics, including Republican officials across all levels of government, depicted the protests as violent and destructive uprisings.

In a statement late Friday, Berry echoed those GOP portrayals of the demonstrations as violent when he criticized Travis County District Attorney José Garza for pursuing the indictments.

“DA Garza promised in his campaign to go after law enforcement officials even when they are risking their lives protecting Austin from being burnt to the ground,” Berry said. “He is keeping that deadly promise.”

Garza announced the indictments at a press conference Thursday, but said his office was not disclosing details about the charges until individual officers are arrested and booked into jail. That means it’s not yet publicly known what crime or crimes Berry is accused of committing during the 2020 protests. A police union official said the officers face accusations of excessive force. Berry’s lawyer declined to comment until the indictment against his client is made public.

Austin Police Chief Joseph Chacon defended his officers this week. He and City Manager Spencer Cronk said they did not think officers should face criminal charges.

In announcing the indictments, Garza said many of the protesters injured were innocent bystanders. But Berry said Garza “demonizes police” and “demands that police abandon their oaths.”

Police said demonstrators threw bottles and rocks at officers, sometimes injuring them, damaging police cars and breaking into stores. But advocates and protesters expressed outrage over police officers turning to violent crowd-control measures, including bean bag rounds.

Cities and communities in Texas continue to grapple with the aggressive tactics that police waged against protesters that year. Police officers all over Texas and the nation have faced charges for how they dealt with protesters. Last week, the Dallas County district attorney's office issued warrants for two Dallas police officers’ arrest for their alleged use of force during the 2020 racial justice protests in that city.

The Austin indictments are among the highest tied to a single city’s police force in connection with the 2020 protests so far, according to the Associated Press.

Earlier Thursday, the Austin City Council unanimously approved a settlement with two demonstrators who suffered severe head injuries in 2020. Justin Howell will receive $8 million — the highest amount ever awarded in an excessive force case involving an Austin police officer, the Austin American-Statesman reported. Anthony Evans, another protester, will get $2 million.

Craig Murphy, a spokesperson for Berry’s campaign, said the Texas House candidate and the other officers followed orders, and expects the jury to find them not guilty.

“They did exactly what they were told to do with the tools they were given and with the training they were given,” Murphy said.

In the primary, Berry faces former Austin City Council member Ellen Troxclair, former legislative staffer Nubia Devine and military veteran Perla Hopkins. Devine declined to comment on the indictment. Hopkins and Troxclair did not respond to requests for comment.

According to the candidates’ Jan. 31 campaign finance reports, Troxclair had the financial edge heading into the primary’s homestretch. She had more than $412,000 cash on hand in January. Berry had more than $36,000, Devine had nearly $23,000, while Hopkins trailed behind with almost $2,300.

Democratic candidate Pam Baggett, whom the Republican nominee will face in November, said there is not enough information to determine how Berry was involved.

“We're going to have to wait and see what actually is the charge. We don't know yet,” Baggett said.

With the March 1 primary election less than two weeks away, The Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas executive director Charley Wilkison said the timing of the indictment was intended to drive voter turnout for “anti-police candidates.” The Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas has previously endorsed Berry.

The proceedings against Berry and the 18 other police officers could take months or years to resolve. Mackowiak said that creates uncertainty among voters, and could take Berry’s attention away from the campaign.

The scheduling of indictment proceedings against Berry was unusual, Mackowiak, the Travis County GOP chair, added.

“We don’t see candidates get indicted days before an election,” Mackowiak said. “In fact, generally, law enforcement, whether it's federal, state or local, bends over backwards not to indicate candidates around the time of an election because they want to appear apolitical.”

Reese Oxner and Joshua Fechter contributed to this story.

Disclosure: Southern Methodist University has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/02/19/austin-police-indictments-justin-berry-election/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

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