AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austin police officers blasted their department and city leadership in a workplace survey that showed Austin Police Department employees have some of the lowest opinions of the city’s direction and management of any department.

APD employee sentiment was well below the citywide average in every measure, according to the Listening to the Workforce Survey. Only 20% of responding APD employees said they felt their department was well managed, just 17% said they felt it was safe to challenge the way things are done and barely 11% indicated change is managed well by the city.

In response to the survey, APD told KXAN it has implemented several changes to improve the department.

“APD survey results have been shared in a number of ways with the APD organization highlighting organizational strengths and identifying areas that are chronically low in satisfaction rates,” an APD spokesperson said.

KXAN obtained the survey results, which were the most current available and completed last October, through the Texas Public Information Act. At APD, the survey provides an inside look at officer morale as the department tries to improve staffing levels and the city negotiates a new contract with the police union. APD had over 2,300 employees eligible to take the survey – the most of any department – and just over 600 participated.

‘Trivialized my profession’

“Mayor and City Council seems to have no idea how much their decisions have negatively impacted APD and the citizens of Austin. Employee morale among sworn staff is so low,” said one written APD survey response. “It will take some repair and more visibility from City Manager Spencer Cronk to show support/restore trust. So many are retiring early. Swift action is needed.”

Several APD officers said they felt lack of support from city leadership has caused an exodus of the best officers, leaving them strained and making the job more dangerous.

“At the earliest time I can leave this department and retire, I will and not look back. The city has trivialized my profession and completely destroyed this department,” an APD employee wrote. “I don’t know any of my fellow officers who are not currently ‘looking for a way out.’ I was once very proud to call myself a COA employee with the APD. Now, it’s a different story.”

Several APD workers commented on low morale. One commenter said they felt the city treats APD like “herpes” – a department the city doesn’t want but “can’t get rid of.”

“This city doesn’t support its police department even slightly. The City Council (with the exception of a single member) has proven time and time again over the past two years you couldn’t care less about us, including our physical and mental wellbeing,” an APD employee wrote.

Short staffing and department improvements

Cronk sent a statement to KXAN saying, “Our employees do so much for this community, and it is important to me that they feel valued and supported. I, along with leaders throughout this organization, use the survey results as a guide to help improve in the areas that are of concern to employees. We value our employees and are committed to addressing staff concerns, while improving morale.” 

A spokesperson for the city said the survey helps management “shape policy.” The city has invested in its workforce with an across-the-board 4% raise for civilian employees, and departments are making retention plans and using stipends to “head off an emerging crisis in staff recruitment and retention,” according to the spokesperson.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler acknowledged the difficulty in policing and said the survey is one of the tools they use to better understand “the challenges and aspirations of our workforce.”

“Our city needs to be constantly trying to improve working conditions and general morale,” Adler said in a statement for KXAN. “It is important our workforce knows their appreciated, especially in departments experiencing the greatest changes.”

By email, KXAN provided the surveys to all 10 city council members’ offices and asked for comments specifically responding to APD employees’ concerns. Only one council member, Pio Renteria, provided a response.

Renteria said the survey would help guide improvements. New cadet classes with a new curriculum should help alleviate the “ongoing staffing concerns that have limited the department’s capacity,” he said.

Thomas Villareal, president of the Austin Police Association, said the survey results show APD officers lack support and feel the risks of the job outweigh the reward.

“We have extremely talented people and folks are leaving at an alarmingly high rate because they don’t feel appreciated,” Villareal said in an email. “We have seen record number of retirements and separations the past few years as more officers who are eligible to retire have chosen to do so and people who aren’t yet retirement eligible are choosing to go to other Departments or into private sector jobs.”

Villareal said APA is actively negotiating the new police contract that will provide a stable environment, attract the best talent and, in turn, boost morale. The hope is to get the new contract ratified before the old one expires.

“Staying under contract will show these women and men that the City of Austin is committed to them and would be a positive message for our officers who, in their own words in the survey results, haven’t felt supported by City Management and the Council for a long time,” Villareal said.

APD lost 165 total officers to retirement and resignation last year – the most in five years. Villareal said the department is on track to lose 180 by the end of 2022.

According to an APD pay analysis prepared in May, Austin police compensation is “highly competitive with other large local law enforcement agencies in Texas.” APD candidates earn $50,000 while in the academy and have the opportunity to step up pay over 16 years to a maximum base pay of $102,112.

Though the maximum pay is higher at APD compared to other large Texas cities, the city of Austin’s real estate is much less affordable. According to a Zillow index used in the compensation analysis, the median home price in Austin is $625,000, which is more than double the median home price for all other major Texas cities, $248,000.

APD said it made numerous changes based on responses to the survey, which were posted in the department’s HR Employee Resources Center. APD created a dashboard that shows responses by department, and APD’s executive team participated in a half-day workshop to talk about the survey results and how to address them.

APD provided the following list of changes the department made in response to the survey: monthly award ceremonies, email blasts to the “APD Family,” expansion of professional development, monthly development webinars, a chief’s advisory committee and suggestion box, a wellness app through Cordico, a transfer policy and new transfer portal, exit surveys, increased career development and Chacon taking part and making opening remarks during the opening of supervisor school.

Not all of APD’s responses to the survey were negative. Several comments provided positive feedback.

“In terms of leadership and morale, my Division has vastly improved over the past 5 years,” said one APD commenter.

“I’m a new hire and I’m so excited to be here and getting started!” said another.