Manley Makes His Exit

Police chief's 30-year career at APD will end March 28

Austin Police Department Chief Brian Manley announced his resignation from the department during a Feb. 12 press conference at APD HQ. (Photo by John Anderson)

Austin police Chief Brian Manley announced Friday that he will retire on March 28, following a year in which criminal justice activists and community members have called for him to resign. That call began over how Manley handled revelations that a former assistant chief regularly used racist language, then accelerated following the violent response to Black Lives Matter protesters his officers engaged in over the summer.

Born and raised in Austin, Manley began his career as an APD patrol officer in 1991. He steadily moved up the chain, serving as lieutenant, commander, assistant chief, and, finally, chief of staff to Art Acevedo before being named interim chief when Acevedo departed to lead the Houston Police Depart­ment in 2016. He rose to national prominence for his handling of the three-week bombing spree that gripped Austin in 2018 and was promoted to chief in the wake of that tragedy.

The call for Manley’s resignation began over how he handled revelations that a former assistant chief regularly used racist language, then accelerated following the violent response to Black Lives Matter protesters his officers engaged in over the summer.

Reflecting on a long career in policing, Manley told reporters at a Friday press conference that it was difficult to settle on one moment as the most important. His push to improve officer wellness came to mind – an effort he described as combatting the trauma that officers can pick up by the nature of their work. "I equate it to picking up a pebble and putting it in your bag. Years and years after doing that, the bag gets heavy ... which draws officers into coping mechanisms that are destructive to themselves and to our community," the chief said.

While Manley expressed pride in his tenure as chief, he said that his time in the Child Abuse Unit was where he was able to make the most difference. Reflecting on his experience as an investigator and supervisor of the unit tasked with looking into child abuse, Manley said, "you are dealing with children in horrible circumstances, and you are there to help."

A Call for Change at the Top

The public push to replace Manley as Aus­tin's police chief began last spring, when over the course of a few days the public learned the extent of Manley's role in allowing former Assistant Chief Justin Newsom to retire, with a six-figure benefit package (a cash-out of his accrued sick time), despite knowing that Newsom would soon fall under public scrutiny for allegedly using racist language on multiple occasions to describe African Americans, including referring to former City Council Member Ora Houston, President Barack Obama, and former APD Assistant Chief Frank Dixon using the N-word.

The allegations were documented in a third-party investigation conducted by former Bexar County Assistant Criminal Dis­trict Attorney Lisa Tatum, which was released just two days before APD officers fatally shot Michael Ramos, an unarmed Black and Latino man, in Southeast Austin. That combination of events propelled the Austin Justice Coalition, Grassroots Lead­ership, Just Liberty, and other local criminal justice reform organizations to demand Manley's resignation as well as that of Manley's Chief of Staff Troy Gay and Assistant City Manager Rey Arellano, the latter of whom oversees Austin's public safety departments.

The process that led to Manley’s appointment as chief occurred during a different time, when the city’s attitude toward its police department was, broadly speaking, less critical than it is now.

"Manley's resignation is long overdue, but a good thing after a year of people demanding justice on the national and local level," Austin Justice Coalition Executive Director Chas Moore told the Chronicle. "Brian Manley is not a bad guy," Moore continued. "I think he tried to do the best job that he could. But it's also a new day in Austin. Our expectations from public safety departments are completely different than the culture Manley was inundated in. This was the last step needed as we navigate the Reimagining Public Safety process, because it would be hard for people to buy into changes resulting from that process if Manley was still at the vanguard of the department."

The push to oust Manley became much stronger last May, as Austinites protested in Black Lives Matter marches following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers. Manley's officers responded to the peaceful demonstrations on May 30 and 31 with extreme force, launching canisters of tear gas at protesters, and injuring at least 11 with so-called "less lethal" lead­-pellet rounds.

The department's response to protesters prompted an emergency City Council meeting June 5 in which hundreds of people, including survivors of the police brutality and their families, spent hours testifying to their experiences with Austin police. The emotional testimony at that meeting motivated Council to pass four resolutions on June 11 to take immediate action to reform the department – such as banning the use of tear gas as means of crowd control – along with longer-term goals, such as eliminating the racial disparities in arrests between white, Black and Latinx Austinites. Meanwhile, calls to replace Manley continued to swell.

Council does not have the authority to fire the chief of police, and under state law, neither does City Manager Spencer Cronk, who could only demote Manley to the position he served in prior to assuming the role of chief (in Manley's case, chief of staff). With no apparent replacement within the chain of command, Cronk declined to act despite the growing pressure.

