Saturday, January 02, 2021

Shocking allegations of hazing and a 'culture of violence' at Austin's police academy

Last month, Grits argued that Austin's police academy needs stem to stern revision and Mayor Steve Adler's push to re-open it in March is premature until the results of several, ongoing audit components are complete and the scope of needed revisions becomes clear.

Just before the New Year's holiday, the city released the first of these audits from its Equity Office, and it was a scathing and unabashed take down of the APD training process. The report "recommends that City leaders suspend all cadet classes until APD leadership and Equity Office officials can develop and implement an equity-driven action plan that reforms and rebuilds APD’s Training division, including the training academy."

Among the biggest complaints was a culture of violence and hazing within the academy. "Interviews with former cadets revealed an academy culture that prioritizes physical aggression  above all else. Multiple cadets stated that training staff subjected them to hours of grueling  physical and psychological stress drills, refusing water to dehydrated cadets and engaging in other dangerous practices."

Training isn't just grueling, but demeaning and regressive: “In multiple interviews, cadets confirmed the narrative that an APD trainer asked a new cadet why they wanted to be a police officer, interrupting the cadet’s response by saying 'If you tell me you want to help people, I will punch you in the face.'”

The Equity Office conducted an event to include community perspectives on training materials. "Community members raised additional concerns at the depiction of an increasingly hostile and aggressive public in APD training materials," expressing worry that "this message will only make officers more violent and aggressive when they interact with the community."

If the training materials risk making officers more "hostile and aggressive," how much more so does telling recruits they'll be punched in the face if they say they want to help people? In this case, the cadet interviews corroborated and bolstered community complaints. Later this month, the audit of all the  videos used in APD training will be released, and through the grapevine your correspondent has heard that these auditors will raise similar concerns.

The most severe portions of the training appear to have no relationship to preparing officers for any real-world tasks they will perform:

According to interview respondents, many of the academy’s trainers rely overwhelmingly on  “violent”, “brutal”, “traumatizing” practices designed to “manufacture soldiers” rather than  produce community-driven law enforcement professionals adept at de-escalation. Trainers place  cadets in dangerous, demoralizing, and inhumane exercises with “zero regard for the health and  safety of cadets.” Multiple cadets stated that they and their colleagues had been screamed at or  punished for checking on one another or drinking water during intense physical drills, which last for hours in sweltering summer heat. Multiple cadets confirmed that they were deprived of water  during extended physical drills in extreme heat. Data provided by APD confirms that a troubling  number of cadets were treated for heat exhaustion and dehydration during the academy. Multiple cadets expressed that even though they hydrated heavily at home, as advised by APD training  staff during orientation, it was impossible to avoid dehydration when training staff refused to  allow them water during these extended physical drills. Cadets could not identify a plausible  real-world scenario during which they would be deprived of access to water in extreme heat for  extended periods of time. Multiple cadets expressed that this deprivation was rooted in nothing more than cruelty and had no basis in the reality faced by police officers. Some narratives,  corroborated by multiple respondents, are simply too violent to understand how they were ever  allowed to occur, including many cadets being forced to resign or risk serious injury in the face  of seemingly endless “hazing” and “abuse.”

Interviews revealed that cadets were subjected to so-called "smoking sessions," which are:

unscripted, unscheduled physical and psychological  stress drills that instructors instigate without notice. According to multiple interviews, these  smoking sessions are often used as collective punishment for individual violations, though their  use is just as frequently unexplainable. Some respondents indicated that Training division staff  seemed to enjoy putting cadets through the stress drills, which often go on for hours during the  summer heat. Multiple respondents claimed that cadets are refused water during these stress  drills, that instructors punish cadets for looking at one another (even if checking the condition of  fellow cadets), and that medical staff are not posted close enough to the cadets to assess  symptoms of dehydration or heat stroke. Multiple respondents witnessed instructors refuse water  and fail to render aid to cadets who were visibly suffering symptoms of dehydration. It is well documented that these practices resulted in multiple serious injuries to cadets.

