The Ugly End to Jason Dusterhoft's Police Career Was Only the Beginning for APD
Three chiefs gone in Austin
Ed. note: This story contains descriptions and discussions of sexual violence and assault and suicidal ideation.
Early on the morning of Friday, July 14, 2017, Brian Manley escorted Jason Dusterhoft into a City Hall meeting room. Manley had become Austin's interim chief of police six months earlier, and Dusterhoft was one of seven assistant chiefs that formed the Austin Police Department's executive team. For Dusterhoft, an Iowa farm boy who was the first in his family to leave home and get a college degree, his leadership role at APD was the highlight of his professional life.
Waiting in the meeting room was Manley's own supervisor, Assistant City Manager Rey Arellano. Once everyone was seated, Manley told Dusterhoft he was being demoted, returning to the rank of commander. As Dusterhoft later recounted to the Chronicle in an extensive written interview, Manley said he'd learned that Dusterhoft had ordered an assistant to use his signature stamp on a personal letter, and that he'd improperly routed his office purchases through other assistant chiefs instead of to Manley or to APD's finance office.
Dusterhoft told us he was "astounded" that Manley would choose to demote him for these minor "non-policy" transgressions. "But the real reason is that I had already exposed him on numerous occasions for being corrupt, committing criminal acts, and covering serious violations up."
And once Manley was finished, Dusterhoft took the opportunity to lay out these claims to Arellano. Or, as phrased in a court filing this past January, he "decided to exercise his First Amendment rights to inform ACM Arellano of everything that was going on in the department under Chief Manley so that something would be done about it. He did so even though he was going against official APD policy."
We don't know how much Dusterhoft actually said at the meeting, but the recitation of the allegations in that court filing is extensive. According to that filing, he said he'd previously alerted Manley to incompetence and dysfunction at APD's crime lab. (The lab later was shut down after investigators found tainted DNA samples and a laundry list of other problems.) He described how he'd presented Manley with evidence that two officers had lied on their timesheets – that is, falsified a government record with intent to defraud, a felony in Texas – and that in one case superior officers were aware of the dishonesty and had looked the other way. He said he'd presented evidence that yet another officer had lied during an Internal Affairs investigation. In every case, Dusterhoft said, Manley had opted to cover up the problem.
"Upon bringing this criminal conduct up to ACM Arellano, I was asked to step out of the room for approximately 45 minutes," he told the Chronicle. "[Then] I was brought back in and told the demotion was rescinded and we were done."
The victory was short-lived. Three days later, Manley changed his mind and demoted Dusterhoft after all, asserting his sole authority as chief of police over APD personnel matters. Instead of issuing a public explanation for the demotion, Manley sent out a picture showing himself and his chief of staff, Troy Gay, pinning a star on the collar of the officer they were raising up into Dusterhoft's position – Justin Newsom.
Broken Beyond Repair
With Manley's retirement from APD on March 28, he, Dusterhoft, and Newsom are now all off the force. Each will likely be remembered more for the ignominious ends to their careers than for any prior events in their long service to the city. Dusterhoft was the first to go; 18 months after his demotion, he was fired outright in December 2018 for, in Manley's judgment, assaulting a woman during sex, among other allegations.
A year later, Newsom hastily retired after allegations surfaced that he had used racist language in communications with fellow officers. Dusterhoft, it was later revealed, provided evidence of this racist language in anonymous complaints filed with the city's Office of Police Oversight. This set into motion a series of audits and investigations of APD's culture – called for in a City Council resolution known as "Resolution 66." These were ongoing when Austin police shot and killed Michael Ramos in April 2020 and wounded at least a dozen people, some with life-altering injuries, at the end of May in response to Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of the George Floyd murder in Minneapolis.
By that time, community advocates and Council itself had decided Manley had to go. He was condemned for presiding over a police culture where a top-ranking officer could use racist language and face no discipline of any kind, and where long-serving officers of color had given up hope for advancement. Where officers could kill unarmed people of color like Ramos during encounters that involved no crime or danger to the public; where officers could assault peaceful protesters with "less lethal" munitions; and where officers had permission from their chief to ignore city policy calling for the de-escalation of conflicts, for an end to racial profiling, and for not arresting people for homelessness or possession of small amounts of marijuana.
