New Audits Highlight Problems at Police Academy
“It comes down to the culture”
Two new city reports on the Austin Police Department's training academy highlight the cultural problems and racial inequities that helped drive the City Council decision in 2020 to shut it down and put new APD cadet classes on hold until changes were made.
One of the reports is an analysis, conducted by Peace Mill Research and Communications, of "equity self-assessments" conducted by seven divisions within APD. The assessments were conducted in 2019 as part of a citywide initiative by the equity office. Peace Mill Research Director Raymond Weyandt found that from 2015 to 2020, Black Austinites – accounting for 8% of the city population – made up 7% of academy recruits but only 5% of graduating cadets.
That translates to a graduation rate for Black men of 48.5% and for Black women of 52.5%. By comparison, 81.6% of white men and 66.76% of white women graduated from the academy. Weyandt's analysis also found that Black cadets sustained injuries at the academy at nearly double their rate of graduation (11.2%) – which may be one reason for the low graduation rate.
Interviews Weyandt conducted with former cadets outline a culture dominated by militaristic aggression that has characterized the training division's reputation in recent years. Cadets described "smoking sessions," which the report describes as "unscripted, unscheduled physical and psychological stress drills" used to punish individuals or groups of cadets. In addition to the smoking sessions, cadets said that the academy overall "fosters a dangerous and ineffective learning environment that discourages, degrades and injures highly qualified candidates," leading many to drop out to prevent long-term physical and mental damage.
The second report, from Joyce James Consulting, is essentially a compilation of prior reports the city has conducted or commissioned to identify racial inequities within the police department. Both it and the Peace Mill study support the claims advocates and former cadets have made at City Hall for years: Not only is the curriculum used by instructors at the academy ineffective, but the way cadets are taught produces officers who are fearful of the community they swear to serve and more inclined to treat Austinites with aggression.
"It comes down to the culture," Weyandt told the Chronicle of his research. "The recruiting division is bringing in some people who want to connect to the community, to be a friendly face that people trust and seek out for safety. But the training division prioritizes this paramilitary approach: a combat training camp, rather than a community-driven public safety academy."
In December, Mayor Steve Adler and Council Member Leslie Pool expressed interest in restarting cadet classes this spring, rather than waiting until 2022 as Council had approved with the current fiscal year budget. Their thinking is that classes can resume with cadets just learning the state-mandated curriculum from the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, while work continues to revise the city-specific portion of the curriculum, which includes cultural sensitivity trainings intended to improve interactions between police and nonwhite racial groups. The Austin Police Association has pushed hard on city staff to adopt this approach.
But advocates point to the new reports as evidence that the academy is not ready to open and first needs to correct issues that go beyond the revisions to the curriculum and training materials that Council asked for last summer. Kathy Mitchell, an organizer with Just Liberty, told us that the academy needs not just new courses and a more diverse instructional staff but a complete reimagining, with buy-in from department leadership that has thus far been lacking. "APD has been told it has a racism problem, which it tried to address by adding an anti-racism class," Mitchell said. "It was told it has a gender problem, so they put in a LGBTQ and gender class. Those courses help, but what leadership is unwilling to acknowledge is that the problem is larger than what can be addressed in a two-hour lecture."
Adler says that the academy should not open until changes have been made, but he's not sure what he's read in the reports should prevent the city from resuming classes in the spring. "I believe two things to be true," Adler told us. "We shouldn't do a new class until the curriculum and recruits better reflect the culture, priorities, and values of the city. Second, I also believe we need another cadet class and we need one sooner than later."
As for the Peace Mill conclusion that a "lack of political will" among APD brass "threatens meaningful change" at the academy, Adler says he hasn't yet decided that removing police Chief Brian Manley is essential. "Based on the information I had before" – back when the public and other CMs demanded Manley be demoted, as only City Manager Spencer Cronk can do under state law – "I was not to that place," the mayor told us. He did, however, vote for a resolution, which passed unanimously, that included a "no confidence" clause. "I don't have additional info subsequent to that that changes my mind," Adler told us.
Cronk agrees. "The City Manager has laid out expectations for the Chief and will hold him accountable, just as he himself expects to be held accountable for his performance by the Council," a city spokesperson said in a statement. "Right now, the City Manager is focused on maintaining momentum on Reimagining Public Safety, implementing the policy changes the Council has called for, and continuing the movement towards policing reform."
If Cronk expects the political arm of the police force to cooperate with these efforts, he may be disappointed. APA President Ken Casaday told us that the reports didn't bother him much; as he sees it, the training division has been working on problems identified in the report for the past five years. As for a broader cultural change – moving away from the "warrior mindset" that cadets are currently taught and into a "guardian" role – Casaday isn't sold.
The union boss, who is ex-military and has more than 20 years of service on the APD force, said officers must be prepared to turn into warriors when dangerous situations arise. "The general public and their well-being is the top priority for officers," Casaday told us. "We can train in the guardian mentality, but officers have to be prepared to go to the next level if the situation calls for it."