The report suggested APD trainers were harsher, even, than at military boot camps and prioritized "brutality and aggression":

The academy’s training staff employ dangerous training tactics that  have been described by cadets with military backgrounds as “worse than anything I went through  in [US military training].” Multiple former cadets allege that the academy is driven purely by  brutality and that physical aggression is the primary quality that trainers seek when promoting  cadets toward graduation. The Training division’s practices and culture are driving highly qualified candidates to leave the academy, depriving Austin of the diverse, community-driven police force that City leaders and residents envision.

Nationally, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, only 23 percent of training academies have curricula which is all or mostly stress-based, as is clearly the case in Austin. That means more than three quarters of training academies have eschewed that approach, but Austin PD clings to it.

The Equity Office highlighted the wastefulness of stress-based "teaching," separate and apart from the moral and ethical problems with it:

What benefit is it to eliminate brilliant candidates for the sake of maintaining  a battlefield mindset? How much money is spent recruiting these bright, capable, highly educated, successful and diverse candidates, bringing them through a months-long recruiting  process, vetting them intensely, dedicating an unknown number of personnel hours to interviews  and investigations -- only to have them driven out of the academy by a culture of brutality,  militarism and violence? What benefit is it to subject highly-qualified, diverse, committed cadets  to training that is more intense than some military training programs? 

That to me is the best argument for putting off a new academy until training can be revamped. With such high dropout rates and a terrible, regressive pedagogical approach, it makes no sense to hold another class until all the problems have been identified and fixed. 

The "culture of violence" identified at the academy wasn't the only regressive aspect of police training. Given the number of homeless people in this town, it's remarkable (and sad) to read that "Multiple former cadets in separate, individual interviews confirmed that training staff made negative comments  toward individuals experiencing homelessness and told cadets that if they are 'having a slow day,' they could seek out someone experiencing homelessness as an easy target for various citations." The city council has taken steps to limit those citations, but it's clear they're running up against a deeply engrained culture within the department.

Whether as a result of this violent culture or because of other factors, the department is failing at its diversity goals. In fact, "The Training division’s leadership failed to produce  any measurable standards for ensuring equitable practices. The division’s self-assessment  identified one Black employee out of 57."

Overall, black recruits were more likely to drop out of the academy. "Data provided by APD highlighted further disparities in  graduation rates, with 81.6% of white male cadets graduating the academy compared to 48.5% of  Black male cadets."

Black cadets were also more likely to be injured during training.

According to data provided by APD, at least 509 injuries occurred during the APD training academy between 2015 and 2020. Of the cadets who were injured and included in this data, 348 (68.37%) were white, 85 (16.7%) were Hispanic, 57 (11.2%) were Black, and 19 (3.73%) were Asian. While the percentage of injuries sustained by white cadets reflects the percentage of white candidates that graduate from the academy, the percentage of injuries sustained by Black cadets (11.2%) is more than twice the percentage of Black cadets that graduate (5.19%). APD’s data illustrates inequitable outcomes for Black cadets who enroll in the APD training academy. Black cadets in APD’s training academy are underrepresented when compared to the population of Austin, less likely than their peers to graduate from the academy, and more likely to be injured during APD’s training academy than any other race.

This reminds me of research showing white folks think young black people are older, more mature, and potentially more threatening than they are. Is violence used more harshly against black cadets because of these implicit biases, for explicitly biased reasons, or for some other cause? Regardless, the violence-centered pedagogical approach is clearly thwarting diversity goals.

Finally, the report corroborated complaints of APD leadership bucking and slow walking reforms, identifying the biggest barrier to fixing the identified problems as, "Lack of political will among APD leadership at many levels threatens meaningful change."

This report should put an end to discussions of restarting the police academy any time soon, and certainly by March, as Mayor Steve Adler had suggested. We're only just beginning to understand the depths of problems at the academy, which start with agency leadership. They won't be fixed overnight.


Bad Wolf said...

Its a shame this wont result in any PD officers who did this being fired. I suspect if any other departments in the City did this sort of thing, the folks involved would be terminated for (self evident) cause.

