In a unanimous vote Dec. 5, Austin City Council directed city manager Spencer Cronk to initiate a widespread, independent investigation into the culture and practices of the Austin Police Department following an anonymous whistleblower complaint that an assistant chief had regularly used racist and homophobic language throughout his career at the department.

City Council also directed a separate independent audit of the police academy’s training practices. The results will be required by June 1, and City Council said no new cadet classes would be initiated after February until the audit is complete any necessary changes are made to the academy’s training practices—a move that could cancel the scheduled June 2020 cadet class.

A June cadet class is not typical, but was scheduled for 2020 to help address the ongoing shortage of Austin police officers.

The allegations against Assistant Chief Justin Newsom allege “use of racial slurs and epithets lasted over a period of many years with the knowledge of other leadership at APD,” according to the ordinance. Newsom retired Oct. 31.

The city’s Public Safety Commission voted 7-1 Dec. 2 to support the ordinance, but many members raised concerns about the public trust in the department and the legitimacy of the investigation into Newsom’s actions. Commissioner Chris Harris abstained.

“I am abhorred by the lack of response that I’ve seen out of the police department,” Commissioner Meghan Hollis said at the Dec. 2 meeting. “It’s not tolerable.”

Some commissioners recommended that APD stop accepting new cadets until an investigation is conducted and changes are made.

“I believe that this house is on fire and before we bring new people in, we don’t need just to put out the fire, we need to fix the house,” Harris said.

Not all commissioners agreed on this step, raising concerns that the department’s problems extend beyond training new cadets and that they cannot be addressed without more specific recommendations from the commission and council.

Cary Roberts, executive director of the Greater Austin Crime Commission, urged commissioners to support an investigation into the department while refraining from delaying future cadet classes.

“Suspending academy classes will undermine public safety when aggravated assaults and robberies have increased and response times are slower because the department is understaffed,” Roberts said.

Ultimately, however, council supported the commission's recommendation to delay cadet classes until changes are made, which could impact a class scheduled for June.

“To take a dramatic step will imbue the entire process with a sense of urgency that we have not yet seen,” Webber said. “I think putting the brakes on to evaluate things is what is called for.”

In addition to allegations against Assistant Chief Newsom, the ordinance also cites racial disparities in APD’s use of force, searches and discretionary arrests as well as a 40% drop-out rate among the cadet class that began training in fall 2018 as reasons to launch an investigation.