Austin Plays the APD Chief Dating Game
Finalists court the community for Austin police top job
The three finalists vying to be Austin's next chief of police each took their turn last week wooing the community at back-to-back discussion panels on Aug. 18-19.
Essentially public job interviews, the hybrid forums were held in person with limited capacity at the Palmer Events Center and also streamed live online, though only those attending in person had a chance to ask the candidates – Austin Police Department Interim Chief Joseph Chacon, LAPD Deputy Chief Emada Tingirides, and Dallas PD Assistant Chief Avery Moore – any questions outside of those already preselected for the two-night event.
Given those circumstances, participation in the forums required some negotiation between personal health and safety and the inherent risk of attending an in-person event at the height of Austin's most aggressive COVID surge yet – a risk that rendered public engagement difficult and was a point of frustration for some criminal justice advocates. Still, the candidates' responses offered Austinites the most insight they're likely to get into how each would lead APD.
Each demonstrated a certain degree of savviness in how they answered the forum questions – especially politically sensitive ones – and in particular crafted answers that on their surface might appeal to both criminal justice reformers and law enforcement backers. They discussed how they would continue to "reimagine public safety," a concept city leadership uses to describe local efforts to advance de-policing following City Council's vote last year to reallocate some $20 million from APD's budget. Candidates weighed in on other hot-button topics, too, including how to respond to the historic increase in homicides that has occurred over the past year in Austin and other major cities around the nation; what role systemic racism has played in the history of policing and how the harmful effects of that legacy can be reversed; and what steps should be taken to slow attrition rates at APD.
So, what's the primary takeaway here? It's that all three candidates offered answers we would expect career cops seeking the top job in a progressive city to provide – that is, don't expect any one of these potential future chiefs alone to completely revolutionize the department overnight.
Austin's criminal justice advocates have expressed similar sentiments, paying specific attention to what Chacon, Tingirides, and Moore had to say about reimagining public safety. Chris Harris with Texas Appleseed told the Chronicle that each appeared to fundamentally misunderstand the primary aim of reimagining (RPS) efforts, which is to limit the role law enforcement plays in the lives of Austin residents, and especially of those living in Black and Latinx communities who have historically faced disproportionate harm from police.
"All of these candidates conflate reimagining public safety with reforming the police training academy," Harris told us. "None seem to embrace City Council's vision of rethinking who does what, much less the task force's goal of limiting reliance on police by providing more resources and community-based services to people in historically oppressed areas."
None of the candidates have yet to win the endorsement of prominent justice groups like the Austin Justice Coalition or Just Liberty. The Austin Police Association has not issued an endorsement either; APA members were polled this week, but as the Chronicle went to press on Wednesday, results had not yet been released. That follows background investigations performed on each candidate, which involve an APD detective spending a week in their off-duty time visiting Los Angeles and Dallas to conduct research on Tingirides and Moore, respectively. As a 20-year APD veteran, Chacon is already a known entity among APA leadership and the rank and file.
For APA, the primary concern is how the next chief will address soaring attrition rates. APA President Ken Casaday told the Chronicle that although Chacon, Tingirides, and Moore all acknowledged that staffing concerns must be addressed, none have thus far presented an implementable strategy to stop the bleeding. Speaking about the background checks more generally, though, Casaday said the results from Tingirides' investigation were "so impressive it's scary. ... Everyone we interviewed just thinks she is the real deal."
Based on Casaday's comments, it's no surprise then that Tingirides appears to be the least favored candidate among justice advocates. Several advocates pointed to comments Tingirides made at last week's forums that echoed rhetoric deployed by APA, such as tying Council's move to reduce police spending last year to the recent rise in murders and decisions by APD officers to leave the department. "I believe that the increase in violence coupled with the decrease of police resources is quite volatile," she said at the Aug. 19 forum. "It's difficult for law enforcement agencies everywhere to recruit because of a narrative that has gone on over the past year, as it relates to law enforcement and policing."
Among justice advocates, though, consensus around Moore being the candidate least likely to harm reform efforts appears to be coalescing. Moore has experience as an executive at a major city police department, and offered the most comprehensive answer about what the RPS effort means. "We have to examine everything about policing that we do as it relates to training," he said at the Aug. 19 forum. "We also have to get to where we examine our general orders, our [standard operating procedures], and just make sure that we're exercising best practices."
Chacon's status as the lone APD veteran up for the chief job initially seemed like an automatic disqualifier for two reasons. For one, there's a belief among advocates that the cultural problems at APD are so extensive that an internal hire – especially one who has served practically his whole career at the department – would be unable to disrupt the APD status quo. The other reason is that state law prevents city managers from firing public safety chiefs promoted from within – they can only be demoted.
But Chacon has impressed so far as interim chief, and hiring someone with experience leading the RPS effort from within could also be an asset. However, recent controversy surrounding Chacon's response to a new arrest review policy implemented by District Attorney José Garza and County Attorney Delia Garza has frustrated some activists. Addressing tensions between APD and the two prosecutors, Chacon said on Aug. 15 that he is in "ongoing and constant" discussions of policy aimed at reducing arrests over low-level and nonviolent offenses. "We have to build those systems out. ... We cannot get into an area where we are at odds. We need to continue to work together and make a commitment to keep having these conversations."
City Manager Spencer Cronk is expected to name a lone finalist for Council's approval before the end of September.
Watch archived recordings of the APD chief candidate forums at austintexas.gov/atxn.