Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Review of Austin police training videos finds bias and selective deescalation tactics

Videos used to train Austin police officers in the cadet academy contribute to bias, stereotypes, and model disproportionate application of force and deescalation tactics, says a group created to review them. Will the mayor and city council plow forward with a new cadet class, anyway, or will this news finally cause them to take concerns about the academy's pedagogical shortcomings seriously?

A community panel charged with reviewing video materials used for teaching Austin police cadets at the academy has completed its work, and the results are damning. From the executive summary, here's the meat of their critique:
The overall library of videos selected perpetuated dangerous racial and class stereotypes that displayed working class people and communities of color as disproportionate recipients of violent and deadly responses from police. People of color seldom benefited from crisis intervention or deescalation strategies from officers in videos. Instead, 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. 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.
Here's the full report, and initial coverage from KXAN. A companion document prepared by the panel's facilitators echoed similar concerns. These criticisms come on the heels of a review by the city's Equity Office finding Austin's police academy subjected cadets to unnecessary hazing and fostered a "culture of violence."

Mayor Steve Adler and the City Council's newest member, McKenzie Kelly, want to restart the police academy as soon as March. The analogy being used behind the scenes is that APD can repair the plane (i.e., the academy) while they're flying it. I wonder if aircraft mechanics are as enamored of that idea as politicians who want to restart cadet classes without addressing the underlying problems?

Among the flaws the community panel wants them to fix: "An emphasis on 'winning' interactions and a 'warrior mentality' in many videos created and repeatedly reinforced an 'us versus them' and 'good guy/bad guy' dynamic that pits officers against community members."

In addition, "Many videos emphasized a transactional approach to interacting with the community with a focus on liability and quid pro quo exchanges, rather than what is needed to develop genuine, authentic interactions with community members to sustain long-term trust and relationships."

Further, "Videos that showed officers antagonizing community members and using excessive force were attributed to aberrant individual behavior rather than acknowledging the cultural and systemic factors that permit or encourage such behavior."

None of this is new: Cadets themselves identified all these problems years ago and some of them sued the department over it. Now, though, two different independent reviews commissioned by the city itself - one performed by consultants, the other by a community panel - have corroborated and reinforced those criticisms.

This has been going on a long time now. City Manager Spencer Cronk was told in December 2019 to begin the review whose results we're seeing now. He blew off the city council and asked them to restart cadet classes over the summer without having fixed the curriculum. In August, though, the city council told him, "No, we're serious," and the city finally began the long-awaited review.

Between the equity audit and the video review, its' clear at this point that Austin's curriculum for cadets needs a soup-to-nuts overhaul. There's no emergency need for officers so pressing that an academy can't wait a few months to fix all the pedagogical problems. Indeed, after everything we've been through in Austin over the last year, it would be a tremendous betrayal of trust to ignore these recommendations and move forward as though the same ol' same ol' was still good enough.


Tim said...

I enjoy reading this blog and I often wonder IF Grits was in charge of the APD academy, what would you teach and would the academy be the same duration or exponentially lengthened?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Put me in charge and I'd lengthen it quite a bit. In Germany it's 2.5 years; in Austin I think it's 17 weeks. That's probably too low.

On curriculum, I'd say deescalation should be infused throughout and not separate from the use-of-force module. I'd end all the extracurricular hazing and give instructors more time to "teach the conflict" regarding controversial aspects of the job like drug enforcement, asset forfeiture, crowd control, etc.. I'd examine criticisms from this report and make sure instruction avoids the same errors. (At least make different ones!) And I'd find and rely on issue-area experts who actually know about training best practices (because I don't).

Some of my bigger concerns aren't with training but what they're trained to. APD use of force policy is too expansive, allows shooting at moving vehicles, etc.. So better training isn't a cure all. But Austin's academy has gotten so bad, it's worth the effort to try to improve it.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Oh, I'd also develop a core of professional instructors who have some understanding of pedagogical theory and adult education instead of just rotating in veteran officers who've never taught before. That's how we get all these recycled power points and tuff-guy hazing rituals - the people doing the teaching have no idea how to do that job.

Sergeant Pepper said...

You really have to start with the hiring process. Not vetted near enough and ending up with 'officers' that operate like ruthless criminals.