AUSTIN, Texas - A 20-year-old Texas State University student is in critical condition, after being shot in the head with a bean bag by an Austin Police officer at a protest late last month. Now, his brother is speaking out, working to reform conversation on the use of less-lethal munitions.
Around 11 p.m. on May 31, Justin Howell, a political science student, was filming a protest at Austin Police Headquarters on his cellphone. Austin Police Chief Brian Manley says HALO camera footage shows a man standing near Howell throwing a water bottle, then a backpack at officers. An officer attempted to fire their less-lethal weapon -- a modified 12-gauge shotgun with bean bag munition -- at the man but missed, hitting Howell.
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“Crowds are shifting seas of individuals and I think even the most apt of marksman are apt to miss their targets,” said Josh Howell, Justin Howell’s brother.
Austin police instructed protestors to carry Howell to the steps of police headquarters. As the group got close, bean bag shots were fired in their direction.
“At a minimum, it shows a lack of awareness of one’s surroundings and sort of an inability to manage the situation,” said Josh Howell.
The bean bag put Justin Howell in a coma. Today, he remains in critical condition. Doctors told his family the munition caused a skull fracture, resulting in brain damage and adding that his recovery will be a “marathon, not a sprint.”
Shortly after the shooting, Manley announced that the police force would no longer be using bean bags for crowd control.
“That’s good. There’s an open question of whether that will be enough,” said Josh Howell, adding that he hopes other police departments will follow suit. He says the family is from San Antonio and wants to leave Austin Police reform to Austin.
However, he asks Austinites, “pay special attention to the concerns and the demands and the lives of black and brown folks” and “just take Justin’s story and use it as a data point for how they go forward.”
A GoFundMe for Justin Howell has raised more than $170,000. Josh Howell says he feels it underscores how people feel what happened was wrong, and understand the need for police reform.
“Our family's message is that we can’t take too much comfort in the way that we talk about less-lethal munitions,” he said.