Manley, like Newsom, was allowed to leave on his own terms, if not fully of his own choosing; both retired with a full pension. Dusterhoft, however, considers his life wrecked. Consumed with dismay over what he sees as Manley's corruption and dishonesty, he continues to fight to clear his name and even harbors hopes of returning to the force. Having been unsuccessful in his appeal of his "indefinite suspension" through civil-service arbitration, he filed suit in federal court in October 2020, naming Manley, Newsom, Gay, and the city of Austin as defendants.
He seeks monetary damages for wrongful termination but has other motives, too. "Hopefully, through this lawsuit I can expose what is really occurring at APD and in the very least change the horrible culture that Chief Manley [was] perpetuating," Dusterhoft told the Chronicle. "If he can cover up for his hand-picked assistant chief, Newsom, and even after being caught red-handed, refuse to open an investigation into racism" – instead having one forced upon him by Resolution 66 – "imagine what else has Chief Manley covered up."
Dusterhoft's career was not without low points; he had been suspended before, and even fired much earlier in his APD tenure before winning his job back in arbitration. Some who've observed Dusterhoft over the years express doubt, off the record, that his intentions are so noble. They say that while he looked the part of the well-mannered and rules-oriented executive cop, he had a more expansive, more elemental personality than his peers. They describe him as garrulous, as canny, as a jokester, as a bully, as a wild card, and assume that his true motivation in filing the lawsuit is, simply, revenge.
Dusterhoft denies it: "Revenge is the last thing I am looking for. What is most important, and what was a hallmark of my career and is still a personal passion of mine, [is that] I want the right and just thing to happen. It doesn't matter the situation; when faced with a choice, you always do what is right."
What’s Private Is Now Public
"If a Commander beats me, do I have anything to say?"
According to Manley's disciplinary memo of December 20, 2018, this text message popped up on the phone of now-retired Assistant Chief Frank Dixon on the evening of August 28 that summer, a little over a year after Dusterhoft's demotion. It had come from a mutual friend of Dusterhoft and Dixon's, a woman Dusterhoft had been dating for six weeks.
The woman is called "Ms. S" in the disciplinary memo. She had sent the text minutes after Dusterhoft told her that he was breaking off their relationship. Along with the text, she sent pictures of bruises under her chin, on her hip, and on her buttock.
Officers from APD's Special Investigations Unit went out immediately. They took statements from Ms. S, along with her roommate – identified as "Ms. C" in Manley's memo – and another friend of Dusterhoft. They downloaded the contents of Ms. S' cell phone, got a search warrant for Dusterhoft's, and examined his phone, too.
According to investigators, on August 24, 2018, four days before Ms. S' text, Dusterhoft and his friend had joined Ms. S and Ms. C at the Yellow Rose strip club on North Lamar. It was Ms. C's birthday. Dusterhoft's friend told investigators that he paid to have a $40 bag of cocaine delivered to Ms. C; the memo notes that, while Dusterhoft was associating with known drug users, there was no evidence that he saw or knew of this transaction. Ms. S alleged that later, after she complained about Dusterhoft's attention to another woman, he grabbed her chin with one hand and slapped her face with the other.
Both in his lawsuit and in his written interview with the Chronicle, Dusterhoft argues in minute detail that there never was any assault during or after the visit to the Yellow Rose. "I was targeted by Chief Manley," he said. "[Ms. S] was someone that was taken advantage of by Chief Manley to settle a score with me." He specifically claims that Ms. S was very intoxicated, both when she sent the texts alleging an assault and when she was interviewed by APD investigators; that she never filed an actual complaint and, the following day, emailed investigators with her decision to stop cooperating; that SIU nonetheless returned to press Ms. S again, at which point she offered a different version of events, so the investigators knew that at least some of her claims were false; and that she refused to sign an affidavit summarizing her charges. He also says that Ms. C, who was also interviewed, recanted her version of the events shortly afterward.
