The decision ultimately lies in the hands of City Manager Spencer Cronk, who told Austin’s mayor and city council members he would have a plan to address the report and the cadet class by Friday, May 1.
The report was published April 17 by former Bexar County prosecutor Lisa Tatum, who the city brought on to independently investigate claims of a racist, sexist and homophobic culture among the police department’s highest ranks. Although Tatum said she could not corroborate the specific complaints made, she said she received reports from different ranks, genders and races that “racists and sexist name calling and use of derogatory terms associated with race and sex persists.”
Tatum said there was also prevailing fear of retaliation among officers for reporting wrongdoing.
When Austin City Council called for the investigation in December, they directed Cronk to ensure no new police cadet classes would begin after February until city leadership implemented improvements to the cadet program, as recommended through an investigation into the department’s culture and training. The direction took aim specifically at the June 2020 cadet class, one of three scheduled for the year.
Following the publication of Tatum’s report, the likelihood of a June cadet is still in question. Some City Council members have said the class should be suspended. Representatives of the police union said the class is crucial to keep up with the rapid rate of retirements the force is experiencing. According to Austin police Cmdr. Mark Spangler, who heads recruitment and training, the department has already sent out conditional offers to hire to prospective cadets for the June program.
“Each has information that the June class could be suspended or delayed based on City Council actions related to [its December resolution],” Spangler said. “[This] is consistent with our messaging to candidates since late 2019 when the resolution was passed.”
District 1 City Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison said she and the rest of City Council are unsure how the Tatum report will impact the June class. Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza said the city should not move forward with the June program.
“We should be concerned that there are these underlying issues in the department and we are bringing in new police officers,” Garza said during an April 20 press conference. “I am confident that now is not the best time to be bringing in new employees to this police department.”
Ken Casaday, president of the Austin Police Association union, said the police department, already at roughly 160 vacancies and growing, could not handle missing the June class. The department, which has long dealt with depleted force numbers, is losing six to 10 officers per month to retirement, Casaday said. Even with a June program, by the time the class graduates, he estimated the department would have close to 200 vacancies.
“The need for public safety and maintaining security in the city outweighs certain individual council members being upset,” Casaday said. “I know [Cronk] is a smart individual. He can count and he knows where the department will be if we don’t have [the June class]. We have faith he’ll do the right thing.”
Another issue complicating the cadet class schedule is the coronavirus and the social distancing mandates aimed at mitigating its spread. The February cadet class is in session right now and training is happening remotely, for now, Casaday said. Eventually, the cadets will have to come in for physical lessons such as hand-to-hand combat and how to use a gun. Casaday said he sees no reason why the cadets could not return to the academy within the next 30 days but said health officials will make the ultimate call.
When Cronk comes back on May 1, he will not only decide on the June class; he is expected to also address the report and roll out a plan to implement changes. In her report, Tatum highlighted a doubt among officers that anything would change in the department, regardless of an investigation. During the April 20 press conference, Harper-Madison addressed those doubts.
“I’m here today to tell those officers and all other department personnel that I am going to make it my life’s work and work my hardest to prove you wrong,” Harper-Madison said.