José Garza, candidate for Travis County District Attorney, stands for a portrait in East Austin, Tex., on Sept. 25, 2020. (Tamir Kalifa for The Texas Observer)
Tamir Kalifa for The Texas Observer

José Garza Redefines ‘Progressive Prosecutor’

José Garza represents a new wave of reform-minded DAs who want to end the war on drugs and prosecute police officers who kill.


A version of this story ran in the November / December 2020 issue.

Above: José Garza wants to be the first DA in Texas to end the prosecution of all low-level drug crimes.

“Progressive prosecutor” can sound like a catchall descriptor for any district attorney willing to pack fewer bodies into jails and prisons. But one race this year seems to have redefined the term. In a July primary runoff, José Garza, a former public defender and labor organizer, resoundingly defeated Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore, the self-described progressive incumbent, by 36 points. Garza, the presumed winner in the November general election in deep-blue Travis County, is part of a new wave of progressive DA candidates in Texas this year who have argued for a more transformative change of the criminal legal system. National progressive groups call his promise to end low-level drug prosecutions in Travis County a milestone in the movement to end the war on drugs. Garza spoke with the Observer about drug enforcement, public safety, and police accountability.

Texas Observer: Prosecutors work closely with police, but also hold them accountable. How would you navigate that relationship?

José Garza: I think it’s really about the relationship between the police department and the public. What does public safety really mean? I think that in Austin our community has said explicitly that their understanding of public safety is stability, good jobs, access to health care, access to mental health care, access to good education. They have clearly rejected the idea that public safety is locking up as many working-class people and people of color as we can. They’re asking for the police department to understand that shift and to come to the table to be part of the discussion.

Moore prosecuted some cops for killing citizens and in other cases issued lengthy reports explaining why she didn’t pursue criminal charges. Why and how do you plan to go beyond her approach?

Look, for example, at the deaths of Mike Ramos and Mauris DeSilva. [The Austin police officer who shot and killed Ramos, who was unarmed, was also involved in the death of DeSilva, who was shot during a mental health crisis less than a year before.] That old approach means a family waits for justice for a really long time. It means sometimes there’s an officer on active duty who played a role in the death of a member of our community, and then later played a role in the death of another member of our community before we even determine whether that first instance was justified.

I’ve committed to present all of these cases to the grand jury within 30 days. In cases where 30 days have passed and we’re not yet ready, every 14 days we’ll issue a public statement letting the community know it’s on our desk and explaining why we haven’t yet taken it to a grand jury. I have also pledged not to accept campaign contributions from police organizations. I think it’s important to really make clear that the district attorney will be unbiased in holding law enforcement officers accountable.

I’ve also said that we will be implementing and using a public no-call list for law enforcement officers who have engaged in misconduct, even if that misconduct is not criminal. [The DA’s office wouldn’t call officers on the list to testify in court.] For law enforcement officers who have a demonstrated history of racism or xenophobia, for example, or who have a history of failing to turn on their body cameras in accordance with policy. This would absolutely entail due process for the officers. But when there is evidence of misconduct, the officer can no longer participate in our criminal legal system.

It is true that historically getting indictments and getting convictions has been difficult. But I think that what we’ve seen in our community over the last 10 years, but particularly in the last 12 months, is a signal that may change. That our community is in a different place, that the people who will make up our grand juries are in a different place.

What did you make of Moore punting Mike Ramos’ case to her successor?

I don’t want to say too much. But my heart continues to break for families that continue to have to wait for justice. And [that case] will be among my highest priorities the minute I take office in January

There have been widespread calls for Austin Police Chief Brian Manley to resign, in part due to his department’s handling of protests against police brutality this summer. Do you have confidence in his leadership?

This is a moment where I think there has been incredible clarity from our community about what they expect from the police department and from a police chief.

I don’t know Chief Manley and I think I have an obligation to work to get to know him. He did ultimately come in line with city council’s expectations on marijuana enforcement and decriminalizing low-level marijuana possession. That was a process, but I think it’s OK for these things to be a process sometimes, just so long as there’s movement.

A major plank of your campaign has been ending low-level drug prosecutions and rejecting cases involving the sale or possession of a gram or less, regardless of the substance. Why the new approach to drug cases?

The old practice does not make our community more safe; I think it has actively made our community less safe. Every year, the district attorney’s office brings more drug cases than any other kind of offense, and when you think about crimes like violence against women, sexual assault, violence committed by law enforcement officers against members of our community—there is a real disparity in resources and attention paid to these issues.

If we’re serious about addressing the root cause of substance use disorder, we need approaches that we know work and that focus on overdose prevention. It’s an illness, and you can’t truly address it through the criminal legal system.

We also know that in Travis County, the war on drugs is one of the greatest drivers of racial disparities in the criminal legal system. Substance use in Travis County is consistent across race and ethnicity, but Black people constitute 30 percent of arrests, even though they’re only 9 percent of our community at large. There are just so many reasons why the old approach to drugs has failed.

Are you worried about Governor Abbott or the Legislature interfering with your goals?

There’s no question in my mind that the governor is going to continue to play politics with public safety. Let’s just be absolutely clear about this: The greatest threat to our public safety in the state of Texas is the fact that the governor has completely mismanaged and failed us on the greatest public health crisis that our state has faced in a century. I understand that the governor is interested in fearmongering, in distracting Texans from the reality of his failures, and I expect that’s going to continue.

But I also think that the majority of Texans are with us. They can see with their own eyes in urban Texas and in rural Texas that our criminal justice system is broken. I think that people all over the state believe that no one should be held in jail simply because they can’t afford to get out, because I think the majority of Texans understand that that makes us less safe. When you separate people from their jobs and from their families simply because they can’t afford to get out of jail, that creates instability. That makes us less safe.

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