In a unanimous vote Dec. 5, Austin City Council directed the city manager 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 and 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, according to Austin City Council members, but was scheduled for 2020 to help address the ongoing shortage of Austin police officers.

City Manager Spencer Cronk also gained support from City Council for the separate third-party investigation he launched Nov. 7 into the specific allegations that former Assistant Chief Justin Newsom’s use of “racial slurs and epithets lasted over a period of many years with the knowledge of other leadership at APD,” according to a complaint. Cronk will publicize the findings to City Council on Jan. 23.

District 1 City Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison, who drew up the resolution, said it was time for the APD to do something “that’s really hard because it’s worth it.” Following a couple hours of public testimony, which mostly brought people out in support of the investigation and audit, Harper-Madison, a black woman, shared two very different stories of personal interactions she’s had with Austin police officers over the years, after which she urged others to acknowledge the layers and nuances to the situation City Council was attempting to address.

“We all mess it up sometimes, but it just so happens that, for some folks, there is no margin of error,” Harper-Madison said.

Austin Police Association President Ken Casady, who said the police union felt “anger, frustration and severe levels of disappointment” in Newsom’s behavior and those in the department who stood idly by, pushed back against City Council’s direction. He called the resolution a “slap in the face” and said for a police department that is already facing officer shortages, the “tone” of the policy direction from City Council would make it harder to attract officers to the academy, which would exacerbate the department’s vacancies issue.

“Please don’t sacrifice our future cadet class for political theater,” Casady said.

Mayor Steve Adler countered Casady’s comments later in the meeting, prior to City Council’s unanimous vote of support. He said the conversation had been solemn but “incredibly constructive.”

“If I was a recruit, looking at this community and the conversation and tenor of this conversation ... what a wonderful thing it would be to have a recruit class see this and say, ‘I want to be a part of that community,’” Adler said.

‘Poison in the water’

The allegations of use of racial slurs by a high-ranking official is the latest scandal to hit a police department that has faced criticism in recent years for mishandling of sexual assault cases, misreporting of use force at traffic stops, inequitable use of discretionary arrests and tactics used in cadet training classes.

Jonathan Murray, a former cadet, said he dropped out of his cadet class after seeing that a “warrior mentality” was being taught in the police academy, and he said he heard officers use disparaging comments and that cadets suffered “unnecessary injuries.” He emphasized the difference between a “warrior mentality and a guardian mentality.” He said the department needs to be held accountable for its officers’ actions.

Charles Moody, a local pastor, spoke in favor the investigation and audit and shared a story of a person he knew who allegedly killed himself in October after experiencing racial bias from Austin police officers.

“In a place where there is poison in the water, the only people who suffer are the people who are forced to drink it,” Moody said.

Cary Roberts, executive director of the Greater Austin Crime Commission, said when the system fails, it fails everyone, and said he was sorry City Council had to even consider such an investigation. However, he advised against doing anything that would suspend a cadet class for a department long suffering from police shortages.

“We all want our police department to be the best,” Roberts said. “We can’t fall [further] behind on staffing.

Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza, a co-sponsor of Harper-Madison’s resolution, said her confidence in the police department and its leadership has been depleted.

“Repeated incidences by our department have really shaken my faith in many ways, and in some ways I’ve lost a lot of faith,” Garza said. “I was an early supporter of [Austin Police Chief Brian Manley], and I have been incredibly disappointed.”