If Manley rally wanted to punish those involved, and his hands were tied re firing them he could always make them walk a beat in the City on foot, take away their firearm while they are out on patrol, make them wear pink uniforms etc etc... That nothing will happen is the City's way of showing tacit approval.

Jim said...

I’m guessing APD does not hand out ‘stress cards” and is hard on cadets to wash those out that possibly lack the ability to work under stress, multitask, and/or have a commitment to continue to work when things are tough, etc. The list goes on... Hand them a ‘stress card’ during the academy and they will hand you a ‘stress card’ on their 8th call of service at the end of a 12hr shift while people are complaining at “response times” for calls of service. Some could call numerous consecutive calls of service without a qualified break during an entire shift as a “smoke session”.

"Interviews with former cadets revealed”...meaning mostly those that failed to prepare physically or mentally for something tough or those that expected stress cards? Having the mindset to prepare ahead of time (i.e. workout) and knowing things will be hard with the “I can do this” mindset is better than making an excuse as to why you couldn’t perform some function or task and left anything hard.

“Training isn't just grueling, but demeaning and regressive:” preparing a cadet for being called names during traffic stops, arrests, calls of service, etc. by certain limited elements of the public and the cadets learning to keep their cool during those encounters? I see the correlation.

“...only 23 percent of training academies have curricula which is all or mostly stress-based, as is clearly the case in Austin.” That is a very broad statement when basing a portion of that assertion from “former cadets”.

“Data provided by APD highlighted further disparities in graduation rates, with 81.6% of white male cadets graduating the academy compared to 48.5% of Black male cadets." Where are Hispanics in this equation/percentage, combined with white male cadets or not? Is this part of systematic intentional acts or just how the dice role? If it can be proven that blacks cadets are being run off because of their race, this needs to be settled and called out in a lawsuit.

“Of the cadets who were injured and included in this data, 348 (68.37%) were white, 85 (16.7%) were Hispanic, 57 (11.2%) were Black, and 19 (3.73%) were Asian.” I think it is unfair to say APD is ‘intentionally’ injuring anyone of any race more than another. If facts are facts on your relayed percentages, it is unfortunate. If proven to be intentional and selective of a certain race, a class action lawsuit needs to be filed against APD. Is this percentage from X to Y (i.e. a few years 2017-2018 or over a decade or two)? I ask because I could potentially skim the numbers and pick what highlights my stance to show something a certain way.

Anonymous said...

Holy Crap! I'm not a "lock 'em up" kind of gal but I'm not sure criminal charges shouldn't be considered here. Agree with Bad Wolf in that I cannot imagine this behavior in ANY other context being tolerated. Heads would roll. And Jim, your justification is right up there with, "yeah, my parents beat the crap out of me and I turned out fine."

Jim said...

Jim here

Anonymous 11:14AM - I posed a good number of questions during my 9:24AM post, to include percentages cited by Grits. I suppose you’re right to a degree on your analogy about “my parents beat...”

I expect individuals seeking a career, profession, etc. to put forth the effort necessary to achieve their goal (i.e. military academy, hair stylist, medical student, firefighter, plumber, Navy SEAL, grad student, teacher, etc.). The standards for each career field are different, some much more difficult in certain areas and some cause you to scratch your head. I agree changes should always be considered, to include “smoke sessions”, but being outside of that career field doesn’t make me an expert on that career field.
Putting a medical student, firefighter cadet, SEAL, etc. under some degree of stress will test how that person performs under actual stress. I’d image some can see they perform poorly under actual stress in that particular field and decide to move on. Testing one’s physical limits help them to understand what they are capable of...sure this physical aspect isn’t applicable to many career fields: teacher, journalist, electronics technician, hair stylist, etc.

“What benefit is it to subject highly-qualified, diverse, committed cadets to training that is more intense than some military training programs?” I’d have to interject that most military boot camps are in the 6 week duration (+/- some) whereas most law enforcement and basic fire fighting academies are several times longer. Military boot camps are to help shape recruits into a basic structure and physical fitness. Military basic boot camps are tough, but much shorter than law enforcement and firefighter academies. Should law enforcement and firefighter academies stop physical fitness training at 6-weeks? I say no...keep up the stress and testing physical fitness/limits in a fair manner that does not target a certain race/group as alleged by GRITS.

