The Pro-Cop Breadcrumbs Our City Manager Has Been Dropping All Along

City Manager Spencer Cronk at the Feb. 9 City Council meeting (Photo by John Anderson)

The last days of Spencer Cronk’s tenure as Austin’s city manager have been spent helping the Austin Police Department and Austin Police Association lock in a new four-year police contract, which council members and criminal justice advocates oppose, before voters can approve the Austin Police Oversight Act in May.

Tensions between Council and Cronk continue to escalate. Saturday evening, Feb. 11, after Council posted an agenda item for Wednesday, Feb. 15, that would allow Cronk’s 11 bosses to fire him, the city manager responded with a statement doubling down on his support of the police union’s position. “The safety of our residents, businesses, employees, and visitors has – for me – always been paramount,” Cronk said (emphasis is ours), which seems to imply that public safety has been a top priority for the city manager – but, perhaps, not for Council. “My obligation, one of many as the City Manager, is to ensure the safety of all of our residents,” the statement continues. “Moving forward on a four-year contract provides greater assurance that the safety of our residents remains intact.”

When asked about the incidents described below, and how he has balanced the interests of law enforcement with those of justice advocacy groups, Cronk responded with a statement. “I’ve sought to balance these interests by putting Austin first,” he said through a spokesperson. “To be the safest city in America, our city has to be safe for everyone. At their core, both groups want the same thing – a safe city, a well-trained police department that is transparent and accountable, and officers that earn the trust of all community members. The tentative agreement reached last week, I believe, sets us on the trajectory of achieving that balance.”

Though Cronk’s pivot to position himself as a Back the Blue city bureaucrat has been jarring in its abruptness, there have been signs throughout his tenure in Austin that such a shift was always possible. Here were some of the red flags that, in retrospect, appear all the more significant.

Picking a Chief

When APD detectives and officers helped bring an end to the serial bombings that terrorized Austin in March 2018, it was unsurprising that three months later, Cronk named then-Interim Chief Brian Manley as lone-finalist to fill the APD chief job permanently and that City Council quickly confirmed him. Manley, a local boy, was hailed as a hero for leading APD’s efforts to stop the bomber.

Though most of the Austin community was swept up in that narrative, justice advocates were less enthusiastic about Manley. In a May 18, 2018 story, former Chronicle staff writer Nina Hernandez reported that advocates were unimpressed with the engagement process Cronk carried out before appointing Manley. “Until we are able to ask [Manley] the questions necessary, it’s going to be hard for my organization and people like us” to support Manley, Austin Justice Coalition Executive Director Chas Moore said at the time.

Moore and others wanted Cronk to slow the process down, take in more input, and conduct a national search before defaulting to the local hero. “There were concerns raised by citizens who questioned whether or not [Manley] is able to bring about a cultural change in the department around areas of community policing, oversight and accountability,” Cronk wrote in a June 8, 2018 memo summarizing community feedback gathered during the chief search engagement period. Primarily, advocates doubted that an internal candidate could be an effective change agent.

Despite these reservations, Cronk carried on, declining to open a national search and sticking with Manley. Less than two years later, the concerns advocates shared with Cronk would prove to be prescient.

Cronk Sticks With Manley

If Cronk’s decision to hire Manley was supported by Council but questioned by advocates, the push to get rid of Manley in June 2020 was supported by both parties. The first half of that year saw advocates begin a campaign to oust Manley as APD chief, both because of the fatal shooting of Michael Ramos and because of a third-party report that identified a culture of bigotry and fear of retaliation that permeated the department.

But over the summer, as unrest over police violence spread across the nation following the murder of George Floyd (in Minneapolis, the last city Cronk worked for), the demands for Manley to resign spread into the wider public. By June 19, 2020, four council members were on the record asking for Manley’s resignation and the entire Council approved a resolution expressing that they had “no confidence that current [APD] leadership intends to implement the policy and culture changes required to end the disproportionate impact of police violence on Black Americans” and other minority groups.

As many Austinites learned during this time, city managers in Texas cannot actually fire a police chief that has been promoted from within the department. So, while Cronk was constrained in his ability to fire Manley, the city manager could have demoted him, or taken other measures to pressure the former chief to resign, as advocates, community members, and Council demanded. But, as we wrote when Manley finally did resign eight months later, on his own terms, “Cronk stood by his man.”

