Among other items, today’s Austin City Council agenda features a choice on whether the Council will approve a police cadet class beginning in June. Last summer the Council zeroed out the budget for new cadet classes at the Austin Police Academy, the training institution for would be Austin police officers. The Council cited concerns about racial bias and the need to change a paramilitary culture. They refused to budget any new cadet classes until reforms were made.

The defunding of the Academy was part of an overall Council effort in the wake of George Floyd protests last summer to reduce the police budget. These efforts were consistent with calls from activists at the time to “defund the police.” (The Council has since renamed their efforts Reimagining Public Safety.) 

To review, the Council ultimately voted unanimously to cut $150 million from the Austin Police Department (APD) budget, roughly 40%. Only $21 million of that was actual cuts in services (much of that the Academy). The rest was part of a process called “decoupling” in which the functions in question continue, but are moved out of the police budget and the police department chain of command. In a compromise, and bow to the budget deadlines, the Council chose to postpone decoupling decisions and consider them in the first six months of the fiscal year. The $129 in funding for these functions was placed in “transition” funds. The six months ends March 31 and the fate of several areas is yet to be decided, including Victims Services, Internal Affairs, and the 9-1-1 call center. 

So it appears that Council will miss their six month deadline for working through the proposed decouplings. In fact these functions will likely still remain in the transition budget, and under APD management, when the Council begins the new budget process later this spring.

The $21 million, by the way, was reallocated to social services consistent with defunding the police principles. Recipients of the reallocated funds, according to a staff report, included: mental health services; immigrant legal services; an “engagement process” for formerly incarcerated people and their families; and to hire work crews in the Parks, Watershed and Resource Recovery departments.

Lack of Cadet Class Becomes a Point of Focus

The cadet class, or lack thereof, became a flash point due to a very real combination of combustible factors. Violent crime increased in Austin during 2020, as reflected in 48 murders last year, a 33% increase over 2019 and the highest number of murders in 20 years. There have already been 15 murders this year, a pace that if it continues would put us around 60 by the end of the year. 

Driving the streets of Austin has also become more dangerous. Although the pandemic meant fewer cars on the roads, it also brought an increase in reckless driving. Ninety-four people died on Austin roads in 2020 and 23 so far this year.

The higher levels of crime are not the result of the Austin City Council’s vote to cut the police budget. The murder rate was significantly up in major Texas cities last year. And, the Washington Post recently reported that in 2020 gun violence, not including suicide, killed more people “than any other year in at least two decades.” Beyond just gun violence, reported the Post, “Last year, the United States saw the highest one-year increase in homicides since it began keeping records, with the country’s largest cities suffering a 30 percent spike.”  

So the rise in murders happened across the board in cities regardless of whether they took actions to “defund the police” or not. The rise in violent crime understandably worries, even scares, many people. So this is an atmosphere where people might be particularly worried about reducing the number of police officers.  Many people with such concerns, however, also support reforming the police.

Adding to all of the above in Austin was the closure of the Austin Police Academy. With no functioning Academy there is currently no way to replace officers who leave. Yet during the months the Academy has been closed more officers than usual left APD, through retirements or taking jobs elsewhere. APD has been forced to make operational shifts, like eliminating specialized units to maintain patrol strength.

This all takes place amid the backdrop of attacks from Governor Greg Abbott and the Texas Legislature, who are considering bills backed by Abbott aimed at Austin’s sovereignty over its police force and police budget.

There might be a path, however, on which the Council can mark real progress in police reform, keep that reform going, and simultaneously fund a new cadet class. They might also be able to pull this off in a way that increases support for their police reform efforts. That’s because polls have shown that while strong majorities support police reform, virtually the same percentage also oppose defund the police. For instance a Politico/Morning Consult poll taken in April 2020, 59 percent said police departments throughout the US need either a “complete overhaul” (22 percent) or “major reforms (37 percent).” Twenty-seven percent supported “a minor overhaul” while only five percent said no reform was needed.

On defunding the police the numbers almost reversed with 57% opposing defunding the police, with 43% strongly opposed while 29% were in favor. 

If Council could find a path to restart cadet classes while continuing reform and reiterating why reform is needed, they might win over some of those who now oppose the Council’s efforts because they see it as defunding the police.