Anonymous said...


PT is PT and is a vital part of academy training. The point of PT should be to illustrate that physical fitness and wellness is key to being able to do the job more effectively and improve an officer's overall health and survivablity in the long term. The fact that you conflate PT with testing physical/mental limits, which is usually done via these "smoke sessions," highlights the cultural problem. PT should not be used as a form of punishment. This isn't the military or high school football. Doing 100 push ups because you fucked up doesn't remediate the fuck up, it just makes you a stronger fuck up. These are adults who need to be held individually responsible for their actions in the form of documented reprimands to include dismissal from the academy if necessary. (Think negligent retention)

Smoke sessions and generalized group hazings are colossal wastes of time and resources in and are not actual "training." In the case of a screaming academy instructor "simulating" an irate traffic violator, the cadets are not allowed to address the issue for fear that they or the whole group will be punished more severely. It teaches nothing but to keep your eyes forward, mouth shut, and do nothing to call attention to yourself. It is not a measure of one's ability to handle a stressful situation in a real encounter, rather only teaches the cadet that if you just hang in there, it will be over soon. That nonsense does nothing to assess effective communication, sound decision making, or the objectively reasonable use of force under stress that are keys to building a successful officer.

True stress training comes in the form of REALISTIC scenario based training where cadets use the training they have received to handle a given situation. Done properly, physical and mental limits can be effectively and realistically tested and exposed in that environment. If the result is less that desirable, the scenario is run again until the result is desirable. Training and remedial training is documented and if a cadet does not respond to the training, they are dismissed. (Again, think negligent retention)

As I'm sure you are aware, walking into a scenario or drill where you think you might be lit up with sim rounds, cut with a Shocknife, or have to go hands on with an instructor cadre roll player or two is quite stress inducing and is more in line with the actual sensations a cadet will experience on the road. I have seen many cadets who easily handled weeks of smokings on the PT field in the name of pushing the limits walk away from the career they thought they wanted because of the reality of the job laid out to them in scenario training later in the academy.

Signed, Charlie, a retired academy commander who went through an academy like that, was an instructor at an academy like that, and as a commander, changed the culture when I realized what we had been doing was useless.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Charlie, thanks so much for your comments, your perspective is really helpful.

Jim, perhaps it'd be better to test cadets under "stress" more akin to what they'll encounter on the job? Excessive workouts without hydration aren't a common cop stressor on the job, and what you describe as job stressors don't match up with what's going on in the described "smoke sessions."

There's a lot more data in the report, including on Hispanics, Asians, etc.. Feel free to read it before criticizing the findings or alleging omissions. Also, no one said the disparities are "intentional." That's not necessary for them to be problematic.

I get that you simply believe you're better than those who washed out. But it could also be that they faced barriers you don't fully understand. A harsher critic might view your perspective as simply evidence of latent, self-justifying white supremacy. I don't know you so won't make such an assumption. Regardless, though, you should read the report before jumping to conclusions, as most of your criticisms aren't relevant or applicable.

Jim said...

Jim here,

Charlie - Thank you for the view point.

Anonymous said...

i wish they had deaggregated the regular and modified academies.

Doug said...

Doug’s Comment Part 1:

Speaking as a former police academy training director and long-time police officer in a major Texas city, I agree with points made by both Jim and Charlie above, especially those about realistic scenario training. FWIW, I have zero personal or professional knowledge about APD’s Training Division or police academy.

I have never supported mindless “smoke sessions,” belittling recruits, or hazing of any kind. Any instructor who thinks it is acceptable for recruits to be “deprived of water during extended physical drills in extreme heat” is simply wrong. If this has truly been occurring then it is indicative of a serious leadership problem.

