Council to Consider Launching New Investigation Into APD Following Allegations of Racism

Multiple reviews and a "sense of urgency"

Natasha Harper-Madison (Photo by John Anderson)

City Council returns today, Dec. 5, to consider a 120-Item agenda, highlighted by a broad resolution brought by Council Mem­ber Natasha Harper-Madison to launch a new investigation into the Austin Police Department following allegations of racism in its top ranks.

After the draft resolution language was revealed last week, the Austin Police Assoc­i­ation jumped on a section calling for a pause to new police academy cadet classes. APA President Ken Casaday cited APD's reported staffing shortage – it's allotted funding for 1,959 officers, but is currently short 170 – as a reason to continue recruiting cadets even while the resolution's proposed audit of training practices is underway. Casaday argued that two such reviews are already happening: Sara Villanueva, a former psychology professor at St. Edward's University, has recently been hired at APD to look at the academy, and the city's Equity Office is preparing a report that will include an analysis of recruitment and training within the department.

Harper-Madison’s larger purpose: identifying bigotry within all the systems at APD that impact the hiring, training, and working life of officers on the force.

Harper-Madison acknowledged APD's officer shortage and agreed that the vacancies need to be filled. "We are not calling for any hesitation in the recruitment effort," she told the Chronicle. "APD should still be making an active and robust continuation of recruitment efforts." The language in her resolution was misunderstood, she said, and she intends to provide clarifying amendments for City Manager Spencer Cronk and her Council colleagues before debate today. (The line that caused an uproar with the police union reads: "The City Manager shall ensure that no new cadet classes may be initiated until [an audit] is completed and new training materials, if any, are implemented, in order to resume cadet classes no later than Sep­tem­ber 2020.") The already-scheduled cadet class in February should proceed, Harper-Madison explained, and she hopes the training review will be completed before the start of the fall cadet class, scheduled to begin in September. That would only mean canceling a June class that was planned to overlap with the prior one, which several sources noted was unprecedented and could strain on academy resources.

Harper-Madison told us the flap over the academy distracts from her larger purpose: identifying bigotry within all the systems at APD that impact the hiring, training, and working life of officers on the force. In conversations with officers, Harper-Madison picked up on a "moral compromise" some were making in a department where they "feel betrayed by their leadership." By addressing the department's "deep issues of racial bias and racism," Harper-Madison said, both recruitment efforts and the quality of life for officers could be strengthened.

At their meeting Monday, Dec. 2, some members of the Public Safety Commission supported halting cadet classes to bring a sense of urgency to the issues Harper-Madison's resolution aims to address. Commissioner Chris Harris pointed to the rising attrition rate at the academy – as high as 40% in recent classes – as a reason to pause and evaluate what is causing so many people to drop out. "There are issues with the academy that are leading it to be a much less efficient and effective tool for bringing in officers," Harris told us. "So if you're concerned with filling these seats, then it makes sense to ensure these academies have a higher retention rate." He added that training officers within a culture that doesn't "just tolerate but cultivates" diversity was important to ensure the safety of people of color, women, and members of the LGBTQ community throughout Austin.

Chris Harris (Photo by David Brendan Hall)

Ultimately the PSC voted to endorse Harper-Madison's resolution and urged Council to delay just the June cadet class. Many commissioners also criticized the city's other response to reported bigotry at APD: the hiring of an outside investigator to look into the allegations leveled against former Assistant Chief Justin Newsom, Chief of Staff Troy Gay, and Chief Brian Manley. The investigation being led by former Bexar County ADA Lisa Tatum has been billed by city officials as "independent," but Commissioner Rebecca Webber disagreed with that framing, pointing out the contract requires Tatum to report to City Attorney Anne Morgan. This arrangement represents a "conflict of interests," Webber said, calling some of the contractual obligations placed upon Tatum "disgusting." (For example, per the contract, Tatum must consult with Morgan before engaging in "extensive research on an issue," or taking "a particular deposition.") When asked about these concerns, a city spokesperson responded that "the [city] manager asked the city attorney to assist him in finding a neutral third party to conduct the investigation. The city attorney will facilitate Lisa's investigation as needed, but ultimately this is a function of the city manager's office." Meanwhile, Harper-Madison said she did not see "any implication of impropriety" in Tatum working with city legal on the investigation. "It's far reaching [to suggest] that our city attorneys would risk their licenses in order to engage in nefarious behavior. I don't want to minimize those concerns, but I don't share them." Harper-Madison added that the investigation and audit called for in her resolution would remain separate from the investigative effort initiated by the city.

Editor's note: A previous version of this story misspelled the name of Sara Villanueva, the Organizational Development and Training Manager at APD. We've corrected the spelling, and regret the error.

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Austin City Council, Austin Police Department, Austin Police Association, Public Safety Commission, Natasha Harper-Madison, Ken Casaday, Brian Manley, Justin Newsom, Troy Gay, Rebecca Webber, Chris Harris, Anne Morgan, Spencer Cronk, Lisa Tatum

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