Your correspondent appears to have lost the capacity for surprise or outrage, or this might affect me more. Instead, it mostly makes me feel exhausted and sad to learn that cadets at the Austin police academy are taught a version of constitutional history based on an oft-debunked historical account of America's origins as a Christian Nation, written by a former John-Birch-Society Speakers Bureau member recruited by JBS founder Robert Welch himself. After his death, right-wing talk-show host Glenn Beck discovered one of his books, "The 5,000 Year Leap," and promoted it as a seminal text among early aficionados of the Tea Party movement.
These days, the book and its imagery - particularly the "three-headed eagle," which weirdly also appears in the APD curriculum - has become popular among QAnon-type conspiracy buffs. (I don't know what language to use to apply to such folks!) We also saw it cited during the Texas Legislature's effort to ban "Critical Race Theory." I won't waste my time or yours going through the details of the foolishness being taught, which can be dizzyingly bizarre. See an actual historian's assessment of the book's often dubious and self serving claims; here's another one.
Suffice it to say, "The 5,000 Year Leap" appears to have been the sole source on which the instructor based his review of constitutional history for new Austin PD cadets. My jaded reaction upon discovering this: "Of course it is."*
It's worth recalling how we got here. In December 2019, the Austin City Council told the city manager and police department to perform an audit/review of the police-academy curriculum, declaring problems identified by cadets were so serious they didn't want to have more classes until they were resolved.
Six months later, the city manager and police Chief Brian Manley came back to city council to say 1) they hadn't conducted the audit or begun the review in any way, and 2) they wanted to hold more cadet classes, anyway. By that time, though, George Floyd and Mike Ramos had been killed, cops were firing less-lethal rounds indiscriminately into crowds, and at city budget hearings, the public overwhelmingly backed delaying the police academy until the audit and curriculum review could be conducted.
To be clear: If City Manager Spencer Cronk and Chief Manley had performed the audit when they were instructed, they would only have missed one cadet class and the city council planned to renew them last August. The delay happened because city management DID NOT WANT THIS REVIEW TO OCCUR.
But it did. And the results weren't pretty.
First, several consultants were hired to perform the "audit" piece. They discovered a culture of hazing and violence against cadets, starting with a sadistic "Fight Day" in which instructors beat them up in a boxing ring before they'd had any self-defense training. Women and minorities were especially likely to drop out based on these approaches.
Then, a team assembled to review videos used for training also found quantifiable racial bias and modeling of selective use of de-escalation tactics (they were used on white suspects but not black ones). Dozens of problematic videos surfaced.
The final step was supposed to be a curriculum review. But the Greater Austin Crime Commission and Republican leaders at Save Austin Now - with the Governor adding a statewide megaphone - hammered the city council to restart the police academy before it could be completed.
So they did, even though advocates opposed it. The strained metaphor going around City Hall was that they could build the plane while they were flying it, which, of course, is not how planes work.
My wife was one of the people appointed to the curriculum review panel, but instructors quickly got far ahead of them and most of what's been taught so far (they've had about six weeks of classes) has not been vetted.
That includes the history lessons from Mr. Bircher, which has already been taught to the new class of cadets.
Indeed, the review panel might not have taken up that section at all because, with their late start, they're only able to consider a fraction of the curriculum material before it's taught. Because of this, they'd chosen to prioritize the section on search and seizures and the Fourth Amendment. But my very-smart, better half insisted she couldn't evaluate the Fourth Amendment piece without knowing what they'd been taught in the section on the constitution. When the city finally gave that part of the curriculum to her, she was puzzled at what she saw and asked my help figuring out the origins of the strange interpretations being proffered. I reverse-Google-searched the images being used and found they were from "The 5,000 Year Leap."
With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, why do we think the Chief and City Manager did not want this review performed? Was it because they knew that cadets were being hazed, physically assaulted, and indoctrinated into spurious, right-wing ideologies? That would certainly explain it. And if they didn't know, why would they oppose the review? And what does such ignorance say about the city's leadership and/or police management?
Manley is gone now and one of his assistants, Joe Chacon, has been named as interim. Likely because he wants the "interim" title removed, Chacon has been more supportive than his predecessor of revamping the academy (although not supportive enough to hold off on more classes until the review is complete). I doubt "The 5,000 Year Leap" will be used again, though w/o greater transparency, something similar could certainly happen down the line.
The effort to revamp the police academy in Austin began years before the George Floyd protests and was necessary regardless of whether people rose up last year. Unfortunately, Gov. Abbott and the local Republican party have chosen to politicize these decisions and dubbed this delay "defunding the police." But the process began long before the protests and was inarguably needed: Bircher history taught to APD cadets is Exhibit 1B for that argument (the hazing and violence against cadets is 1A).
That said, it's accurate the protests are what gave the city council the stomach to stand up to the cops: My belief is that the city council wouldn't have held their ground if it weren't for what amounted to a wide-scale uprising in the streets.
Given what we've discovered about the academy since then, it's a damn good thing they did or this stuff would never have surfaced, much less change.
*I need more vacation time.