In his memo, Manley agreed that the evidence for an assault was thin, writing that "a preponderance of the evidence does not support that an assault occurred at the Club." But he had other arguments. He detailed how Dusterhoft had waited to hand over his cell phone when he learned of the search warrant and deleted dating apps and sex videos that the chief said were relevant to the investigation. (Dusterhoft argues that he was unaware what the focus of the investigation was at first and deleted the information to protect his privacy.) Manley also declared that Dusterhoft had brought discredit to the department by associating with persons who did drugs.
And he found that Dusterhoft had, after all, assaulted Ms. S, writing: "[A] preponderance of the evidence does support a finding that Commander Dusterhoft assaulted Ms. S on multiple other occasions at his residence during what can be described as 'rough sex,' during which he would strangle Ms. S with his hands with the intent and desire of her losing consciousness."
Manley's memo – a public record accessible to anyone at the website for the Office of Police Oversight – spends six pages on those encounters. It recounts in great detail information provided by Ms. S in another interview with SIU investigators on Sept. 7, and copies of text exchanges from mid-August (two weeks before the Yellow Rose visit) between her and Dusterhoft, as well between her and other friends, in which Ms. S expressed fears that she might die while having sex with Dusterhoft. The memo states that Dusterhoft confirmed the authenticity of his texts with Ms. S, along with his insistence that everything that transpired between him and Ms. S (including at least six sexual encounters) was consensual. In his interview with the Chronicle, Dusterhoft insisted – and said the recording of the Sept. 7 interview with Ms. S corroborates – that both he and Ms. S explicitly denied that he had ever choked her to the point of unconsciousness.
Manley argued that regardless of what she said, Ms. S could not give consent for the choking because it put her in physical danger: "Commander Dusterhoft's belief that his actions constitute lawful, consensual 'choking' during a sexual encounter is wrong from both a legal and medical standpoint," he wrote. "Death from strangulation can occur in as little as two minutes. In instances where there is no loss of consciousness, it is possible that arteries/veins in the neck can tear internally, causing blood clots [that] can lead to stroke and death even weeks later." He did note that she may have been able to consent to other elements of these encounters.
Concluding his memo, Manley stated that he could fire Dusterhoft for any of four reasons: his choking of Ms. S; his hiding of his cell phone when he learned of the search warrant; his deletion from the phone of material relevant to the investigation; and his bringing discredit on the department. Before releasing the memo, Manley brought Dusterhoft in for a meeting on December 20, 2018. Dusterhoft says Manley showed him what he had – what the lawsuit describes as the "salacious and false" memorandum – and offered him a chance to retire.
"If I would have retired, he knew the disparaging discipline letter would not be public," Dusterhoft told the Chronicle. "The fact of the matter is, he tried to coerce me and forcefully push me out, quietly, by writing it with so many half-truths and outright lies. I told my kids that day the reason I didn't retire is because if you don't stand up to bullies, you will never be the better person. If you didn't do anything wrong, you have to stand for yourself and for what is right."
Dusterhoft refused to retire. Manley fired him and made the memo public that same day; as the story made headlines across the state, Dusterhoft says, his reputation was obliterated.
The Chief Secures the Bag
After his firing, Dusterhoft told the Chronicle, he was afraid to turn on the TV; he deleted his social media accounts. "I quickly spiraled into depression as soon as I saw horrible things being written and said about me. I fell into using alcohol to cope with the depression and humiliation Chief Manley and the city put me through, which only made things worse. At my darkest times I considered suicide."
Still, it wasn't in Dusterhoft's nature to go down without a fight. And he wasn't without leverage. In addition to his complaints about Manley at the time of his demotion, which had never been acted upon, Dusterhoft knew of information that, if brought to light, could deeply embarrass those who'd presided over his downfall.
He filed a grievance seeking reinstatement, which was set to be heard in arbitration in two sessions, the first beginning on September 24, 2019. As the date drew near, Dusterhoft's attorney sent subpoenas to Manley, Gay, Newsom, and then-Assistant Chief Joe Chacon – now interim chief of police – demanding that they be ready to testify and that they turn over texts and emails that might help Dusterhoft's case.
