Beside the Point: All Eyes on Him

The spotlight on interim – er, well, yeah, interim – Chief Brian Manley

Brian Manley
Brian Manley (by Jana Birchum)

Anybody who caught Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo's press conference on Friday – concerning that day's felony indictment of NFL player Michael Ben­nett for injuring the elderly upon the conclusion of last year's Super Bowl in Houston – should be glad Brian Manley didn't employ so much projection while describing this month's bomber. Whereas Acevedo described Ben­nett – an otherwise positive force in a violent, destructive sport – as "morally bankrupt" and believing "the rules don't apply to him," his interim successor here in Austin chose last Wednesday not to speak to Mark Conditt's character, providing only a one-sentence description of an audio confession police found on his person at the time of his death – which Manley still got raked for, and for which he later apologized.

Enough has (and will) be made of Con­ditt's racist, sexist, and terroristic demons that a chief of police need not speculate on them also – especially before his own department had properly identified the suspect. And what struck me throughout the entire bombing saga was just how clear Manley was in his messaging about the case. Austin hasn't been a small town for quite a while, but addressing a national press swarm about an active investigation into a series of crimes that effectively freaked out an entire city cannot be easy, or normal, and Manley appeared clearheaded and concise throughout. We should be glad he stayed on script.

Man of the Hour

Manley in all likelihood learned the virtues of administering unsensational press briefings from observing his predecessor, a boisterous character with a politician's personality who often found himself covering his tracks after mouthing off. The interim chief is naturally more subdued, and through his time as APD's Chief of Staff – a job that requires he speak regularly before city bodies – seems to have honed his reserved manner of presentation. He appeared almost embarrassed last Thursday while addressing Council after members showered him with accolades (and after the Greater Austin Crime Commission and other council members and the mayor did the same), and he has since returned to providing concise and comprehensible reports on APD's ongoing investigation.

Yet the circus surrounding his performance continues, and over the past week many – be they council members, community stakeholders, or active and retired cops – have come to believe that City Man­ager Spencer Cronk should ask Council to shed the "interim" tag from Manley's title and make him APD's permanent chief.

Whose PD?

Manley is undoubtedly a strong candidate. An Austin native, he's been with the department since 1990, having risen from patrol officer to his current title. The rank-and-file appear to get along with him; he knows the city as well as anyone; and during his 17 months on the job has effectively navigated not just the bombings but also the ongoing rehabilitation of the department's crime lab – in tatters when he took over – and the fallout from the city's contractual impasse with the Austin Police Association, no easy predicaments for any chief. And, while this isn't a qualifying reason and I'm not privy to his career aspirations, it does seem as though appointing another individual as chief would be bad news for his professional life: What's he going to do, move to another city or return to chief of staff?

And so Cronk finds himself in a tough spot: roll with the tenured child of Austin at a time in which public rhetoric for his work is at an all-time high, or open a nationwide search for the best and brightest. Assistant City Manager Rey Arellano is expected to talk about the "timeline, process, and opportunities" for hiring a permanent chief (as well a permanent fire chief and police monitor) at the Public Safety Commission on Monday, and Cronk acknowledged the urgency, saying he was "well aware" of the conversations and teasing "more on the status of my selection process in the coming weeks."

Chief of police is different from that of Fire or EMS, in that the chief of police oftentimes serves as a pre-eminent public figure, and is just as often seen as the frontward face of the most scrutinized and volatile public safety group. In that sense Cronk carries the opportunity to mold APD in his image; to find the potential chief who represents what Cronk believes a police force should represent; to shape the discourse of what he believes policing in Austin should entail.

Siding with Manley from the top theoretically puts a soft lid on that reframing, and if handled swiftly and without much public input could suggest that the status quo is good enough – which, frankly, should never be the case with a police force, or any department in a big city such as ours.

Cronk has played this close to the chest. The question, should he select Manley, thus becomes how he can choose to truck on while still dictating a change of pace. Whatever path he chooses, he needs to make clear, explicit, and public his expectations for the chief, and for APD. But that's what he signed up for, and so did Manley – as he could again quite soon.

“Point Austin” will return next week.

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