Community members reviewing and proposing improvements to the Austin Police Department’s cadet training say they are losing hope that program reforms are possible, despite assurances from city and APD leaders that Austin’s “reimagining” of its police academy is well underway.

The academy has seen a turbulent few years after concerns over discriminatory policing and allegations of racism by police leadership led City Council to launch wide-ranging reviews of the department, halting all cadet training in the process. Several consultant reports on the academy and other topics have since been completed, and officials voted last summer to fund further analysis.

After the extended training pause, APD graduated its 144th cadet class last January followed by the 145th and 146th classes in November that together brought around 130 officers to the force. A 147th class is underway with 41 of 55 initial cadets remaining, and a 38-member 148th class is set to begin Jan. 30.

Those and future cohorts were carried out under the evolving “reimagined” lesson plan. After the reboot, the city has promoted this version of the academy as one that better addresses community relations, de-escalation, racism within policing and moving from a “warrior” to “guardian” mentality.

Several of those points were highlighted during Police Chief Joseph Chacon’s remarks on APD’s training during the 145th and 146th classes’ graduation Nov. 18.

“We’ve accomplished so much in the past year and a half. The first reimagined police academy began in May of 2021, and we’ve now graduated three cadet classes under our new training model, our new paradigm,” he said. “What you see before you today is a police officer that is highly trained, proficient and prepared to handle the complexities of 21st-century policing.”

Training in focus

Community members who have closely monitored the academy curriculum since its relaunch say sweeping changes—or even a collaborative, transparent relationship with APD—have not yet been achieved.

In 2021, council approved an academy update that called for the placement of several civilians on a training advisory panel to look over police training materials, and forward general feedback and recommended changes to APD for consideration. The academy program is continuing with external oversight while the work between APD and those community observers has been uneven amid multiple stops and starts as well as concern that those involved are not open to proposed reforms.

“I’ve been on this committee for about a year now, and it is increasingly hard to believe that there is a real desire to improve those relationships and improve the way that the community both perceives and interacts with police,” civilian reviewer Serita Fontanesi said during a December meeting of Austin’s Public Safety Commission.

Earlier reporting from Kroll Associates, the consulting firm Austin contracted to report on various policing topics, noted some pushback by members of the police department and academy leadership to proposed reforms.

Some on the civilian review team and public safety commission said that attitude remains while progress stalls. In an August letter to city officials, academy reviewers pointed to the “racial bias, militarism and poor teaching methods” that in part led to the committee’s creation and said they are unclear on how proposed fixes are being handled.

“This committee has been an object lesson in that very dynamic, battling deeply entrenched resistance to change even when there are those who would like to see change within the institution,” they wrote. “Now that we are several months into the second cadet class since our committee began, we have seen how efforts to make substantive change can be delayed or even rolled back.”

Anne Kringen, a criminal justice researcher tapped by the city in 2021 to serve as civilian training division manager for the academy, told public safety commissioners in December that training adjustments with oversight continue to evolve. Kringen said notable updates, such as instruction by civilian subject-matter experts and increased community relationship-building in the academy, have already taken root as Kroll's oversight continues.

“We’re learning from each academy class, and we view the audit protocol as a way to re-evaluate our practices and make sure that we’re adapting based on what we’ve learned,” she said.

Kathy Mitchell, a criminal justice reform advocate and curriculum review panelist, said she joined the body in part given her belief that police training has become "incoherent" through continuous revision over the years and is not designed to protect either police or public safety.

Despite producing some recommendations and looking over portions of instructional material, she said the review panel still has yet to cover much of the cadet curriculum and maintains a disjointed relationship with academy leaders.

"It sounds like there have been some incremental steps to put bits of that forward. But like everything else, we’ve been at this now for a very long time, ... and I really had hoped that we would be quite a bit further along in our reimagining of police training by this point," she said in December.

Academy access

Panelists and commissioners have also questioned APD's resistance to making the academy accessible to reviewers. A longstanding request to sit in on classroom instruction has yet to be addressed—despite a council-sponsored condition of community "co-observation and co-evaluation" needed for the rebooted academy to move forward.

In January, APD Chief of Staff Robin Henderson told the Public Safety Commission that a request for academy observation was only forwarded to Chacon in December. Assistant Chief Jason Staniszewski said he was unfamiliar with the observation requirement, and that city management and city lawyers are now deliberating over the inquiry.

Commission Vice Chair Nelly Paulina Ramirez said she and other commissioners remain worried about the city's handling of civilian recommendations and requests.

“The [review committee] wasn’t formed six weeks ago, and so it’s really concerning that this far into this process this question’s being asked," Ramirez said. "I hope you can see and understand why we get frustrated when we hear that a request was made somewhere between our December and January meetings over the holidays over something that was in the original resolution. ... That doesn't feel like honoring this process, quite frankly.”

One other measure of transparency recommended by commissioners, the creation of a portal showing the status of reviewers' recommendations and allowing for public feedback, also has not been implemented. Kringen said in December that her appeal to bring on a training specialist to manage that and other work was denied.

Kroll consultants are in the process of further analyzing the relationship between the police department and civilian curriculum reviewers. Kroll and APD representatives declined to dive into that work until a formal report on the subject is completed in March, although Kroll's Austin team lead Mark Ehlers said shortcomings are apparent.

“Clearly, I think everybody did agree that whatever happened in 2022 with the work of the Curriculum Review Committee, it was sort of at a standstill, wasn’t as effective as everybody had hoped it would be," he said.

APD did not respond to questions about its handling of review panel recommendations, observation of cadet classes or staffing support for academy review.

Police and cadet academy representatives met with the Public Safety Commission in December and January. (Ben Thompson/Community Impact)