On March 25 the Austin City Council moved a step closer to authorizing a new police cadet class beginning June 7 — after over a year without a cadet class. The vote was eight to one with two Council Members abstaining. Council Member Greg Casar voted no while Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper Madison and Council Member Vanessa Fuentes both abstained, saying they were not yet ready to support a new cadet class.

The Council vote stopped far short of deciding the matter. For a cadet class to actually begin the Council must still vote to approve the budget. That will likely mean another meeting like they had last Thursday, with much of the same discussion.

What the Council actually approved was a “blueprint” that City Manager Spencer Cronk must implement, or continue implementing, to begin a new class by June 7. That blueprint includes recommendations from a combination of seven consultants and community groups. At some point the Council will be asked to determine if the City Manager and the Austin Police Department (APD) have met the requirements of the Blueprint sufficiently to merit budgeting a new cadet class. That vote won’t come before April 20 because the Council decided to not take action until after the Reimagining Public Safety Task Force delivers its report to Council. The report is due April 20.

The promise to not act until after the task force report is out came through an amendment from Council Member Alison Alter. Although Alter released the amendment text several hours before the Council took up the item, many speakers were evidently unaware of it, or did not think it went far enough. A primary argument from speakers was that the Council should not act before receiving the recommendations of the task force. They argued that such action would undermine the task force’s work and be disrespectful of its members. Around 35 people spoke against approving the Blueprint, and moving forward on a cadet class, while three spoke in support.

Although many urged the Council not to act until it got recommendations from the task force, it is also clear that few, if any, of the activists will be ready to support a new cadet class even after the task force is done. That was apparent from speakers who phoned in to the March 25 Council meeting. In fact some said they don’t even want to have police. So at some point the Council will have to choose to vote against the activists’ wishes or decide against budgeting a cadet class. 

This illustrates the governance dilemma in which the Council finds itself. Working with reimagining public safety activists, they have led a process that will almost certainly result in what Farah Muscadin — Director of the Office of Police Oversight — called “transformative” change at the Austin Police Academy. That should ultimately result in a better police force. And, the transformation should be ongoing. If that turns out to be the case, activists and the City Council, and others, will deserve credit for an historic accomplishment. 

In the meantime, however, the Academy is closed and thus there is no way to replace large numbers of police officers who are leaving the force through retirements or finding jobs elsewhere. This is occurring against the backdrop of a soaring murder rate as well as dramatically increased traffic deaths. 

The Governance Conundrum

Making progress in politics and government frequently requires knowing when to chalk up a victory, consolidate gains, keep the pendulum from swinging back in the other direction, and then continue moving forward. That is not always a skill set found among activists. Such responsibility usually falls to those elected to govern. And, in this case that is the Austin City Council.

Numerous speakers calling in to the March 25 meeting illustrated the challenge the Council faces. For instance Eliza Epstein said, “I don’t want to live in a world with police, a world with jails, a world where anyone is kicked out, tossed away, excluded. I don’t want a new academy, and I don’t want a new police chief, but today is about saying no to the cadet academy”

Molly Holtz asserted, “Voting to fund a new cadet class will go against the commitment City Council made to our community to prioritize ensuring the safety of Austin’s black and brown community members.”

“Voting to fund a new cadet class will go against the commitment City Council made to our community to prioritize ensuring the safety of Austin’s black and brown community members.” Molly Holtz

Maria Reza said, “As you all very well know, we’re still living in the middle of a covid-19 pandemic, and some of us are still living with the consequences of the February snowstorm and just so much is happening in our communities. We definitely deserve a break, and that includes no police. What we need is to direct investment into our communities and that includes holistic recommendations that the Reimagine Public Safety Task Force has been working for months to do. I urge you all to please vote no on agenda item 37 in order for us to prioritize the safety of all Austinites, not just those that benefit from policing.”

On the other side of the ledger, Cary Roberts, a member of the Austin Crime Commission and also a Task Force member, spoke in favor of a cadet class. He maintained, “The task force is working on a lot of important topics, but not police training.” Consequently, Roberts continued, the Council should not delay action on a cadet class until the Task Force issues its report. Roberts also referred to the seven consultant studies and citizen group reports that have contributed to reimagining the Academy.

“Failing to restart cadet classes will worsen the staffing strain already faced by APD. . . Officers are overworked and the department is stretched thin. We need more officers to address rising crime and slower response times.” Corby Jastrow, Greater Austin Crime Commission

Later, the President of the Greater Austin Crime Commission, Corby Jastrow, picked up on Roberts’ points, “APD training staff is committed to implementing the necessary improvements outlined in the City Manager’s blueprint.” Jastrow added, “Failing to restart cadet classes will worsen the staffing strain already faced by APD. Resignations and retirements are outpacing projections. In addition to the 150 police positions cut last year, the department will have more than 100 vacancies by the end of March. That’s less officers than the city had a decade ago. Officers are overworked and the department is stretched thin. We need more officers to address rising crime and slower response times.”

After the speakers were done, Council Member Alter asked to hear from Police Oversight Director Muscadin. Muscadin gave an overview of the goals at the Police Academy, One goal, she explained, “is opening up the door to the academy to include community involvement. We know it has been a closed environment, and now we are literally opening up the door. And, the community involvement includes more engagement, specific direct engagement of community with cadets before they start the academy, during the academy, and after the academy. We’re talking about more co-facilitation so that cadets are not only learning from the instructors that were in the academy, but they are also learning from community members, academics, and others outside of the law enforcement field so they have a broader perspective in terms of what they are learning in the academy.” 

Muscadin said the Academy is also “working to formalize the video review process, which will be key, because obviously we know that panel brought a perspective that wasn’t necessarily there in the police department to provide just a different look in terms of the outcomes that happened with the videos that were being shown.” Now former Chief Brian Manley earlier in the month made similar comments about the video panel bringing a new perspective and now Acting Chief Joe Chacon made a similar comment at the March 25 meeting.

Muscadin continued, “We do have to be transformative in the change and really looking at how we go from that warrior mentality to the guardian mentality. 

Muscadin finished with, “I’ll leave you with this Council Member. To a certain extent, we are working in a conceptual way of how we are going to go about doing this academy. To a certain extent, I think we’re going to have to see it in action to see whether or not the recommendations are achieving the outcomes. And, I think we are going to get to a point where we’re going to have to iterate it. Some things might work. Some things might not. And, we have to be in a position to see what is leading to the change that fundamentally we all want to see. We may not agree on the direction, but we know we want to see the change. I think we have to see it in practice so that we can ensure that we get there.”

“We may not agree on the direction, but we know we want to see the change. I think we have to see it in practice so that we can ensure that we get there.” Farah Muscadin, Director, Office of Police Oversight

After Muscadin finished Alter offered assurances that “if we vote to move forward tonight, I want to be really clear, we have another vote, which is on the budget.”

Perhaps some of the speakers and task force members were mollified by Alter’s amendment clarifying that a cadet class will not be approved until after the task force report. Clearly, however, numerous activists simply do not believe the City should convene a new cadet class. Their work and their protests, including that of numerous Task Force members, has resulted in major changes at the Academy, ongoing changes. Those changes, however, are apparently not enough to persuade any of the activists who spoke last Thursday to support a cadet class.

So at some point soon the Council faces a reckoning. They will have to consider the consequences of not having a cadet class, of not training new officers to add to the force, and then choose between:

a. Voting to fund a cadet class and thus not going straight down the line with the activists; or

b. Remaining in lockstep with the activists and risking what comes for the City the Council Members represent, by indefinitely delaying the addition of more officers to the force.

(Photo at top by Adela Mancías)

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