If Council could find a path to restart cadet classes while continuing reform and reiterating why reform is needed, they might win over some of those who now oppose the Council’s efforts because they see it as defunding the police.

The seeds of potential multi-pronged progress are contained in a resolution proposed by the City Manager’s Office on the March 25 Council agenda. It has three core parts. The first calls for “the first reimagined APD cadet academy, which is projected to start no later than June 7, 2021.” 

Then comes a rather large caveat, “but only if the academy can be designed and staffed to meet the objectives in the document titled ‘Reimagined Police Cadet Academy Blueprint,”’

Near the bottom of the list is a third point, “address the City’s need to maintain adequate staffing within APD to provide for the public’s safety and welfare.”

It really boils down to one core question for the Council; when does the reform process reach the point where it is considered time to relaunch the academy, but continue with the reforms? Now, let’s look at some of the factors Council will consider in making that decision, including a look inside the Police Academy.

A Quiet Success

First, Council could look at a so far successful part of the decoupling process, Forensics. With only minor fanfare, the Council in February approved a new Forensic Science Department, moving that function ouf of APD. Forensics was a long troubled area (the troubles predating outgoing Chief Brian Manley’s tenure). The most devastating problem in APD Forensics was when the Department fell years behind on processing rape kits — while victims waited and waited for some kind of conclusion, or even action, on their cases.

How the new Department works out remains to be seen, but it’s hard to see this as anything other than a good faith attempt to reform an undeniably flawed operation and public service. It was certainly not an  area where APD could have justifiably put up any resistance to losing, and they apparently did not. According to a memo from Assistant City Manager Ray Arellano, the City hired an outside consulting firm that produced the “Quattrone Report,” which conducted a “comprehensive review of the Austin Police Department DNA Lab,” and recommended improvements “consistent with the National Academy of Science’s report ‘Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States; A Path Forward.”’ No services were cut and no jobs were eliminated. The funding was simply transferred to the new Department.

Council Member Alison Alter noted before the Council vote that the work to fix Forensics predated the 2020 budget deliberations. Nonetheless, the way Forensics was handled could provide a template for an effective and less adversarial way of reforming APD; an approach that might well make even more progress, more quickly.

The Kroll Report

The Council also hired a consulting firm, Kroll, to evaluate the Austin Police Academy. That report and accompanying recommendations came after a combination of six consultants and community groups (all working in cooperation with the Council) looked into issues related to the Academy as well, and issued reports. Let’s take a look. 

Kroll states at the top of their report that they “understand” that the City “seeks a transformational police academy that transparently addresses issues of racial and gender equity, emphasizes de-escalation tactics that minimize the use of force, and moves away from a regimented, paramilitary culture into a learning academy.” They also understand that they are “to review and evaluate the Austin Police Department on the extent to which forms of racism, bigotry, and discrimination are present in the protocols,  practices, and behaviors of the APD.” Kroll’s initial work was limited to the Police Academy.

Kroll writes that they drew from the work of six consultants and community groups who looked into issues related to the Police Academy. They report conducting 45 interviews that included more than 70 people. Their report spans a wide gamut of very frank findings and recommendations. 

For instance the consultants praise diversity gains in instructors and the chain of command at the academy, as well as increased diversity among cadet candidates waiting for the Academy to reopen: “The APD Recruiting Unit contains a diverse team of recruiters and background investigators and has developed a broad and effective outreach program that extends to other cities and states targeting historically black colleges and universities, Latinx organizations, military veterans, and women’s organizations, among others. As a result, the list of 95 eligible candidates who are currently expected to attend the 144th cadet class consists of one of the most diverse group of recruits in recent APD history.”

The list of 95 eligible candidates who are currently expected to attend the 144th cadet class consists of one of the most diverse group of recruits in recent APD history. Kroll Report

The consultants warn, “These future cadets are undoubtedly being recruited by other sources of employment. It would be a lost opportunity in addressing long-term diversity goals if this diverse cadet class were to become diluted.”

And, “Kroll has been uniformly impressed with the passion and commitment to teaching and the mission of policing exemplified by the Academy’s current leaders and instructors. They appear genuinely open to ideas that will help make them better instructors and want cadets to succeed and develop into first-rate police officers.”

