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.