City Manager Spencer Cronk at Friday's press conferece (Photo by John Anderson)

Even as four CMs publicly called on Manley to resign and Council unanimously approved a resolution stating they had "no confidence" in Manley's ability to lead the department, Cronk stood by his man. At a press conference on Friday, Feb. 12, Manley told reporters that reaching the decision to retire was not an easy one. "Many different emotions are running through me," he said, "but it is a day I am ready for and I am at peace with my decision."

Manley did not address the calls for resignation he has faced over the last year, but noted that he celebrated his 30-year anniversary with APD – and as a law enforcement officer – on Feb. 1. "Reaching this 30-year mark was important to me," Manley said, "because my father pinned my badge on my chest on Feb. 1, 1991." He added that he's "not worn down from the job" and that criticism from the public, reporters, elected officials, and from fellow officers is a part of the job. "I'm just ready for my next opportunity," he said.

Butting Heads

The prickly relationship between Council and Manley predates the Floyd protests or even the killing of Ramos. When Council voted unanimously on Jan. 23 to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana, Manley responded defiantly. The very next day following the vote, Manley told reporters that his officers would continue to enforce state law – meaning, he would not comply with Council's order. It took Manley six months to finally update APD policy to end discretionary citations and arrests over low-level marijuana possession.

Manley didn't just butt heads with the more progressive members of Council, either. Last month, Manley and CM Alison Alter had a spat over email when the West Austin CM asked Manley to "proactively investigate" whether or not any APD officers participated in the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection in Washington, D.C., and to issue a department-wide communication condemning law enforcement participation in the events of that day.

Manley declined to launch such an investigation – a reasonable step considering the resources needed to conduct such work – but also resisted Alter's urging that he condemn law enforcement participation. He eventually gave in and sent a memo to his department but only after forwarding the entire email thread along with it – a move that frustrated several CMs.

Alter also was critical of Manley and APD's handling of issues raised by survivors of sexual assault, including evidence that the department relied heavily on "exceptional clearance" to close rape cases without arrest or prosecution of a suspect; the CM led Council's push for a third-party audit of APD's handling of such cases. Manley is a named defendant in the two lawsuits filed by local sexual assault survivors alleging that APD's and the Travis County District Attorney's Office consistent mishandling of rape cases constitutes a violation of women's constitutional rights.

The survivor advocacy community is familiar with the intransigence Manley has shown when called upon by elected leaders and community members to lead reform efforts. Advocates watched as revelations on how APD mishandled sexual assault investigations became national news and Manley's response often felt to them defensive and perfunctory. Some described working with Manley on bringing reforms to the Sex Crimes Unit – whether that be through increased staffing levels or new sensitivity trainings for detectives – as having to pull him along. They hope the next chief will be more of a partner in those efforts.

"Survivors have struggled to get their voices heard, their stories believed, and their cases prioritized for years under the supervision of Chief Manley," Hanna Senko, one of the survivors who has filed suit against Manley and others in the local criminal justice system for failing survivors, told us. "What many of us experienced when we reported our sexual assaults in the past was not acceptable, and we need to expect more of our future leadership."

When the Office of Police Oversight released its inaugural report analyzing racial disparities in stops, searches, and arrests between white residents and Black and Latino residents, Manley responded by calling for more research into the problem, as opposed to accepting OPO's research and committing to addressing those disparities. The response frustrated OPO Director Farah Muscadin and was another indicator to activists that Manley was ill-suited to reforming the toxic culture of a department and profession he had served in for nearly 30 years.

As is often the case around the country, Manley's tenure was marked by reluctance or outright refusal to discipline officers accused of misconduct. Most recently, Travis County D.A. José Garza announced that his office had indicted on felony assault charges two officers that Manley cleared of wrongdoing in an internal investigation. Rebecca Webber, an attorney representing several victims of brutality at the hands of APD officers, harshly criticized the chief for refusing to discipline some officers. "I feel so bad for Ms. Brenda," Webber said of Brenda Ramos, the mother of Michael Ramos, "that after Manley pussyfooted around the issue for 294 days, he is just going to ride off into the sunset without ever having the courage to decide whether her son's killer should continue as an Austin police officer." That officer, Christopher Taylor, is under criminal investigation for his role in the killings of Ramos and of Dr. Mauris da Silva in August 2019.

However, Manley did at times act to discipline officers accused of misconduct. In 2018, he ultimately fired two officers who shot an unarmed Black man with a Taser gun and filed incident reports that, in Manley's assessment, were "simply not true." In a reflection of how difficult it is to hold police officers to account for wrongdoing, even when a police chief disciplines them, the two officers were eventually reinstated after appealing the decision through an arbitration hearing allowed under civil service rules.

The Search Begins

In a memo announcing Manley's retirement, Cronk said he will offer an interim chief up for Council confirmation "early next month" and that he will "immediately start to conduct a national search" to find a permanent replacement, a process which Cronk says will include "extensive engagement with our Austin community."

