AUSTIN (KXAN) — The two reports released by the City of Austin released last week outline racial inequities in the Austin Police Department and call on the department to make changes to its training academy. Throughout the 152-page memo, both reports describe the APD police academy as having a “paramilitary” or “militarized” mindset.

Citing concerns from former cadets, one of those reports calls for the city to “rebuild the training academy” and to also “implement sweeping structural reforms to the training
division.” The second report, conducted by a consulting firm working with the city, found weaknesses in APD’s training curriculum and teaching effectiveness, noting that the “paramilitary format” and “less attention to different learning styles and community policing” led to greater attrition.

This comes at a time when APD’s cadet classes are already on pause while a separate audit of training materials is underway. APD cadet classes have been stalled following a third-party investigation into alleged racism and homophobia in the department. The City Council in December 2019 called for an audit of APD’s training academy, which is still ongoing.

That led to the cancellation of two of the department’s 2020 cadet classes. Last month, Austin Mayor Steve Adler indicated he would be like to see police cadet classes restart in the Spring of 2020. But the council’s budget for the 2020-2021 fiscal year did not include funding for future cadet classes, so a city spokesperson told KXAN last fall it was likely the city will postpone the March 2021 and June 2021 cadet classes, as well.

Cadets say training academy was ‘dangerous’

The third-party researcher conducting the equity assessment report for the city held interviews “with many former APD academy cadets” as part of the evaluation of APD’s training division. Cadets with military backgrounds reported that the academy’s training staff employed dangerous training tactics. One cadet described the academy as “worse than anything I went through in [US military training].”

This report cited “numerous valid concerns” from former cadets over “secretive testing practices, unsafe physical tests that violate APD’s own policies, racist and sexist language by instructors, physical abuse by instructors, forced resignations, suspicious injuries, inequitable employment outcomes, and an increasingly toxic training culture driven by a militarized ‘us versus them’ mindset.”

Additionally, interview respondents reported that many of the academy’s trainers used violent, brutal, and traumatizing tactics to “manufacture soldiers.” In addition to accounts from cadets of being deprived of water during physical drills in the heat, the report said data the department provided “confirms that a troubling number of cadets were treated for heat exhaustion and dehydration during the academy.”

The researcher details how interviewees said they saw instructors at the academy refuse to offer water or help to cadets who were visibly suffering from dehydration. The cadets in the report described the training as “hazing” and “abuse,” citing “smoking sessions” — unscheduled physical and psychological stress drills.

APD staff also shared concerns during the equity assessment over the “paramilitary nature of the police department as promoting a culture of loyalty over principle.”

“The culture of the APD training academy, detailed firsthand by the courageous respondents who were interviewed for this research, conflicts directly with the department’s recruiting and public relations campaigns, which proclaim a police department focused on diversity, equity, and community engagement.”

Peace Mill Research and Communications analysis of APD conducted for the City of Austin

Department responds, says it is working to address these issues

APD sent KXAN a statement Sunday in response to these reports, sharing that the department is reviewing the findings and recommendations in these reports.

“We strive to be an organization that promotes diversity, inclusion, and equity for all populations,” the APD’s statement read. “The Department will continue efforts to make improvements to policies, practices, and training that allow everyone in Austin to feel safe and protected.”

“We are actively taking steps toward addressing internal and external inequities in APD policing. We remain committed to doing the hard work necessary to ensure that Department values and actions align with those of the community we serve. We will continue to work collaboratively with the Equity Office to implement a strategic Equity Action Plan.”

Statement from Austin Police Department

How a resolution more than five years ago led to this point

The process of creating these reports started back in 2015 when the Austin City Council passed a resolution asking the city manager to evaluate the impact of existing policies and practices on racial equity and to create an equity assessment tool for all city departments.

The first report was led by third-party evaluator Peace Mill Research and Communications, which is led by Raymond Weyandt, a researcher and graduate student at UT Austin’s Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. Peace Mill looked at APD’s equity assessment responses and the department’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats when it comes to equity.