What did Dusterhoft expect to find? In a subsequent complaint with the Office of Police Oversight that's reiterated in his lawsuit, he stated: "As an assistant chief for over three years, I [know] that it was common practice to send group text threads about incidents, to include high-profile criminal or policy violation incidents." In particular, Dusterhoft was fishing for texts he had heard about – and reportedly, in one case, seen – that showed Assistant Chief Justin Newsom, the officer Manley had raised into Dusterhoft's place, using the N-word in communications with Manley and his assistant chiefs.
The specific claim of Newsom's racist language and the text messages containing it was the starting point for the subsequent investigation into racism, sexism, and homophobia in APD's executive ranks by former Bexar County prosecutor Lisa Tatum and her firm, which was called for in Resolution 66. According to the Tatum report, just as Dusterhoft's arbitration hearing was set to begin, Newsom met with Manley. He told the chief that someone had sent him a screenshot of one of his texts from "a while back" and he was worried it would surface during the arbitration. Manley asked if what was in the text was "serious." Newsom replied that it was – in fact, it was so serious that if it became public he would immediately resign.
Manley, with great apparent tact, did not ask Newsom what exactly was in the text (which he may have already known). Instead, he told Newsom to take his concerns to the city's law department – to attorneys who would never, because of attorney-client privilege, be compelled to divulge whatever Newsom told them should they be asked.
The next day, Sept. 24, the first of Dusterhoft's two arbitration sessions began. It ran until Sept. 27. None of the text messages or emails that Dusterhoft had subpoenaed had been handed over, and neither Gay nor Newsom were called to testify. Two weeks later, on Oct. 7, 2019, a person calling himself "Mark Spaulding" sent an email to Manley, copied to the Office of Police Oversight, the city manager, KVUE, and the Austin American-Statesman. (Eventually, it would make its way to many other people, including the Chronicle.) In the message, Spaulding wrote:
"I wanted to contact you and express my great concern about the racist behavior of one of your officers, Assistant Chief Justin Newsome [sic].
"I have seen screen shots of text messages in which he referred to other Austin police officers as 'stupid fucking n_____s' as well as heard second-hand that he makes such statements regularly in the presence of other police officers."
Spaulding asked Manley to open an investigation but not to attempt to contact him, as he feared retaliation. Manley did the opposite; he did not open an investigation but he did ask OPO to contact the sender, to learn if Spaulding had the screenshot in his possession. OPO was unable to reach him.
As described in the Tatum report, APD's executive team, including Newsom, assumed that "Mark Spaulding" was actually Dusterhoft, which turned out not to be the case. For the next two weeks, the executive team discussed the matter with Newsom and among themselves, with observers being able to see physical signs of Newsom's anxiety.
On Oct. 24, Dusterhoft's second arbitration session wrapped, with neither Newsom nor Gay ever being called to testify. As alleged in Dusterhoft's lawsuit, witnesses saw them high-fiving each other in celebration afterward. The next day, Gay told Manley that he should open an Internal Affairs investigation into Newsom's texts. Manley said he'd think about it. He then left town for a previously planned vacation, putting Gay in command.
On the afternoon of Oct. 30, a second anonymous complaint about Newsom hit newsrooms, City Hall, and OPO. In his lawsuit, Dusterhoft identifies himself as the author of that complaint. "I have been advised that [Assistant Chief] Newsom, on a continous [sic] basis for at least the last decade, has used the word 'n____r' to describe African Americans," the complaint read. "I have been advised that AC Newsom, went to Chief Manley explaining that someone may have possession of text exchanges where he was using 'n____r' in the conversation. Chief Manley asked if it was possible that someone did in fact have screenshots of these conversations and Chief Newsome [sic] said yes. Allegedly everyone on the executive floor (to include officers, Assistant Chiefs, Chief of Staff and administrative staff) knew about this conversation between Chief Manley and AC Newsom. All Assistant Chiefs were made aware of AC Newsom using the extremely derogatory term 'n____r' and failed to report it for investigation or review." The complainant went on to provide examples of Newsom using this racist language to describe President Obama, former Council Member Ora Houston, his fellow Assistant Chief Frank Dixon, and officers LaMarcus Wells and Kheston Campbell (the "stupid" ones from the text Spaulding had referenced).
