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Fort Worth Police Drop Rioting Charges Against Protesters

Protesters "have expressed their anger over police misconduct" and the department will change how it operates, says Fort Worth Police Chief Ed Kraus (far right), seen here earlier this month at a briefing with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.
LM Otero
Protesters "have expressed their anger over police misconduct" and the department will change how it operates, says Fort Worth Police Chief Ed Kraus (far right), seen here earlier this month at a briefing with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.

Police in Fort Worth, Texas, are dropping criminal charges against dozens of people who were arrested and accused of rioting during protests against racism and police brutality. Chief Ed Kraus says the move is part of his reply to calls for police to change how they operate.

"On May 31st, Fort Worth Police arrested several dozen people for rioting during a protest," Kraus said in a statement. "Since that time, the protests in the City have been peaceful. The protestors have expressed their anger over police misconduct and have demanded changes."

The shift in Fort Worth is part of a national debate over how police and prosecutors should handle charges of curfew violations and rioting that in many cases were levied as police tried to curb looting and vandalism that stemmed from nearly two weeks of widespread protests. In many cities, demonstrators are calling for such charges to be dropped — adding it to a list of demands for changing police practices, or even disbanding police agencies altogether.

The cry to reform the police profession "is echoing across our nation," Kraus said, adding that his department will improve how it works.

"This is just one step on a long journey, but I hope it showed that the FWPD is committed to walking the path of reform with our community, Kraus said.

Online, the reaction to Kraus' statement was mixed, with some accusing the police chief of issuing a "free pass for those that willfully and knowingly engaged in riots and the destruction" of property. But others said they were proud of the city's stance — including people who said that aggressive police actions had escalated the situation and propelled violence.

Massive and dynamic protests against the killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Ky., have put a new spotlight on police actions in dozens of cities. And, in some cases, they have exposed law enforcement to criticisms that the use of strong-arm tactics, mass arrests and tear gas against peaceful protesters are a violation of First Amendment rights.

On Monday, city and county officials in Los Angeles cited the First Amendment and the sanctity of free speech in saying they won't prosecute cases against thousands of protesters who were arrested for allegedly violating curfew or failing to disperse.

Other official responses vary widely.

In Kansas City, Mo., police and city officials will debate the question of whether to drop charges for nonviolent crimes during protests on Tuesday. As local TV station KSHB reports, the leader of the local police union says "anarchy" would result if the judicial system isn't used to back officers' actions. At least one City Council member and the Jackson County prosecutor disagree.

Prosecutors in Washington, D.C., dropped rioting charges against all but a handful of protesters last week, as The Washington Post reported.

In New York City, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. said Friday that his office would drop illegal assembly and disorderly conduct cases stemming from the demonstrations. The city has not followed suit — prompting state Sen. Brian Kavanagh to urge Mayor Bill de Blasio and the police to drop all charges against people accused of nonviolent offenses such as breaking curfew.

Also last week, Detroit Police Chief James Craig said his department would not enforce an 8 p.m. curfew because the protests had become peaceful. One night after arresting nearly 150 people for violating the curfew, police instead acted as an escort for a march of demonstrators, as member station WDET reported.

On Monday, the top prosecutor in Richmond, Va., said she won't pursue jail time for anyone whose only charge is violating curfew during the protests, but she stopped short of dropping charges altogether, as the Richmond Times-Dispatch reports.

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.