A resolution directing City Manager Spencer Cronk to move forward with final preparations for APD's training of its 144th cadet class passed council 9-1-1, with District 4 Council Member Greg Casar voting against and District 1 Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison abstaining. The academy is set to launch June 7, according to the city, barring any changes over the coming weeks.
Contrasting community viewpoints on the academy's merits were on display during the meeting's public comment period, with a large number of calls centered on citizens' support of the APD force linked to feelings of a decreased law enforcement presence and rising crime in the city. And despite the item's passage, several council members and city residents calling into the May 6 session expressed reservations about the training academy relaunch as well.
Training of new APD cadets was put on hold over a year ago in the wake of a series of reports and investigations into toxic and racist aspects of the APD academy, its leadership and policing in the city, a history several council members referenced leading up to their final vote. Reviews of the academy with the ultimate goal of reopening to new cadets have been ongoing since 2020 with initiatives led by city staff, outside consultants, and residents on the Reimagining Public Safety Task Force each partially informing the changes and scrutiny at the academy this year.
The move to reopen the academy was also highlighted as provisional by several council members, who laid out a need for APD to be held accountable to recommended changes and progress benchmarks outlined by consultants Kroll Associates in recent months. Officials stressed the pilot nature of the academy's first months back in session, with expected flexibility and "course-correcting" as training continues, Council Member Alison Alter said.
"This is our prototype and we’re going to keep fixing this until we get it right, until we adjust it," Alter said. "That’s important because we did hear from a lot of folks in our community ... that there is a low level of trust in APD. It’s just not where we want it to be and where it should be to keep our community safe. So my questions and my approach has really been to find ways to elicit and demonstrate commitment from APD to making this process work."
Alter, who called approval of the academy reset "a leap of faith," produced several amendments and additional direction calling for a series of progress reports throughout the 144th cadet class's 34 weeks of instruction. Updates will come from Kroll staff, curriculum and video review committees, and within APD as training continues.
A final report from Cronk summing up APD's progress on nearly two dozen short-term recommendations from Kroll, around half of which Interim Police Chief Joseph Chacon said were still incomplete as of early May, will also be presented to council in June prior to the academy's commencement.
Tracking progress, curriculum reviews
Before voting against starting the new cadet class, Casar highlighted his stance on the importance of adjusting the academy process both to put well-trained officers on the streets and to mitigate ongoing reservations held by some city residents in relation to policing. Casar said his vote stemmed from a feeling that some aspects of the relaunch were rushed, including late community curriculum review in the process—a concern shared by some members of the public and the task force.
“The fact that the first curriculum review committee meeting was this week and that there’s still some distrust there about whether or not the things we’re trying to get done are going to get done probably keeps me in the same place that I was in the last [March] vote, where I wish we had done some of this work in the months beforehand," he said. "But I do want to recognize all the work that’s been done and emphasize the continued work to do because of its importance both for civil rights and public safety."
Kathy Mitchell, a task force member and volunteer with the criminal justice reform nonprofit Just Liberty, said ahead of council's vote that she shared concerns about the pace of reopening and a lack of access by community members to revamped instructional items at the academy, especially given what she called previous resistance to change at APD.
"We have these very significant issues, they’ve all been validated. We’ve now had community people look at the content and say, ‘Wow this really needs to change.’ Yet here we are, and nobody has seen any new content," Mitchell said May 5. "We’re now on the cusp of a vote where it’s kind of ... ‘Trust us, we hear you. We’ve got this.’ We’re kind of long past that."
Jessica Johnson, a task force member and program director at the Texas Fair Defense Project, said the city was "doubling down on the status quo" with the June academy reboot. In an email to Community Impact Newspaper, Johnson said a vote in favor of the cadet class would undercut recommendations from the community and Kroll regarding the academy reopening.
"It has been incredibly frustrating to see the term reimagine be co-opted when there is no hard proof of meaningful change," Johnson wrote. "Members of the task force have spent months gathering community input and evaluating potential programs and practices that could better serve the Austin community. The recommendations we made constitute thousands of hours of time and effort spent on creating potential solutions. Reopening the cadet academy sends a clear message that the work we put in is being ignored or at the very least discounted."
In response to council questioning, Chacon committed to several changes at the academy including expanded community curriculum review. He also affirmed the academy's move away from a "paramilitary" teaching culture including the degrading of cadets—although trainees will still be placed under stress in select scenarios—and a buy-in to such recommended shifts from academy leadership.
The pilot cadet academy will be funded with $2.17 million city staff had identified as savings in Austin's budgeted general fund. Council also approved a $375,000 increase to Kroll's contract for ongoing evaluation of APD's training via consent May 6, adding to an initial $1.3 million contract for Kroll's services authorized unanimously last fall.