The public reckoning that Newsom dreaded had arrived. Reporters began calling city and police leaders to ask about the allegations, including Austin Police Association President Ken Casaday. While the union leader denied knowing anything about the claims, he later acknowledged calling Newsom to warn him about the new complaint.
As documented in the Tatum report, at 6:21pm on Oct. 30, Newsom called Gay to announce his immediate retirement – his paperwork and the keys to his police car were on Gay's desk, he said. He asked if an investigation had been opened into his conduct. Had that been the case, he would have been unable to claim his full retirement benefits until that investigation was concluded, and perhaps not at all depending on its outcome. Both Newsom and Gay confirmed to Tatum that he made clear on Oct. 30 he'd rescind his retirement if an investigation had been opened. The next day, on Oct. 31, the city's law department decided that no formal investigation had been initiated by the time Newsom retired. He walked away with a "bust-out check" of $137,000 for his accrued unused sick leave, and full retirement benefits for the rest of his life.
This Is What They Look Like
Two months later, Dusterhoft's firing was upheld, but at that point no one was thinking about him anymore. Those paying attention were still trying to wrap their heads around the new narrative: Was it possible that APD's top officers could be so explicitly racist and then keep their mouths shut about it when it was discovered? Or that Manley had let more than a month go by without opening an investigation into Newsom's conduct, allowing him to walk away with a bag of cash?
At a Nov. 24 press conference, APD Sergeant Chandra Ervin, president of the Texas Peace Officers Association – a group that historically has represented Black officers – told the media, "What Assistant Chief Newsom said about LaMarcus Wells and Kheston Campbell, he said about every other African American here on this force." Sergeant Mike Crumrine, president of the Austin Lesbian and Gay Peace Officers Association, castigated Manley for not opening an investigation, saying his words about integrity and accountability did not match his actions. Even Casaday – who had helped facilitate Newsom's escape – condemned the racist language, saying, "The community needs to know these alleged comments have directly damaged the men and women of the Austin Police Department."
By then, Tatum and her investigators were searching for Newsom's texts and had received additional information from Dusterhoft ("Complainant 1" in the report) via email. But Tatum was given no subpoena power – no power to force interviews from recalcitrant officers or order the production of documents, cell phones, or emails. And weeks had passed before the investigation got underway – plenty of time for people to delete things from their phones. As she explained in her report, Tatum never had any real hope of finding the texts. To this day, they have not surfaced.
Dusterhoft continues to feel that his warnings about Manley and Newsom have gone unheard. It's clear, though, that his October 2018 complaint kicked off events that have forever changed the relationship between Austin and its police force. Until Dusterhoft filed it, Newsom was hanging on at the department and might have weathered the first racism charge. Within hours of Dusterhoft's complaint, he was gone. Then, attention swung to Manley's decision not to open an investigation. It was the first time many in the community had questioned the leadership of Manley, who'd been named the permanent chief amid a groundswell of public praise after APD's handling of the bombing spree in March 2018.
It helped frame Austin's reaction to the Mike Ramos killing and the shootings of the BLM protesters, by which time it was widely believed, including at City Hall, that APD leadership was racist and corrupt. It's governed everything that's happened since: the reallocation of a chunk of the police budget; the overhauling of the police academy, the forensics department, and 911; and the work of the Reimagining Public Safety Task Force, whose findings we covered in our last issue. On March 22, City Manager Spencer Cronk passed over Troy Gay to appoint Joe Chacon as APD's interim leader, and Chacon has already made a public stand on several issues to support Council policies that Manley did not. He will also likely retire soon, though, to be replaced by a new chief from outside the city, whom Austinites will expect to embrace reform.
Dusterhoft is acutely aware of how close he once was to being part of this conversation. He's tried to move on with his life, putting in applications for over a hundred jobs. But as he says, with one Google search he's doomed from the start. So while the city pushes forward, Dusterhoft mulls the past. "At times in the beginning, I would wake up and actually believe this never happened to me and my family. There hasn't been one day this isn't on my mind or my family's mind," he said. "Being part of APD wasn't a job for me, it wasn't work, it was my calling. All the choices I made were to become a better leader and public servant. I will never get to do what I wanted, which is to be a police chief and continue to help people."