Thursday, May 06, 2021

Academy relaunch premature until Austin PD eschews hazing culture

The Austin City Council today will consider relaunching its police academy after it was shuttered amidst allegations of cadet hazing and a "culture of violence." 

We've now seen numerous unflattering assessments of the academy, but none more damning than the report from Kroll and Associates. They found the academy uses a "predominantly paramilitary model," has been "reluctant to incorporate a lot of community/civilian input," and remains "distrustful of non-police personnel."

Notably, a majority of both APD brass and the Academy leadership told consultants they don't agree with critiques of paramilitary approaches to policing and don't intend to change: "APD leadership has expressed its belief to Kroll that a paramilitary structure is an essential component of police culture." wrote the consultants. They want to continue group punishments and "stress-based" techniques (this is a cop euphemism for screaming at cadets.)

So APD brass fundamentally disagrees with and is bucking the new direction City Council wants to go, but we're being told "trust us" and asked to move forward, anyway. Honestly, they must think we're suckers: Don't piss on my shoes and tell me it's raining.

City Manager Spencer Cronk has done everything in his power to avoid revamping the academy significantly, last year pressuring the council to move forward without assessing the problem. Then, when they made him perform several "audits" of the academy essentially against his will, they corroborated all the allegations and then some. But in response, Cronk began pushing to relaunch the academy before the problems have been addressed, which leads us to today's vote.

The biggest concern with launching the academy now is that past pedagogical approaches were abusive toward cadets and drove out qualified candidates who chose not to endure these methods. Grits has written about the department's:

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. 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.
When these audits were commissioned, the Mayor and City Council promised there would be a collaborative, community process to develop a new curriculum. But on a Zoom call my wife attended last night, advocates invited to the first meeting of that process - the night before the vote to reopen - were given no curriculum to review and told the list of course topics hadn't yet been finalized. In other words, they're just getting started and have barely checked in with community folks, much less secured their buy in.

Even more concerning, officials on the call confirmed Kroll's assessment that Austin PD brass continue to back hazing techniques at the academy and don't want to give up "stress-based" training practices which have been abandoned by the majority of American law enforcement. (According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, only 23% of US police academies use a primarily "stress-based" approach like APD.)

Those are some big, unanswered questions! This is why the City Council had originally pushed off a new cadet class until the new fiscal year in October: It's been obvious for many months that the curriculum could not be revamped in time to launch a new class in June. Rather than fulfill their promise of a collaborative process with the community, City Council now wants to renege and launch classes prematurely: The analogy floating around City Hall is that they'll finish building the plane while they're flying it. But that's not how planes work.

More than anything, this is just poor management: Launching a new training regimen before it's been developed or vetted and moving forward without a plan.

Monday, May 03, 2021

The #TexasGeorgeFloydAct: What component bills are still moving in the #txlege homestretch?

Over the weekend, your correspondent put together an update on the status of all the various bills that make up the Texas George Floyd Act for the 65-group coalition promoting them, so let's re-post it here for Grits readers who may be interested. There are four weeks to go in the legislative session, so all these bills are in the make-or-break home stretch.

The Texas George Floyd Act, as distinct from federal legislation by the same name, fundamentally has eight component parts. These have also been broken up into individual, stand-alone legislation, and six of the eight have passed at least one chamber in the Texas Legislature and still have a chance to pass in 2021:

GFA Components:
Ban arrests for traffic offenses
Ban chokeholds
Improve use-of-force standards
Duty to render aid
Duty to intervene
Qualified immunity
Disciplinary matrix
Corroboration in drug cases

Here’s a list of individual bills still moving as of May 2, 2021, along with a summation of what’s not:

HB 830: Banning Class C arrests. This bill was scaled back in committee to ban arrests only for traffic offenses in the Transportation Code. Still, this change would have eliminated roughly 95% of the 64,000 arrests at Texas traffic stops in 2019. The bill passed the Texas House with a bipartisan vote of 113-18, including 57 Democrats and 56 Republicans. It has yet to be referred to committee in the senate.

SB 69: Banning chokeholds and neck restraints by police unless it “is necessary to prevent serious bodily injury to or the death of the officer or another person.” The bill passed the Senate unanimously and is not yet scheduled for a hearing in the House.

HB 833: Improving use of force standards to require an imminent threat. This legislation did not make it out of the Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee and probably can no longer pass this session.

SB 2212: Duty to render aid. This legislation passed out of the senate unanimously, but could be improved to clear up some ambiguity around when the duty is triggered. Officers should render aid unless there’s an “imminent threat.” Alternatively, their duty to render aid to injured members of the public should be the same as when a police officer is injured. It has been referred to the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee and there will be a public hearing May 5th.

SB 68: Duty to intervene. This legislation requires law enforcement to intervene when they witness excessive force when a list of four qualifying factors are met. We believe meeting any of these factors justifies intervention and the bill need modest amendment to achieve its goals. The bill is scheduled for a hearing in the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee on May 5th.

HB 614: Qualified Immunity: Creating a new cause of action for civil rights violations that bypasses qualified immunity was one of the most prominent demands in the original Texas George Floyd Act. But it has received the most pushback of all and has not moved in either chamber.

HB 829: Creating a disciplinary matrix to ensure fair punishment. In civil service cities, a common excuse for arbitrators overturning police-officer discipline is punishment that differs from other cases. This bill requires those departments to have a disciplinary matrix specifying presumed punishments, and tells arbitrators punishments within those ranges must be presumed reasonable. This will make it easier for chiefs to fire bad cops and make it stick. This bill has yet to be referred to committee in the senate.

HB 834: Corroboration of police testimony in drug cases. This legislation reacts to George Floyd’s conviction based on the testimony of corrupt Houston narcotics officer Gerald Goines in a case with a fabricated informant. This is another bill that passed out of the Texas House with solid bipartisan support, this legislation enjoyed support in the lower chamber from the Sheriffs Association of Texas and the Texas Police Chiefs Association. This bill has yet to be referred to committee in the senate.

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For more background, check out the special, two-part podcast from Just Liberty on the Texas George Floyd Act: Here's Part One and Part Two.

UPDATE (5/5): The three senate bills discussed above all passed out of the Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee today (SB 69 was added via a rules suspension) with support from the police unions but tepid backing from police-reform advocates, several of whom testified "on" rather than "for" the legislation. The duty to render aid bill lets officers delay assistance until the scene is fully secured, whatever that means. (For my money, Grits thinks they should be taught to "render aid" with the same alacrity and preconditions as if it were an officer who's wounded.) Meanwhile the duty to intervene applies only to excessive force, not other types of misconduct (e.g., fabricating informants, as allegedly happened in George Floyd's Houston drug case). The original Texas-George-Floyd-Act versions were broader. These are probably still an improvement over current law, barely, but the lowest-possible-impact versions of such improvements. With that said, the same committee earlier passed a governor-and-police-union-backed mandate for training on duties to render aid and intervene that the Attorney General says don't currently exist (the police unions disagree). So putting these duties formally on the books is important. But the versions passed by the senate are pretty weak tea.