The Austin Police Department graduated its first cadet class in more than a year Jan. 28, bringing fresh recruits to the understaffed department as long-sought changes to training begin to roll out.

APD’s cadet academies were halted in May 2020 in the midst of investigations into the department’s culture and training practices. City Council eventually voted to reboot the academy last May to mixed community responses, with some residents in favor pointing to an immediate need for staffing support. Others called for a longer pause to fully implement proposed reforms.

Following the graduation of Austin’s 144th cadet class in January, 66 new officers are on patrol; however, the department remains roughly 200 officers short, according to APD data. At least two more academy sessions are likely to begin this year.

Police Chief Joseph Chacon said filling the ranks will take years.

“We’re not the only police department in this kind of situation,” Chacon said at a Feb. 1 city commission meeting.

Adding officers

The only source of new officers is the recruitment of cadets as the staffing “crisis,” which already has led to the suspension of some specialized units and the shift of some nonemergency calls from 911 to 311, continues.

“Officers in the department are struggling because they’re going from high-priority call to high-priority call. And it’s nonstop,” Assistant Chief Catherine Johnson said.

APD’s vacancies increased through 2021, peaking in late December when 231 of APD’s 1,809 officer positions were empty. Although attrition through retirement or resignation—a main driver of the shortage—slowed, the additions

from this cadet class will still leave the department around 200 officers short. Chacon said the need to hire is an opportunity to recruit local and diverse officers.

“I feel that it’s very important to recruit locally. We put a lot of effort into recruiting out of the city of Austin,” said Chacon.

Austin has experienced different training and staffing trends than other notable Central Texas departments. Police officials in Round Rock and San Marcos, the largest cities in Austin’s neighboring counties, said while they also face high attrition and low recruitment, their staffing concerns have not been as intense.

The San Marcos Police Department is poised to hit 100% of its budgeted 113 sworn positions with several mid-February hires, police leaders said. However, the department remains in a “constant state” of hiring, said Administration Commander Lee Leonard.

“Some problems can be solved. ... This is one of those that has to be managed,” SMPD Chief Stan Stanridge said.

Round Rock Police Chief Allen Banks said community support of his department is a top draw for officers. Just two of his 186 spots were open as of late January, but Banks said RRPD has “always been playing catch-up” on the hiring front and is constantly revising its curriculum.

Banks said the department did benefit in part because of its reputation and training program during Austin’s academy pause.“We have new officers now as a result of Austin halting their academy,” Banks said. “I think we were already ahead of that game. I think we were doing a lot of what they were asking Austin to do.”

Evolving education

The 144th cadet class emerged following external reviews of alleged racism and retaliation among APD leadership, and it proceeded amid concerns from the community and council that requested cultural changes had not yet taken root.

From the start, APD academy leaders said the new class would pivot away from a paramilitary “warrior mentality” previously embraced at the academy that, for example, promoted readiness for violence over community relationships. Additional diversity training, more classroom engagement and a civilian presence were added to the eight-month training process while concepts such as the aggression-oriented cadet “Fight Day” were phased out.

As part of the city’s shift to rethink aspects of public safety, two community panels spent months reviewing APD training videos and the academy curriculum from the current cadet class to flag potentially problematic or out-of-date items. Panelists said training videos disproportionately showed Black subjects in negative scenarios and some lesson materials were factually inaccurate. The city also brought on criminal justice researcher Anne Kringen as the revamped academy’s division manager.

Kringen and civilian reviewers said timing and coordination issues meant reviews often came too late.

“We did have an impact; we continue to have an impact; but it’s low-hanging fruit compared to the issues that we really want to target,” citizen reviewer Angelica Erazo said.

Civilian review will continue during the next class with more focus on priority subject areas and culture questions, which Erazo said could include topics such as use of force, resistance and communication. “There’s a willingness to move forward. That’s certainly my hope. But the 144th is not radically different from other classes,” review panelist Kathy Mitchell said.

Mitchell and Erazo also agreed with a finding by Kroll Associates, the consultant brought on by the city to monitor the 144th class, that many APD instructors did not buy into or actively resisted some proposed reforms.

Kringen agreed but credited APD for flexibility that she said is uncommon in police training.

Mitchell said she hopes to see the implementation of new recommendations from Kroll and a more methodical pace for civilian curriculum review for the 145th class this spring.

“Trying to review the curriculum while it was being taught was impossible,” she said.

Staffing for the future

With $6.2 million budgeted for more academies this fiscal year, Chacon is now working to plan what the department’s staffing goals should be. He said a “groundbreaking” data model based on the relationship between APD patrols and response times released Jan. 11 provides a basis for some city staffing and budgeting talks this year.

Funded by the Greater Austin Crime Commission public safety nonprofit, the model recommends a more than 14% increase to APD’s typical daily patrol force, from 774 to 884 officers. Cary Roberts, the commission’s executive director, said the new modeling and ongoing cadet classes are necessary to address staffing and response times that regularly top eight minutes.

“In hindsight we recognize even more so than when we first discussed it with the council that there would be unintended consequences of shutting down the academy entirely,” Roberts said. Austin’s 145th cadet class is now tentatively set to begin March 28 pending city council approval. A shortened 146th class made of up experienced law enforcement officers could take place this summer.“It’s not easy with everything going on right now with law enforcement,” 144th graduate Natacha Wells said. “All the cadets that decided to join law enforcement at this time understand the importance of being there for the community regardless.”