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.

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