The consultants also wrote, “The Academy appears to do a good job of training cadets on LGBTQ issues with two hours each of course content devoted to policing and transgender issues taught by an openly transgender instructor.”

Austin City Council Visits by Zoon with Kroll consultants regarding the Austin Police Academy, March 2, 2021 -- Screen shot from City website
Austin City Council meets virtually with Kroll consultants and APD leadership regarding the Austin Police Academy, March 2, 2021 — Screen shot from City website

The praise was much fainter when it came to shifting from a “paramilitary” approach. “The Training Academy remains a predominantly paramilitary training model, albeit with a greater emphasis than in years past on a classroom-based, learning-institute style of teaching,” wrote the consultants. “Most Academy leaders,” according to the report, “describe the Academy as a ‘hybrid’ model closely associated with a paramilitary model but tampered with a mix of adult-learning courses.” Other city commissioned studies, however, along with the consultants’ interviews with Academy leaders “suggest the paramilitary model continues to predominate.”

Department leadership agreed to some changes on this front, but pushed back against others. For instance, “The Academy has eliminated SRT, a series of intense physical exercises that occurred on day one and pushed cadets to their physical and psychological limits to see how they acted under extreme stress.” This often “resulted in a number of cadets dropping out and appeared to operate as a sort of hazing ritual.” Now the focus will be on providing cadets “the tools to succeed” and the time “to build physical capacity gradually.”

Evidently a long time practice at the academy has been for cadets to ‘“make a hole whenever an instructor or supervisor walks through the hallway.” That meant “stand at attention against the wall.” APD Management agreed to drop this practice. Now, “cadets are encouraged to extend a handshake, introduce themselves, and engage in conversation.”

Police leadership also agreed to drop a practice that required “cadets to carry a 15 or 20-pound sandbag to classes for a day if they fail an exercise.”

The consultants reported, however, that “APD leadership has expressed its belief to Kroll that a paramilitary structure is an essential component of police culture and paramount to ensuring cadets are attuned to the chain of command and know what to do and how to respond in crisis situations.” Responding to a consultant framing of warrior or guardian, APD management officer an example of “an officer assigned to protect school children. The officer is there as a guardian, but if a school shooting occurs, the officer needs to know how to become a warrior on the spot. That can only be learned at the Academy.” Department leadership also pushed back against assertions that “paramilitary academies do not align well with the principles of community policing and problem solving.”

The consultants also backed up a study done by the Community Video Review Panel. That panel found that training videos featured “a strong emphasis on gaining compliance and control over all else from communities of color often led to rapid escalation with often violent and even deadly results for minor infractions.” They added, “In contrast, white community members were most often extended grace and understanding. Opportunities for story-telling and building empathy was almost exclusively given to white men.”

Kroll wrote of the Video Review Panel’s conclusions, “The report echoed concerns expressed by many of the community leaders we spoke with that APD trains its cadets to reflect an ‘us vs. them’ mentality that potentially escalates encounters between police officers and the public, particularly encounters with people of color, homeless individuals, and people with mental health issues.”

The consultants also reported a positive result from the video review process: “Although difficulties were encountered initially in attempts to establish trust and communication between the APD and community representatives, the end result demonstrated a healthy collaboration, with several Academy leaders and instructors actively participating in the review panel’s work. As a result of that approximately seven-month effort, the Academy has accepted all the CVRP’s (Community Video Review Panel) recommendations concerning the video content and is actively making changes to its video library in response to the panel’s recommendations.”

Chief Manley also praised the video panel and other community engagement, “We learned through the community video review panel and others that they bring a lens into our environment that we haven’t seen before and it is so critical that our officers understand different perspectives.”

“We learned through the community video review panel and others that they bring a lens into our environment that we haven’t seen before and it is so critical that our officers understand different perspectives.” Chief Brian Manley

Ultimately the consultants issued 22 “short term” recommendations that should be achieved “before the start” of a new cadet class. APD management agreed with and accepted all the recommendations. Chief Manley said he believes most of the short term recommendations can be implemented by mid-April.

