As noted a few weeks ago, the Austin Independent had a few stories in the works when the power outages resulting from the Deep Freeze hit. At that point we held off on completing those stories and instead switched to covering the collapse of the state grid, and in particular Governor Greg Abbott’s political maneuvering aimed at escaping blame and pinning the whole thing on renewable energy and ERCOT.
One of the delayed stories was about Police Chief Brian Manley’s retirement and how the political climate in Austin might cause the City to face some difficulty in finding a new Chief. During the interim the local publication Austonia beat us to part of that story. Austonia writer Emma Freer talked to former Austin Police Chief and current Houston Chief Art Acevedo. Consistent with his usual approach, Acevedo did not mince words: “People are hesitant to apply for cities with misguided, reactionary city councils,” Acevedo told Austonia. “It’s having an effect.”
Freer further summarized Acevedo’s points: “There is also the challenge of hiring a police chief at the same time as many other major cities across the country. Acevedo estimates around a third of the police executives who belong to the Major Cities Chiefs Association, of which he is president, have either left their jobs or been asked to leave in the last year due to political pressure.”
She then added another quote from the former Austin Chief, “Some of these elected officials are tripping over each other to be able to demonstrate they’re reform-minded ones, when they’re no different from the right-wing extremists who look at everything through the prism of political theater, and that’s really damaging the long-term health of policing across this country.” Acevedo has also been hard on the right wing, for instance hammering Governor Greg Abbott over his lifting of coronavirus restrictions, particularly the mask requirement.
Freer then interviewed Austin Council Member Greg Casar, who not surprisingly disagreed with Acevedo and told Austonia that the Austin Council’s clear desire for reform will help generate the type of candidates the Council wants, “I think that we will find candidates who want to bring the community together in Austin around making police better.”
Only time will tell what the reality is there. The Independent, however, can add a few more challenges that Austin will face in the search for a new Chief. The first step is for City Manager Spencer Cronk to choose an interim Chief. Whoever gets that role will face a challenging situation, including an engaged activist community that is unhappy with Austin Police Department (APD) management in general. It would not be unusual for other top APD management to exit during the interim period. They face an uncertain future at best with a new Chief coming in, almost certainly from the outside. Going outside the Department for an interim choice, however, seems unlikely.
Cronk must then conduct a hiring process. Unlike with most Department heads, the Manager is not the final authority on choosing the Police Chief. The Council must vote whether to confirm his choice for Chief.
As to finding the new Chief, Austin remains an attractive place and being the Police Chief of the eleventh largest City in the nation is a prime job in the field. On the other hand, in addition to the points debated by Acevedo and Casar, there are a number of factors and uncertainties that might limit the potential field of applicants here.
For one thing there’s the Strong Mayor initiative on the May 1 ballot. At the very least that will give potential candidates pause until at least May 1. During that period applicants will be applying to be Police Chief in a City that might, or might not, be about to change its form of government. In a Strong Mayor system a new Mayor often hires his own police chief. So it might occur to potential applicants that, even if successful in getting the job, their tenure might be short — and then they would be looking for a job again.
By May the Strong Mayor issue will clear up one way or another. Applicants will know whether they are coming to a town about to get a new Strong Mayor, in two years, or one that just decided to keep its City Manager form of government.
Another item on the May ballot might also catch the attention of potential applicants. The Council recently added a proposed Charter amendment that would change the Charter to “allow for a Director of Police Oversight to be appointed or removed in a manner established by City Council ordinance, with duties that include the responsibility to ensure transparency and accountability as it relates to policing?” This adds a few new layers of uncertainty. The amendment could result in the Director of Police Oversight, currently known as the Police Monitor, reporting to the Council instead of to the City Manager — as is the structure now.
Adding to the uncertainty, the election itself would not decide the Police Oversight chain of command. That is because the Charter amendment only grants the power to the Council to decide the structure later, by a Council vote. So what form that all will take would remain uncertain for an unknown length of time.
One scenario, if both the Strong Mayor and Police Oversight items pass, is that a new Chief would be applying for a job in which their boss might change in two years (Strong Mayor would go into effect in two years) and Police Oversight could be controlled by the City Council.
It might also occur to applicants that the Council features several of the same members who publicly called for the previous Police Chief to resign. In addition, the Governor is threatening that the State Department of Public Safety will take over control of policing in parts of the City. The Governor has also floated the possibility of denying property tax increases to cities who cut their police budgets. It’s not clear whether he is serious about any of this or is just posturing; or whether the Legislature will go along. Either way, it definitely adds uncertainty for anyone considering applying for the job.
The Governor’s anger results largely from the ongoing budgetary/reimagining/defunding process. As readers may recall, in last year’s budget the Council cut $21 million from the APD budget and reallocated it to social services and social equity spending. They also took another $129 million out of the APD budget and put it in “transition” funds. This money funds functions currently within the Police Department, the Office of the Police Monitor and Victims Services. The idea was that during the first six months of the fiscal year, now in its sixth month, the Council would decide whether those functions would be removed from APD or not. That process is ongoing with a lot of decisions left to make.
Maybe none of these factors will have any impact on the field of applications. And, there are likely potential police chiefs out there who would be fired up to tackle a set of challenges like the ones in Austin. Nonetheless, even if the uncertainties and complications discussed above don’t scare off candidates at least they’ll give the candidates a flavor of what Austin is like.
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