When City Council voted in May to commence a new cadet class at Austin’s police academy after a pause of nearly a year, local justice reform advocates feared the decision was too hasty. A progress report on the “reimagining” of the academy, presented at Council’s Oct. 21 meeting, confirms some of these apprehensions.
Although progress has been made at implementing adult learning strategies and eliminating “stress reaction training” exercises that left some former cadets hospitalized, the broader goal of shedding the academy’s “paramilitary” approach remains unmet. “The academy is making positive strides in shifting toward a more balanced, resiliency-based model,” Rick Brown, a consultant with Kroll Associates, told Council. “Overall, however, the military-style culture still prevails in the academy with an emphasis on disciplinary measures and collective accountability.”
That approach, designed to produce what’s described as a “warrior” rather than a “guardian” mindset in new Austin police officers, has been called out as a problem needing to be solved since 2017, when cadets who’d dropped out of the academy wrote an open letter to Council and Austin Police Department leadership about its abusive culture. With several internal audits and reviews substantiating the concerns, Council shuttered the academy with the intent of reforming its curriculum and teaching techniques entirely, one element of City Hall’s commitment in 2020 to “reimagine public safety” after APD’s violent response to protests against police brutality and excessive force.
However, because APD has about 200 vacant officer positions, Council responded to political pressure to allow the 144th Cadet Class, which had already been recruited, to begin its training in June while work to transform the academy’s culture was ongoing. “While we cannot realistically expect complete culture change in the first 15 weeks of the academy,” the report reads, “Kroll will continue to monitor these developments in the second half of academy training.”
Those “developments” include whether APD’s training team is committed to a new vision for the academy in the first place. A survey of the 144th class, expected to graduate in January, showed that 54.2% of cadets reported hearing academy instructors “occasionally” ridicule “the concept of a ‘reimagined police academy.’” However, 91.4% of cadets said that academy staff place “a positive emphasis on community engagement and community policing.”
At Council’s meeting Thursday, APD Chief Joseph Chacon addressed this finding. “I was concerned when I first heard reports that instructors were mocking the reimagined academy,” he said, adding that his executive team was developing a “strategic plan” covering the next 3-5 years that would ensure “all training staff is aware of what the term represents.”
One issue seems to be a perception that APD Training Divison Manager Dr. Anne Kringen, a civilian, does not under state law have the authority to issue orders to sworn officers who train cadets. “Dr. Kringen is well-liked and respected by staff,” the Kroll report reads, but that there is “some confusion over the level of authority delegated to the Division Manager position.” The report says that Austin Police Association president Ken Casaday and others have questioned Kringen’s authority and advises that APD brass “make clear that Dr. Kringen speaks on behalf of leadership.”
Chacon thinks the issue is not that Kringen is exceeding her authority and being defied, but that the academy is understaffed and its instructors overworked. “When asked to do multiple things,” Chacon told Council, “something will fall off and is not handled as quickly as it needed to be.” That has left Kringen frustrated, Chacon said; he is still exploring potential solutions with staff.
Another concern is the rate at which Black cadets drop out of the academy, even with the changes being made to the “pilot” 144th class, which began with 92 members. Since June, 19 cadets have left the academy; Black cadets accounted for 17% of the initial class, but “represent 26% of the exits to date.” Prior to its closure, the academy’s graduation rate for Black men was 48.5% and for Black women 52.5%, compared to 81.6% for white men and 66.76% for white women.
The Kroll report also recommends that instructors be allowed to use “appropriate instructional videos, particularly in skills and tactical training courses where use of videos is traditionally an important segment of instruction.” That practice has remained on hold while a panel of citizen volunteers reviews the entire video curriculum to identify segments that may lead to biased policing.
Kathy Mitchell of Just Liberty, a leader among local justice reform advocates, serves on that volunteer panel and isn’t surprised by the accomplishments and shortcomings identified in the Kroll report. “The process to reform the academy started in tandem with the current cadet class,” Mitchell told us. “Community review panel members were required to do their work under enormous time pressure with little clarity around the outcomes.”
However, she said, “Things are better now with process improvements and new leadership at the academy who appear committed to change. We know that our work has resulted in some modifications to some courses, but much remains to be done.” Mitchell added that Kroll’s observations about the academy’s continued paramilitary culture and resistance to civilian input “are absolutely true, and it is also true that we are working through some of those issues now as we discuss use-of-force courses. …We are going to need to continue this curriculum reform process at least through the 145th” cadet class, slated to begin in February.
On that point, Chacon seems to be in agreement. “I think it’s going to be an iterative process where we continue to improve,” he told Council Thursday, but also that, “It’s very important to me that we put these classes through on the fastest timeline possible. … I’m not saying we sacrifice quality or don’t do everything that’s required… but we need to redouble our efforts to get it done as timely as possible.”