Long-Awaited Reforms at Austin Police Academy Just Aren’t Happening. Why?

How the fish rots

Cadets from the 139th cadet class salute the color guard during a graduation ceremony at Great Hills Baptist Church on August 31, 2018 (Photo by John Anderson)

Reforming the Austin Police Academy's curriculum is critical to shifting APD officers away from a "warrior" mindset and toward a "guardian" mindset, as the community has repeatedly demanded. But the collaborative city-community effort to do that has fallen short since it launched, due largely to apathy from APD leadership, according to a third-party report published March 16.

The 33-page report follows a three-month review by the Academy Curriculum Review Committee. This report came with a big price tag – the city has paid nearly $2 million over the past two years to consultant firm Kroll Associates to help carry out City Council directives to reform the academy. In 2019, City Council launched a wide-ranging effort to address a culture at APD that tolerated racism, sexism, and homophobia while suppressing those speaking out against it.

Part of that work included reforming the way police cadets are trained to become officers at the Austin Police Academy by revising curriculum and teaching methods. After a few stalled curriculum review efforts involving community representatives and APD, the ACRC formed in 2021 to take yet another swing at the revision. This time, the department hired Anne Kringen, an academic whose recent research focused on how police departments could diversify cadet recruits. As division manager, Krin­gen would oversee the broader academy reform effort as a civilian leader within the department.

Two years later, the ACRC has made virtually no progress toward that goal. After a particularly contentious meeting July 27, 2022, the committee agreed to stop meeting all together until a clearer purpose and structure of the group was established. The Kroll report found that "institutional barriers within APD and a resistance to re-thinking training" among instructors at the academy, "partly due to a lack of executive leadership," were instrumental factors in the effort stalling out. But the institutional barriers and resistance to change relate to the larger problem: a lack of support for reform at the assistant chief and chief levels within the department.

The report lists other problems, which boil down to an undefined and unproductive process for receiving community feedback, fueled partly by a "general feeling among sworn staff" involved in the process that Kringen, the APD division manager tasked with implementing changes to academy curriculum and cadet instruction, "has no authority to impose directives on sworn members."

"Without clear directives from APD leadership, and without leadership addressing instructor resistance to change," the report states, "little can be accomplished." But a connection Kroll fails to make explicit is that all of this dysfunction can be traced back to apathy or outright hostility toward reform efforts among leadership throughout the entire organization. Both the report and committee members indicate that resistance existed throughout the entire chain of command, including some (but not all) instructors, commanders, lieutenants – all the way up to Chief Joseph Chacon, who has led the department through the entirety of ACRC's existence.

Through a spokesperson, Chacon declined an interview with the Chronicle, saying that he first wanted to talk with the mayor and Council about the report. APD also did not respond to questions sent by email.

The Chain of Command

Law enforcement organizations are inherently militaristic – it's a fundamental aspect of police culture that reformers, both within and outside of law enforcement, aim to change – and that is evidenced through a rigid adherence to the chain of command. Subordinates are trained to never make decisions above their pay grade without first acquiring supervisor approval.

Noelle Davis, a current ACRC member who doesn't want reform efforts to end here (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Phil Hopkins, a professor and former municipal police officer, observed lower­-ranking APD officials resist reform efforts. Academy instructors participated in ACRC's virtual meetings; some engaged with the work, committee members recall, but often a supervisor would shut conversations down before they could lead to a breakthrough. "I remember one instructor really changing the way he looked at things," Hop­kins recalled. "But then some lieutenant or supervisor would come in and say, 'That can't be done,' and then conversation would stop."

“I remember one instructor really changing the way he looked at things. But then some lieutenant or supervisor would come in and say, ‘That can’t be done,’ and then conversation would stop.”   – Phil Hopkins, professor and former municipal police officer

More engaged leaders could have worked out a better committee process, or authorized subordinates to do so; leaders truly invested in culture change could have considered, then rejected or approved, other changes community members proposed; public support for the committee work and reform efforts from APD higher-ups – something Kroll notes was lacking and must be addressed – could have helped establish trust among APD personnel and community members; and had APD made clear that sworn staff must respect the authority of a higher-ranking employee in the organization, even if they are a civilian, then the academy could have implemented and sustained more curriculum reforms.

Kroll found through interviews with academy staff that they feel the ACRC process "positively impacted the tone and delivery" of instruction at the academy, but the report also notes that "no one disputes that few curriculum changes have been documented." Interviews with APD personnel point to frustrations with community members who were perceived as being "all about politics" and who made remarks seen by APD staff as "personal attacks," and asked for a workload that was "completely unrealistic."

But APD personnel also shared frustrations with department leadership. "The lack of involvement or commitment from senior leadership (e.g., Commander or Assist­ant Chief) was frustrating," an unnamed APD rep told Kroll. "Just get it done, go," is how another characterized leadership's attitude toward the ACRC. "This was not tenable from the perspective of the people who had to do the work."

Kroll recommends that the ACRC disband in its current form and reform as two new groups: a Community Advisory Council and a Professional Advisory Committee. The CAC would consist of a "broad representation of community members" and meet quarterly with academy and department leadership; its primary focus would be to ensure training includes a "comprehensive understanding of the diverse communities within Austin," clear expectations for how officers should interact with members of those communities, and, more generally, the type of police force Austin has made clear it desires – i.e., officers who guard the populace, not go to war against them.

The other committee would consist of subject matter experts to review and improve curriculum. A minimum of two working groups per year would form to collaborate with academy staff on curriculum changes.

What Comes Next?

The ACRC, in its current form, was set to resume its work Monday, March 27, with discussion of how the academy trains around racial profiling. Joyce James Con­sulting, a firm that offers workshops on how organizations can achieve racial equity goals, will facilitate the meeting (JJC has been involved in the broader "reimagining" effort for several years now). A city spokesperson tells us that staff is reviewing Kroll's recommendations and will collaborate with existing ACRC members, with help from JJC, and that details about future curriculum review efforts will be shared with the broader community once the review is complete. At their March 23 meeting, Council approved a one-year, $350,000 extension of the contract with Kroll.

Another concern ACRC members hope will be addressed in the relaunched process is their request to sit in on academy classes. Thus far, APD has ignored the request: At the Dec. 5, 2022, meeting of the Public Safety Commission, APD Cmdr. Wade Lyons said he would meet with his assistant chief to see how the department could "move forward" on it. At the Jan. 9 PSC meeting, another APD official said the department was working with the city manager's office and the Law Department to set up a process for it (APD did not respond to our questions about that process or when it would be implemented).

As for the report's pointed criticism of APD leadership and how the city would ensure those same failures are not repeated, the spokesperson said, "It is our intention to develop a plan that addresses the key issues and shortcomings identified by Kroll."

Noelle Davis, a current ACRC member who intends to continue working on curriculum revision efforts, said she is feeling optimistic. But for the project to be successful, Davis told us, the city needs to understand that the work will be long-term and expensive. And "we have to disrupt the us-vs.-them dynamic by slowing down, building trust, and setting clear procedures for committee work," Davis said.

But, Davis added, APD leadership needs to step up as well. "I would love to see leadership embrace the idea that we are not against officers, but that we can provide value in their careers and personal lives by reducing tensions with the community and the stress that forms as a result. We need leaders who can acknowledge the concerns of rank-and-file officers, while helping to paint a picture for them of how collaborating with community members can make their jobs easier."

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