Hey Cronk, Can You Help Us Out Here?

During the summer of 2021, Travis County District Attorney José Garza and County Attorney Delia Garza learned that some Austin police officers were telling people that they could not investigate certain crimes. Both (unrelated) Garzas, who serve in the top two prosecutor roles in the County, met with Cronk and then-Interim APD Chief Joe Chacon about the issue. Six weeks passed with no response from City Hall or APD, so the Garzas co-signed a letter released to the public demanding an explanation. It was an explosive moment in the relationship between APD and the Garzas, both of whom were elected on strong justice reform campaign platforms.

In between the meeting and the letter, a city spokesperson told us at the time that Cronk and Chacon requested specific details on officers who may have engaged in the described conduct, but he didn’t receive that information. The question hanging in the air when this unfolded was why the city manager, who manages the police chief, wouldn’t publicly initiate his own investigation?

The episode also revealed strong resistance on behalf of city management toward policies initiated by both Garzas that aimed to reduce the number of arrests for certain non-violent criminal offenses, like low-level drug offenses. The Austin Police Association strongly opposes those policies. Before County Attorney Garza implemented arrest review in her office, Assistant City Manager Rey Arellano, one of Cronk’s deputies, asked that she go back to prosecuting more non-violent crimes. “While it is not entirely clear to me at this time how these new processes will be implemented,” Arellano wrote to Garza in an email, “they have the potential to fundamentally disrupt” the processes used to intake and hold prisoners at the Travis County Jail.

From the perspective of justice advocates, city management not only resisted implementation of those progressive policies, they also declined to seriously investigate allegations that Austin police officers were spreading misinformation about those policies.

He Said What?

Outside of Cronk’s recent move in support of the police union’s position on a four-year labor contract, the city manager’s most baffling political decision related to law enforcement came one year ago, when he weighed in on D.A. Garza’s indictments of 19 Austin police officers for alleged criminal conduct during the May 2020 protests. (Charges against one of those offers have since been dropped.)

“Any indictments will heighten the anxiety of our officers and will impact the staffing shortages we are experiencing,” Cronk said at a press conference held alongside Chacon, who by this time had been named APD chief. “We are disappointed to be in this position, and we do not believe that criminal indictments of the officers working under very difficult circumstances is the correct outcome.”

It was an eye-popping statement for an unelected city executive to make, justice and law enforcement reform advocates agreed at the time. Especially given that, just one day earlier, Council authorized an $8 million settlement with Justin Howell, one of the people most gravely injured by APD officers during the May 2020 protests. When we asked about Cronk’s statement in light of that settlement payment, Cronk doubled down through his spokesperson. “The manager stands by his statement,” the spokesperson said. “Neither he nor the chief are aware of any individual conduct that rose to the level of a criminal violation.”

Surprising as Cronk’s statement may have been, it was welcomed with open arms by former APA boss Ken Casaday. At the time, Casaday noted that the statement from Cronk – along with a similar statement from Chacon claiming indicted officers committed no crimes – were significant. “Regardless, it is clear that police backers view the statements by Cronk and Chacon as powerful and helpful to their cause,” we wrote at the time. If any of the cases against the remaining APD officers under indictment make it to trial, Casaday told us in 2022, the kind of statement that Cronk made “would be powerful testimony that a jury could not ignore.”

And There’s More

While these instances are the most striking, Cronk made other decisions during his tenure that reflected a prioritization of police interests over those of justice advocates, including a push for a stand-alone City Marshal Office that never came to fruition, and the hiring of chief Joe Chacon, another APD lifer, despite advocates’ stance against hiring from within. So Cronk’s last-minute push for the APA backed contract might be mostly a reflection of his long held beliefs, but it could also serve to position him as a pro-police city manager whom a hyper-progressive council pushed out for that reason, rather than a city manager asked to resign over mishandling of an ice storm.

* Editor’s note Tuesday, Feb. 14, 4:14pm: This story has been updated to include a statement from Spencer Cronk.

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