Monday, April 19, 2021

Deeply rooted problems at Austin's police academy justified one-year recruitment delay

So much misinformation has been cast about so frequently regarding the City of Austin's budget and supposedly "defunding the police" that many political actors involved appear to have come to believe their own bullshit. Legislation purporting to punish cities that reduce police budgets, including HB 1900 by Goldman, are sitting in Calendars and could pop out at any time.

In the Texas Senate, Democrats cratered; all but 2 voted in favor of "anti-defund" legislation. So the idea has so far sailed through the political process without being thoroughly debated or vetted. 

Here's what's missing from discussions at the capitol:

First, the full extent of Austin's budget cut was 4.6%, almost all of which stemmed from delaying the cadet classes for a year. (As a point of comparison, when Texas faced budget shortfalls in 2017, the Legislature cut the Department of Public Safety budget by 4%.)

The reason for delaying cadet classes in Austin wasn't to "defund" the department, despite calls in the street to do so. Instead, it was the logical next step in an ongoing accountability effort. The prior December, long before last summer's protests, the City Council had ordered the city manager and police department to conduct an audit to vet problems at the police academy which had been raised by former cadets over several years. The audit was due last June, but APD and the city manager showed up at the appointed time to say, "We haven't done the work you requested, but we want to restart cadet classes, anyway."

By this time, the George-Floyd protests were in full swing and city council members stood their ground, telling the city manager to perform the audit as directed and revamp the cadet-class curriculum before proceeding with another one.

If City Manager Spencer Cronk had performed the audit when he was supposed to, Austin would have only missed one academy class

Instead, he didn't start until the City Council gave him a hard "no" on new cadet classes, and the results didn't come out until earlier this year. The "audit" occurred in multiple parts which came out in January and February. All of them showed major problems with the academy that required complete reworking.

A review of videos used at the academy found consistent, systemic bias:

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.

A review by the Equity Office found a culture of violence and hazing within the department.

And outside policing experts at Kroll and Associates also identified a strange obsession with perpetuating a culture of hazing and brutality toward cadets, despite evidence this approach drives away women and black people.

Perhaps most telling to this observer, Kroll criticized APD's use of a "Fight Day" at the beginning of the academy, in which martial-arts instructors beat up cadets in a boxing ring before they've received any self defense training. After public criticisms, "Fight Day" was relabeled "Will to Win," but it's still the same program, though supposedly performed at lesser intensity. Exit interviews indicate this practice significantly harms retention rates in particular for women and black men.

The reason given for Fight Day is that if officers are assaulted on the job, they should have experienced being in a fight before to know what to expect. But when Kroll asked why it couldn't be done at the end of the academy, after cadets had been trained in self-defense techniques, "APD personnel were unable to provide a persuasive rationale."

Your correspondent believes it's because they prefer to fight defenseless cadets instead of trained ones. The purpose is hazing, not training. Kroll's questions exposed a culture of bullying and hazing that can't be defended on pedagogical grounds.

They also found department leaders were openly resistant to changing hazing routines at the academy, declaring they were pivotal to its team building mission. 

These problems hadn't even been identified until a few weeks ago. But the police union, the Greater Austin Crime Commission, and their allies have insisted Austin PD should plow forward with a new cadet class before APD has demonstrated that they have fixed what's wrong with it first. They'd prefer to launch a new cadet class in June and repair the plane while it's flying, as it were. By contrast, local police-reform advocates prefer to take a few months to develop a new curriculum that comports with community standards and launch a new academy in the new fiscal year, which begins in October.

So the difference between the cops and reform advocates in Austin amounts to "Do we start a cadet class in six weeks or six months from now." And on that small difference, politicians have built a huge inverted pyramid of bullshit.

Neither the Governor nor Austin's legislative critics acknowledge this context for "cuts" to the budget. They want to pretend the budget cut was an attack on law enforcement when really it was part of an ongoing process that had begun long before the protests to reform what we now know are deeply rooted problems at this particular police academy. Whether state officials ever acknowledge it in public debates, and whether or not Austin is punished for it, it really did have to happen.

The other big "cuts" to Austin PD involved shifting functions like the 911 call center and the forensic lab out of the department, to better serve all emergency response and improve criminal investigation. The city could end up spending more money on those functions once they're more professionally operated. Quality doesn't come cheap. But bills to punish Austin don't "count" more money spent on scientists or emergency med techs or 911 dispatchers as public safety money. Which is why you can be sure that none of this is really about public safety. 

The police unions have thrown in with Republicans, and Republicans have long seen Texas' Democratically controlled cities as the electoral problem they must solve to stay in power. As a consequence, police are helping Republicans attack their Democratic opponents. In Austin it's the budget. In Houston it's the new wave of Democratic judges and the hot topic is bail. Everywhere the core argument is the same: Democrats can't run cities, so the Republican state leadership must step in. If Democrats want to retain control over their cities, they are going to find some backbone and stand up for what's true, including real public safety and the authority of local officials to run their own cities.

Texas Republicans may no longer believe in local control, but Texans still do.


Joshua Kumler said...

The "inverted pyramid of bullshit" is also dominating the current Dallas City Council, egged on Mayor Johnson. This was a good summary:

Anonymous said...

Grits - “First, the full extent of Austin's budget cut was 4.6%, almost all of which stemmed from delaying the cadet classes for a year. (As a point of comparison, when Texas faced budget shortfalls in 2017, the Legislature cut the Department of Public Safety budget by 4%.). “

As in the last 40 times you posted this point, EVERY state agency had their budget cut during the 2017 shortfalls. While what you say is factually accurate, it is misleading at a minimum.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@6:34, cities all over the state faced budget shortfalls last year bf the federal bailout. Why shouldn't police face cuts?

Anonymous said...

Grits - my point was that you omit an important fact in the statement that you continually use about DPS / 4% / 2017. While true, you omit the full circumstances each and every time about DPS / 4% /2017 as it is important to put that into perspective that all state agencies faced 4% cuts. Cherry picking and omitting other key facts, reduces credibility.

I’m not arguing that police and or others should or shouldn’t face cuts. I’m simply stating you are misleading, not to a red herring...

Gritsforbreakfast said...

How is it misleading? The state and the city both faced big-picture budget shortfalls and both made cuts to law enforcement. Then folks from the state said folks from the city shouldn't be allowed to do what they did. Both responded to revenue ↓ with budget cuts to cops, but the state folks were hypocritical about it.