Amid Tough Questioning, Council Confirms Chacon as New Police Chief

New Austin Police Chief (and former Interim Chief and Assistant Chief) Joseph Chacon (Photo by John Anderson)

After three hours of deliberation behind closed doors and another two hours of public questioning, City Council on Sept. 30 confirmed Joseph Chacon’s appointment as Austin’s new police chief on a 9-2 vote, with Council Members Alison Alter and Mackenzie Kelly in opposition.

Going into Thursday’s Council meeting, it wasn’t clear Chacon had the votes to be confirmed, at least not this week. Some members felt they needed more time to understand how Chacon, who’s been serving as interim chief since March, would respond to the many challenges facing the Austin Police Department, such as (in Alter’s case) its myriad missteps in handling and investigating reported sexual assaults. “I still have serious concerns about sexual assault and how that was handled under your watch, first as an assistant C\chief and [then] as interim chief,” Alter said to Chacon before casting her vote. “What I’m seeing gives me a lot of pause.”

Advocates for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault have been among those troubled by City Manager Spencer Cronk’s decision to elevate Chacon, the only internal APD candidate among the dozens considered in the months-long nationwide search. Chacon was part of APD’s executive team throughout the department’s struggles with managing its now-shuttered DNA lab, testing an enormous backlog of rape kits, and inappropriately closing sexual assault cases without arrests.

As interim chief, advocates say, Chacon has been slow to implement changes that would help survivors. One example: he has not elevated APD Victim Services Manager Kachina Clark to an executive-level position with a stronger voice in policy decisions that impact survivors. “We reiterate our plea to have Victim Services elevated to the executive level and report directly to the Chief,” Juliana Gonzales of the SAFE Alliance told Council on Thursday.

Later, Chacon committed to inviting Clark to meetings of the chief’s executive team, but not to the promotion sought by advocates. “Sitting in the executive-level meetings means they have a voice,” Chacon told Council, and would create a “formalized process for input into policy decisions and policy making.”

The incoming chief didn’t get many softball questions, even from Kelly, Council’s lone conservative, who channeled the Austin Police Association’s frustration with Chacon into her line of questioning. How could Chacon improve department morale, Kelly asked, given an poll of police union members showing he was (by a wide margin) the least acceptable of the three chief finalists? Chacon responded that he was “urgently” working to reduce officers’ workload by filling APD’s many vacant officer positions via the rebooted police academy, whose current cadet class began in June.

Council Member Greg Casar used his question to get Chacon on the record on topics that have been elevated by justice advocates: what the chief would do if the city manager asked him to resign, and what he thought about changing how APD conducts internal investigations into alleged officer misconduct.

Under Texas law, Cronk or a future city manager cannot fire Chacon; he can only be demoted to his previous rank of assistant chief. This statutory hurdle to removing Chacon’s predecessor Brian Manley, even after Council unanimously declared its lack of confidence in his leadership, made many advocates leery of another internal hire. “If the City Manager indicated my employment was no longer needed or wanted,” Chacon said in response to Casar, “I would not try to fall back to a prior rank in the department. I would resign or retire.”

Casar also pitched an idea to Chacon that could alleviate APD staffing shortages and increase the role civilians play in police oversight. “If it’s funded and directed by Council,” Casar began, “would you move qualified civilians to assist with Internal Affairs investigations” and move IA detectives to other duties? “I’m open to the idea,” Chacon responded. “There would be a lot of value in bringing people with subject matter expertise who are civilians” into those investigations, but added it would be important for trained law enforcement to handle things like interrogations. (APA President Ken Casaday told the Chronicle he’s also open to the idea, adding – somewhat ominously – that “the perfect time” to discuss it further would be during the negotiations to hammer out the next police contract.)

Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison said that going into the meeting, she wasn’t sure how she would vote, but Chacon’s responses proved to her that he was up to the job. She also offered some advice to the new chief as he takes on juggling the demands of both criminal justice reformers and the APA and its supporters. “We are going through a fundamental paradigm shift in what law enforcement looks like,” Harper-Madison said, “and there’s going to be some discomfort.”

She then related a conversation with a group of first responders, including a police officer frustrated by the need for new training on how to better interact with Black, Latinx, and transgender Austinites; ultimately, the officer told told the mayor pro tem, they would rather just resign. “All I could think,” Harper-Madison recalled, “was, ‘Good. We don’t want cops like you anyways.” If Austin is to truly reimagine public safety as City Hall has committed to the community, some in law enforcement may be left behind. “I hope you recognize that not everyone deserves to wear the badge,” she told the new chief.