Justin Howell was critically injured by a bean bag round fired by Austin police officers during a protest on May 31. Credit: GoFundMe

It was 5:45 a.m. when Josh Howell got the phone call. His younger brother, 20-year-old Justin, was in critical condition after being struck in the head by a bean bag round fired by an Austin police officer during a May 31 protest against the police killing of George Floyd. 

News reports said the officer who hit Justin Howell had been aiming for a man next to him who had been throwing items at police. Howell, who is black, was protesting peacefully, video footage shows. 

Howell is a San Antonian who graduated from Communications Arts High School and attends Texas State University. He has always been shy but inquisitive, said his older brother.

“He likes to understand, and understand deeply, the world going on around him,” Josh Howell said.

Howell, a 29-year-old doctoral student at Texas A&M and a graduate of Lackland High School, rushed to Austin to be with his younger brother and other family members. He was unable to see his brother in the hospital because of coronavirus precautions. 

Justin Howell, who fell to the ground and hit his head after being struck by the bean bag, remains hospitalized with a brain injury, although the extent and permanency of his injuries are still being evaluated, his brother told the Rivard Report.

Friends started a GoFundMe with the goal of raising $250,000 for Justin’s medical bills. So far, the fundraiser has raised over $200,000. A message posted by the Howell family on June 8 states “On Justin’s condition: Justin is still taking it day by day and spends most of his time sedated.”

Doctors told the family that the impact from the bean bag caused the brain injury, Josh Howell said.

“The officer was aiming at someone else,” Howell said. “I think my brother’s injuries underscore that [police] shouldn’t be firing into a crowd of shifting people. Even the most skilled marksman likely won’t hit his target. Less-lethals are only ‘less lethal’ when compared to bullets.”

After Justin Howell went down, a group of five other protesters picked him up and tried to find him medical attention. An officer told the group carrying him to approach, and to bring him into the nearby police department building. Video footage shows as they approach with Howell’s limp form, the group is fired upon with additional bean bag rounds.

“What the f—?” one of the protesters yells.

Advocating for more humane methods of crowd control, Josh Howell wants police to rethink the use of less-lethal force on protesters. 

In an opinion column for Texas A&M’s student newspaper The Battalion, where he serves as the opinion editor, he states, “it takes a special kind of incompetence to fire at those who are doing as the police tell them.”

Austin Police Chief Brian Manley confirmed in a press briefing the protesters “were given direction to bring [the injured Howell] to the officers” after which the demonstrators were “fired upon with less-lethal munitions” as they brought him toward the officers to get him medical help.

An APD public information officer said the department has no further comment on the incident.

“There was no apology,” Josh Howell stated in his column. “Instead, [Manley] sat at his desk for three full minutes, gave us the details … and at no point apologized to my brother, my family or the five brave protesters who carried Justin to police headquarters under fire. (To those protesters: My family sees you, and we thank you.)”

Bean bag rounds are just one form of less-lethal munitions officers are taught to use, said Janice Washington, owner and founder of Killeen-based Texas Police Trainers, which helps connect police officer trainers and police departments in Texas.

Other types of less-lethal force include pepper spray, tear gas, rubber bullets, stun guns, and batons. Officers have used tear gas and projectiles on San Antonio protesters twice since local protests began on May 30. The SAPD received heavy criticism from both citizens and Mayor Ron Nirenberg following a protest in which peaceful protesters out in Alamo Plaza two hours past the city-mandated curfew were dispersed using tear gas and wooden projectiles.

“When police are trained in riot control or crowd control they have to receive special training for any type of less lethal [munition] they use,” Washington said. “For example, they teach every cop who carries a Taser you can’t, like, aim it at the person’s head.”

Washington, who is black, said she’s not sure how to eliminate the problem of police brutality. Identifying and getting rid of officers who use excessive or improper force is difficult, despite the testing they’re required to undergo and the references required for hiring, she said. 

“[Instructors] only teach [officers] to do things correct and right,” Washington said. “This is about the person – the core of the person [in uniform].”

A good place to start would be stop calling stun guns, bean bag rounds, wooden plugs, rubber bullets, and similar items “less-lethal weapons,” Josh Howell said. 

“Anything shot out of a shotgun has potential to be lethal,” he said. “Is that enough? No, but it’s a start.” 

Lindsey Carnett covers the environment, science and utilities for the San Antonio Report. A native San Antonian, she graduated from Texas A&M University in 2016 with a degree in telecommunication media...