“Brian Manley is not a bad guy. ... I think he tried to do the best job that he could. But it’s also a new day in Austin. Our expectations from public safety departments are completely different than the culture Manley was inundated in.” – Criminal justice advocate Chas Moore

The process that led to Manley's appointment as chief occurred during a different time, when the city's attitude toward its police department was, broadly speaking, less critical than it is now. Many of Manley's critics feel he was swept into the job without a sufficiently wide search, in the wake of his response to the 2018 bombing spree that killed two and injured several more. Even his much-praised leadership as interim chief during that frightening time for the city, showed some racial blind spots; immediately following the first bombing death, Manley suggested that the victim, Anthony House, a Black man, may have constructed the bomb himself.

Later, Manley backtracked, but by the time his officers – with the help of federal law enforcement – identified and tried to apprehend the true bomber, Mark Conditt (who killed himself), the history had already been written: Manley was the hometown hero who saved Austin from a domestic terrorist. It was a short jump from that moment – with a few community town halls in between – to Cronk appointing and Council unanimously confirming Manley as Austin's next police chief. Critics have urged a more deliberate, and wide-ranging, approach this time.

The state civil service law that prevented Cronk from firing Manley outright also informs this search for a new chief, as justice advocates and their closer allies on Council will pressure Cronk to find an outside hire who wouldn't be protected from accountability by that law.

"The culture within APD is going to have to go through deep transformational change before community members, especially in deeply impacted ones, will believe that the new chief gets it," Moore told us. He added that being able to fire the next chief will be an important accountability tool that Cronk should consider when making an appointment for Council confirmation.

The speculation over who will be named interim chief while Cronk and the community work together on criteria for the national search has already begun. Any one of the current assistant chiefs make logical sense, but each will not be viewed equally by rank-and-file, city leaders, and community advocates. Chief of Staff Troy Gay and Assistant Chief Joseph Chacon are the two names that came up most frequently in our reporting, but some named more recent AC Robin Henderson as a possible choice.

Gay and Chacon were both recently rejected for chief positions in Nashville and Waco, respectively, so they both clearly have interest in leading a police department. Although Gay has the most institutional knowledge of the two, he would surely face intense backlash from a range of stakeholders. He is not well-liked by most of the APD rank-and-file, who perceive him as a careerist more than willing to take credit for the work of others. He was caught up in the Tatum investigation for allegedly wanting to submit his child to LGBTQIA conversion therapy and, as the right-hand of Manley and frequent public face of the department's sexual assault unit crisis, is viewed skeptically by the survivor community.

“I have been saying for a long time that Manley has to go, but to replace him with his own hand-selected leadership is to keep walking down the Brian Manley road.” – Criminal justice advocate Kathy Mitchell

One quality both men share is that they are perceived by many to be creatures of the same APD culture that Manley came up in, and that some point to as the source of Manley's resistance to reform. "I don't believe the current top brass at APD – Brian Manley's people – are right for this job," Kathy Mitchell, a longtime advocate on criminal justice issues in Austin, told us. "I have been saying for a long time that Manley has to go, but to replace him with his own hand-selected leadership is to keep walking down the Brian Manley road."

Abandoning that path and finding a leader for the department – both temporary and permanent – will take time. Which is why the most resounding message from advocates to Cronk and City Council has been: "Slow down." That might mean looking outside of the typical line of succession, surely for the permanent chief and possibly even for the interim, at former department leaders, others active in the law enforcement or criminal justice world, or others who know the department's history but understand it needs to change. Finding such a person who is not also beholden to the well-documented toxic culture within the department will be a challenge.

The Austin Police Association and its president, Ken Casaday, will also be influential voices in the coming search. Casaday told us he has no preference for who is selected, temporary and permanent, as long as they are fair. "Manley served the department for 30 years, and it said a lot about him that he pointed to his time with the Child Abuse Unit as most important to him," Casaday told us. "But I think it's time for new leadership as we chart a new course for policing; not that we'll change everything about the profession, just some things."

Police Chief Brian Manley and Austin Police Assocation President Ken Casaday addressing Council in 2019 (Photo by John Anderson)

Casaday said he wants a new chief who will clearly communicate policy and expectations of officers, and then stand by them when they act according to those guidelines, even if doing so may make the department look bad. "If our chief is out there telling officers to shoot people with [lead-pellet rounds] and they do that, you have to stand by them or change training and policy. If you're teaching that behavior, then you need to back them up when they act that way."

Criminal justice advocates see this new hire as an opportunity to break the chain of bad behavior. Moore has implored Cronk to help the community "take our time and do the deep dive to get the best person for the job." He said that expectations from the Austin community on what views and qualifications a police chief should possess have morphed in the three years since Manley took over. "I hope the city finds someone that understands there is a new job description for this role."

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