Pressure builds as Austin City Council members question city manager’s ability to bring transformational police reform

Austin City Hall was one of several downtown buildings to be vandalized during May's protests. (Christopher Neely/Community Impact Newspaper)
Austin City Hall was one of several downtown buildings to be vandalized during May's protests. (Christopher Neely/Community Impact Newspaper)

Austin City Hall was one of several downtown buildings to be vandalized during May's protests. (Christopher Neely/Community Impact Newspaper)

A majority of Austin City Council members said they have been disappointed in the ability of City Manager Spencer Cronk, the most powerful person inside City Hall, to lead the city through the ongoing upheaval over police brutality and institutional racism, saying he has lacked decisive initiative and has failed to be fully transparent with City Council and the public regarding the motivations behind his decisions.

For weeks, City Council members and members of the public have called for Austin Police Chief Brian Manley to step down, saying he is the wrong person to lead the police department through the public safety paradigm shift city leaders have promised in the wake of a national push to reform policing. City Council unanimously supported a June 11 resolution that explicitly said, as a body, they had “no confidence” in current Austin police leadership to implement the changes necessary for the department.

On June 18, Cronk, the only person with the power to remove Manley under Austin’s manager-council form of government, said he had “no plans” to make a change at chief and that, after “very pointed conversations,” Manley had “assured” him that he was “sincerely committed to making the reforms necessary.”

Some City Council members said that while they cannot fire the police chief, they can fire the city manager—an option they say is on the table if Cronk doesn’t deliver results. For some City Council members, results start with a change in chief; for others results mean better and more transparent leadership in affecting transformational police reform.

“It’s where you as a council member decide how big of a deal this is, right? Is this a thing that you disagree with as a council member that has gotten you to the point where you’re like, ‘I’m willing to ask for a change in [city manager] leadership,’?” Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza told Community Impact Newspaper. “It’s been incredibly hard to think of all that, but I’ve made it clear that I’m prepared to make whatever decision I have to make to get changed leadership.”

Cronk declined an interview request for this story through a city spokesperson, who said the manager has "laid out expectations for the Chief and will hold him accountable, just as he himself expects to be held accountable for his performance by [City Council].”

A month of unrest

Following the May 25 killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, demonstrations against police brutality and institutional racism surged in cities across the country. Locally, the protests included calls for justice for Michael Ramos, an unarmed black man killed by Austin police on April 24. The two officers involved have been put on paid leave as the case awaits a grand jury.

Protests in Austin between May 29 and June 1, as in several other American cities, grew violent at times as demonstrators clashed with police. Two unarmed men, 20-year-old Justin Howell and 16-year-old Brad Levi Ayala were shot in the head with “less lethal” bullets by Austin police officers. Both faced life-threatening injuries that medical officials said could take years of recovery.

The protests drew further scrutiny on a police department and chief that were already under the microscope after an April report alleging a department culture that fails to combat racism within its ranks, the killing of Ramos, racial disparities in traffic stops and a training curriculum criticized by a former cadet for breeding “warriors” as opposed to “guardians.”

Demands for accountability heat up

A majority of Austin City Council, including Garza, Greg Casar, Jimmy Flannigan, Pio Renteria, Alison Alter and Paige Ellis have said Manley should step down. Although she didn’t explicitly name Manley, City Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison told Community Impact Newspaper that she “doesn’t deny that there’s a need for physical change within leadership at the Austin Police Department,” and said she was disappointed that Cronk failed to take initiative in the conversation about the chief.

“The city manager is the only one who can demote Chief Manley, so, I think sort of leaving the onus on City Council who can call for it but ultimately can’t do it ... kind of hung us out to dry on to some degree,” Harper-Madison said. “I really would have liked to see more, and I would like to see, moving forward, more in the way of firm, direct and really explicit leadership [from Cronk].”

Harper-Madison said Cronk has failed to be transparent in his motivations. She said she doesn’t agree or disagree with his decision to keep Manley, at this point, because she doesn’t yet understand Cronk’s thinking, which she said is “unfortunate.” She said she wants a well-thought out plan for what’s next.

“Me being deliberate about what’s next doesn’t mean I have any support for our current police department’s leadership,” Harper Madison said.

Flannigan, who chairs City Council’s newly formed Public Safety Committee, admitted Cronk sits in a difficult position.

“It’s easy for City Council to say ‘Change the chief,’ because we don’t have to answer, ‘with what?’” said Flannigan, who has called for Manley to step aside. “[Cronk] does have to answer that question, and when you really think about it, it’s a much harder question than it seems at first glance. And I think [Cronk] is in this very difficult space where it’s not clear that making a change is going to be better until there is a better answer. And until there is a better answer, why not give Manley the benefit of the doubt? When you stop and think about what alternatives might look like, they’re not easy.”

However, Flannigan said that removing Cronk from his position is among the “sequence of options” in front of City Council if the wide calls for a change in police leadership aren’t met.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler shied away from explicit calls for changes to police chief. He maintained that he’s not focused on singular roles in the police department. Rather, he said Cronk’s ability to deliver transformational change will determine his job performance.

"I don't think the manager holds his job or loses his job based on a personnel decision,” Adler said. “I think the manager holds his job or loses his job on whether or not he can affect and achieve the results that the community demands. This whole movement and moment is not about making any particular personnel change in any department in any city. It's much bigger than that. [City Council] hold the manager responsible for affecting that change. That's his job. And as a council member, it's my job to hold him accountable for him doing his job.”

Council Member Kathie Tovo said Cronk has yet to show “strong initiative and strong leadership” during this moment, saying she would have preferred Cronk, rather than City Council, to lead on policing reforms related to the training academy and use of force, which are already in action. However, when it comes to the police chief, Tovo echoed the mayor’s sentiments, saying that paradigm shift the city needs in policing is not dependent on a single position.

“Change will not happen because of the leadership of one individual, for example, a police chief,” Tovo said. “But ultimately, the city manager is accountable for the work of the police department. So that’s one reason why I think it’s very important that city manager be very invested in leading and guiding and innovating around this issue.”

Council members Alter and Ellis have also pushed for better leadership from Cronk. Alter said Cronk has been "reticent" to get out ahead of City Council in proposing changes. Ellis said she wanted to see more transparency from him in his decision making.

"I hope he'll start to see his role as one that allows for him to take the lead and bring ideas to the table in addition to following council direction," Alter said, who previously said Cronk's silence on the policing issue had been "deafening."

Casar, who has called for Manley to resign, said someone needs to be held accountable for the variety of “failures” seen in Austin’s police department.

“Ultimately I think that accountability falls with police leadership, but it it doesn’t fall with police leadership then somebody has to be held accountable and the only person ultimately fully accountable to the council is the manager,” Casar said. “But if we don't see a transformation in policing in the city, if we don't see changes and leadership in the city, then, I think the ball is back in City Council’s court to start doing everything within our legal authority to make change. We always have the option of changing city managers. We also have authority over the budget. We could start closing senior level positions at the police department and creating change that way. There's still more steps that council will take and could take and can take if we don't see that change.”
By Christopher Neely
Christopher Neely is Community Impact's Austin City Hall reporter. A New Jersey native, Christopher moved to Austin in 2016 following years of community reporting along the Jersey Shore. His bylines have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun, USA Today and several other local outlets along the east coast.


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