Council Recap: A Wary, Cloudy Start for a New Police Cadet Class

The Austin Police Department has the green light to induct the first new cadet class at its training academy in more than a year, following a 9-1-1 vote by City Council at its meeting yesterday (Thursday, May 6).

Photo by John Anderson

For months, cadet classes have been on hold, to give APD and city staff and their consultants time to work on a new model for the academy, one that’s aligned with the community’s goals in “reimagining public safety.” That means cleansing the toxic culture created by the academy’s paramilitary approach, in which new officers are honed to respond to all encounters as potential threats, rather than opportunities to fulfill their sworn oath to protect and serve the public.

The 144th cadet class, which was recruited months ago and has been in limbo, is slated to begin June 7 as a pilot of a “Reimagined Police Cadet Training Academy,” with many of the reforms sought by Council and justice advocates not implemented or even finalized. The class is being lengthened from 26 weeks to 34 weeks, in part to accommodate new content like “The History of Police and Race in America.” Videos used as training materials are being revised and replaced, after a community review panel found that nearly half of the segments it examined perpetuated racist and sexist practices in policing. There will also be revisions to the Field Officer Training program in which cadets shadow veteran officers, many of whom may not agree with the direction of these reforms.

It’s not clear yet which “reimagined” elements will be in place when the pilot class begins. Adoption of the academy’s new course curriculum, to address problems raised in prior internal and external reviews, won’t happen until May 31. A curriculum review committee including community justice advocates alongside APD and city staff was not even convened for its first meeting until Wednesday, the night before Council voted to induct the new class.

All of this uncertainty led Council, facing strong pushback from advocates as it expected, to emphasize the “pilot” part of its resolution and to reserve the right to close the academy down again if changes aren’t implemented or aren’t working. Kroll, one of the consulting firms hired by the city to support the overall RPS effort and specifically the academy reboot, will be paid an additional $375,000 to ensure changes agreed to by city and APD leadership are “implemented with fidelity”.

Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison, abstaining from the vote, acknowledged the desire of her colleagues to reopen the training pipeline but felt not enough change has been made to do so yet. “I don’t take this decision to resume classes lightly,” Harper-Madison said before the vote, adding later that cadets would essentially be subjects in an experiment: “I hope the 144th cadet class understands its true significance in the history of our city.”

CM Greg Casar was the only vote against reopening the academy, but other members also acknowledged some trepidation about moving forward. CM Alison Alter described her vote as a “leap of faith,” albeit one that has followed much work by staff and consultants. “We as a council have to recognize that we have to get started for this to work,” Alter said. “We have to start putting things in action in order to get it right.”

In addition to feeling that the prerequisite reforms to a new cadet class simply haven’t been made yet, justice advocates do not think APD leaders are ready for or interested in necessary change. “The majority of Austin police brass and academy leadership told Kroll that they are not ready to discontinue their paramilitary approach to training,” Just Liberty’s Scott Henson told Council on Thursday.

Questioned by Alter, APD Interim Chief Joe Chacon sought to assuage concerns while agreeing with the need to introduce cadets to stressful situations that will prepare them for tense interactions on patrol. “Our staff will not be allowed to berate cadets or degrade them,” Chacon said flatly. APD’s new training manager, Dr. Ann Kringen, laid out for Council how these exercises are seen as training rather than hazing. “Fine motor skills, or attention to detail, deteriorate in stressful situations,” Kringen said. “We want to give [cadets] the tools to say, ‘How do i deal with someone yelling in my face, or saying things that are degrading to me?’”

The 144th cadet class includes 92 potential new police officers. In this year’s budget, Council eliminated 100 unfilled officer positions and diverted their funding to public safety alternatives, such as hiring more community health paramedics. The $2.2 million price tag for the new cadet class (including salaries for instructors and cadets and the cost of the new curriculum) will be paid from reserves set aside for Austin’s police retirement fund, which is itself under financial strain that the city must resolve in coming years.