Soon after Occupy Austin protesters began their months-long demonstration at City Hall last fall, Austin police officials assigned at least three undercover officers to infiltrate the group to gather intelligence on any plans that might break the law.
The officers camped with other participants in the movement, marched in rallies and attended strategy meetings with Occupy Austin members.
The officers also may have crossed a fine line in undercover police work: They helped plan and manufacture devices - often called “lockboxes” - that allowed Occupy members to tie themselves together during a protest in Houston, according to interviews and court records. The use of the devices, which makes it harder for police to break up human chains, resulted in Houston police filing felony charges against seven protesters who had attempted to block a port entrance in Houston on Dec. 12.
Police officials confirmed the use of undercover officers in the Occupy Austin movement but declined to comment on the officers’ role in obtaining the lockbox.
It’s not clear who first proposed making the lockboxes. But during the hearing, attorneys and Austin Police Detective Shannon Dowell - who wore a long black beard and was known to Occupy members as “Butch” - disclosed that Dowell had purchased PVC pipe and other materials with Occupy Austin money and delivered the finished lockboxes to group members.
The devices used in the Houston protest are generally built from 5-foot lengths of 5-inch wide PVC pipe with a bolt inserted in the center. Two protesters can put their arms in the pipe and grip the bolt, making it difficult for police to pull them apart.
Garza’s attorney, Greg Gladden, said the case against his client should be dismissed because Dowell and other undercover police played a central role in the charges filed against Garza. While 10 protesters who didn’t use the lockboxes were charged with lower-level misdemeanors, Harris County prosecutors charged Garza and six others with felonies, using an obscure statute that prohibits using a device that is manufactured or adapted for the purpose of participating in a crime. They face up to two years in jail.
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