The City Manager’s recommendation appears to thread the needle a bit in the March 25 resolution, saying staff will “incorporate recommendations made to date from both Kroll and the APD’s own reviews of the academy.” That doesn’t necessarily read as incorporating them all completely before June 7. That might be a subject of Council discussion unless this language results from a behind the scenes compromise.

The Council will take up the matter Thursday March 25. The choice is basically this:

  1. Accept that some progress has been made while more remains and move forward with a cadet class; or
  2. Conclude that more progress is necessary and refuse to approve at this time.

The Council might also put off deciding on either option. They could do that by approving the resolution, but saying they won’t actually decide on whether to start a cadet class until the City Manager returns with a budget amendment and another progress report. 

As far as early vote counting goes, Mayor Steve Adler and Council Member Mackenzie Kelly seem to be yes votes — based on previous statements. When Adler brought up starting a new class during the consultant presentation on March 2, Council Member Greg Casar and Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper Madison expressed reservations. For instance, Harper Madison said discussion of a new cadet class “gives me pause” and then summarized, “I just want to make certain that the singular element of consideration before we resume a cadet class is that everyone will be safe, including our cadets.” 

What Would James Clyburn Do?

In closing let’s turn to a towering figure who has enormous credibility on racial justice issues and who was arguably the strongest thinker and actor in getting Joe Biden the Democratic presidential nomination and then defeating Donald Trump. I’m talking about South Carolina Congressman and third ranking Democrat in the House, James Clyburn. Clyburn may have some wisdom to impart to the Austin City Council.

After last year’s election Clyburn began maintaining, “’Defund the police’ is killing our party, and we’ve got to stop it.” Clyburn was referring in particular to the losses of Democratic House seats in November and the failure to gain others. He attributed these losses in large part to the defunding the police issue. 

After last year’s election Congressman James Clyburn began maintaining, “’Defund the police’ is killing our party, and we’ve got to stop it.”

Clyburn also invoked his late friend and ally, the late Civil Rights hero John Lewis. “John was so concerned,” said Clyburn, “about whether or not their fate (Black Lives Matter) would fall as ours did back in the 1960s. Back in the 1960s we were having tremendous success and all of a sudden we woke up one morning and there was a headline, ‘Burn, Baby Burn.” That slogan derailed their efforts said Clyburn. 

In the 1960s, both Clyburn and Lewis were founding members of the SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), a group whose members daily put their lives on the line in the quest to win voting rights for African Americans in the Deep South. Clyburn was referring to how the slogan Burn Baby Burn emerged during the 1965 Los Angelos riots, which occurred only days after Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act. That legislation was spurred by Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama where Lewis was brutally beaten. The Civil Rights Act passed a year earlier in 1964. These are examples of the “tremendous success” to which Clyburn refers. 

No significant Civil Rights legislation passed in the years after 1965. Numerous historians and figures from the time say that violence like that in Watts damaged support for further Civil Rights legislation and helped fuel a backlash on which Richard Nixon capitalized to win the presidency in 1968.

Whether or not it was the Burn Baby Burn approach that derailed further progress and fueled a backlash is still debated. James Clyburn though believes it did. He was there and has tremendous credibility on the issue.

As many readers will likely recall, Clyburn was instrumental in rescuing the presidential candidacy of Joe Biden. Biden finished back in the pack in the first two Democratic nomination contests — the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. He was facing potential elimination from the race as the nomination contest moved to South Carolina. A few days before the South Carolina primary, Clyburn very publicly endorsed Biden and put his considerable network in South Carolina behind Biden’s candidacy.

Biden won South Carolina. Several candidates dropped out and endorsed Biden, including Texas’ own Beto O’Rourke. Biden then swept most of the Super Tuesday states and from there coasted to the nomination. 

Clyburn saw what now seems apparent from the election results. If a more ardently progressive candidate had gotten the nomination, Donald Trump would have likely been reelected. Instead Biden won and quickly pushed through the most progressive and far reaching legislation in decades; the American Rescue Act. Austin’s ultra progressive Council spent a good chunk of their day Tuesday viewing slide after slide on how that bill will directly benefit Austin and its citizens.

A Clyburn like approach in Austin might work too. 


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