Police recruits are not 18 year old privates. They are supposed to be logical, intelligent adults who are capable of critical thought and self-correction under instruction. This does not (and should not) preclude a professionally run police academy from being academically, mentally, and physically taxing for the purpose of ensuring the citizenry is served by physically capable officers who are formally trained to think and implement sound decisions under stress. I know for a fact that professionally modulated stress inoculation in a legitimately instructional environment leads to better and safer outcomes for police officers and citizens alike.

The 33 page report on APD’s Training and Recruiting Divisions was written by a UT graduate student and the “research director” of The Peace Mill which claims to “address critical public policy issues through evidence-driven analysis.” Most of the material about the police academy appears in the first 18 pages. I completed grad school at UT in 2011 and I’m pretty sure most of my professors would have given me a solid “C” if I had submitted this document. I’m sorry but the analysis and data collection methods described in this report are severely lacking. Here are just a few examples of significant gaps in the research:

• No review of the curriculum, training schedule, subjects studied, learning objectives, syllabi, etc.

• No review of the lesson plans, training materials, exams, evaluations, or tests provided to cadets.

• No review of the professional backgrounds and CV’s of the individuals who provided instruction to cadets or what classes they taught.

• No demographic info on the individual instructors who teach APD cadets (not always the same as the full-time training staff).

• No detailed demographic info on the full-time academy staff (except for stating 1 of 72 employees is “Black” and 70% are white).

• No interviews of APD academy staff, instructors, or first-line supervisors, only “Division leaders.”

• No observations of classes or training methods (admittedly difficult due to academy cancellation and COVID).

• Does not state the number of former cadets interviewed.

• Does not specify demographic info of former cadets interviewed or their current employment status with the APD.

• The terms, “multiple former cadets” and “multiple cadets” are repeatedly used by the researcher but never quantified.

• Unknown how many (if any) of the former cadets interviewed for this report successfully completed APD’s academy.

• RE former cadets with previous military experience: Does not specify how many were interviewed, their branch of service, or MOS.

• Does not state how interviewees’ former military status was known or confirmed.

• No surveys of confirmed military veterans for the purpose of exploring perceived similarities/differences between their initial military training and the APD academy.

Doug said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Doug said...

Doug’s Comment Part 2:

Why didn’t the researcher provide a survey instrument to all known former cadets who attended the APD training academy between 2015 and 2020? With at least 638 cadets attending APD’s training academy during that time, this report would be more credible had the researcher collected several hundred surveys from former cadets who provided Likert scale responses to hard questions (i.e. “Strongly Agree – Agree – Undecided – Disagree – Strongly Disagree”).

Examples of hard questions might include:

“The police academy fosters a culture of violence, embracing brutality over wisdom.”

“The APD training academy fosters a dangerous and ineffective learning environment.”

“My police academy instructors used racist and sexist language.”

“The police academy encourages cadets to adopt a militarized ‘us versus them’ mindset.”

“The Training division’s practices and culture drive highly qualified candidates to leave the Austin Police Department.”

“One or more of my academy classmates resigned for fear of permanent physical injury.”

Why didn’t the researcher conduct qualitative interviews of current APD officers with 5 or less years of service to determine their perception of academy training? What are their thoughts on their training’s applicability to the “real world?” What portions of their training do they believe serves them and the communities they patrol? Do they believe any classes or instructors were toxic, abusive, unproductive, etc.? What was useful, what should stay, what should be discontinued, etc.

Finally, the researcher makes several definitive and serious accusations with little or no supporting evidence. This report contains plenty of hearsay and accusations from an unknown number of former cadets but shows no attempt by the researcher to collect info from academy instructors or currently serving APD officers that might provide decision makers with additional context, clarification, alternate viewpoints, or rebuttal.

The report’s gaps, omissions, and shallow inspection of significant points germane to the writer’s stated purpose give it the appearance of a cherry picked research product designed to support a pre-determined agenda. It comes across as an innuendo-driven advocacy piece. Whatever else it may be, this is not evidence-driven analysis.

Thank you for reading.


Gary said...

Doug, a lot of your complaints about lack of investigation sound like what everyone says about how the police operate against the people they arrest.