In 2018, City Manager Spencer Cronk required all city departments to complete the process of equity assessments. The second group of city departments to go through this process included APD. But the memo states that after APD started the equity assessment process, police leaders “identified the need for an additional process” to look at equity solutions. With advice from Austin’s Equity Office, APD selected Round Rock-based Joyce James Consulting (JJC) to pinpoint racial inequities within APD and strategies to stop those inequities.

Report: Paramilitary training leads to high dropout rates

The JJC racial inequities and institutional racism report noted that APD hired Dr. Sara Villanueva, formerly of St. Edward’s University, in 2019 to help the department review its curriculum for the training academy. In her analysis, she notes that APD’s culture, “though paramilitary, is viewed as nonetheless informal,” something she cites as a strength for the department. JJC also pointed to Villanueva’s analysis which indicates “the paramilitary training” style in the academy “leads to high dropout rates.”

Villanueva recommended that APD move away from the paramilitary structure in training, JJC noted. Specifically, the analysis says APD has an opportunity to move away from a “warrior mindset” and toward a more “guardian mindset” that aligns with community policing.

Like the Peace Mill report, the JJC report noted that multiple former cadets said they were verbally, physically, and psychologically abused in the academy. JJC also said that former APD cadets noted in interviews that videos used in the training academy promoted a “warrior mentality” and that “what needs to change is militaristic training.”

Police union, community groups respond to audit

Austin Police Association President Ken Casaday said after looking through the reports in the memo that he is concerned some of the report’s assessments may no longer apply to the department today. He noted that the equity assessment report gathered demographic data from the cadet academy from 2015 through 2020.

“In my opinion, and we have really improved over the last five years and I don’t think that’s given any credence or acknowledgment in that report,” Casaday said. “I would put our academy up against any academy in the state of Texas, I think they do a fantastic job, especially since 2015, I think they’ve done a fantastic job of improving.”

Chief Manley talking to APD Cadet Class 140
Chief Manley talking to APD Cadet Class 140. KXAN Photo.

Casaday noted he went through the Austin Police Academy 23 years ago.

“There was lots of physical fitness, there were times when I didn’t like it because, you know, you are getting yelled at and screamed at, it was to prepare you to hit the streets,” he said, summarizing that the goal was to teach cadets to remain calm in the face of provocation.

Casaday said he has been through “smoke sessions” in training, both in APD’s academy and in the military. In the academy, he said smoke sessions would happen when someone would fall asleep or show up late to work and be forced to do a drill — for example 25 pushups.

“To me there is absolutely nothing wrong with that,” he said.

“A smoke session in the military is a pretty serious deal to where you are physically punished for certain things,” Casaday continued. “In Austin, it doesn’t hold a candle to anything I experienced in the military.”

APD’s 143rd cadet class graduated Friday, October 23, 2020, bringing 42 new officers onto the force. (KXAN Photo/Jacqulyn Powell)

Despite the recommendations to move away from a “warrior mindset,” Casaday believes the academy needs to put cadets through high-stress situations and practice the warrior mentality to be prepared for worst-case scenarios.

“The guardian mindset, to me, is the right mindset, but there is that time where you have to have that warrior mentality when someone is trying to kill you, and you have to be prepared for that,” he added.

But for Chas Moore, executive director of the Austin Justice Coalition, these new reports about APD’s training academy feel like old news.

Moore said he agrees with the researcher’s assessment that APD’s training academy needs sweeping reform.

“We have been saying for years that the way the Austin Police department conducts business is just outdated and needs to be completely rebuilt from the inside out,” he added.

Moore feels it is promising that these new reports are coming from the city’s Equity Office. He is also anxious to see the results of the community panel that has been reviewing the APD academy training materials.

“Which begs the question, if people are considering having cadet classes in the spring of this year, what changes, if any, is the academy — is the police department going to bring forth?” Moore wondered aloud, adding that he hopes council members take a “good hard look” at this memo and see that “it’s not quite the time yet” to restart the police academy.

Demonstrators kneel outside the Texas Capitol grounds on May 31, 2020 as Chase Moore, executive director of the Austin Justice Coalition, speaks through a megaphone. (KXAN photo / Alyssa Goard)

Moore, who has been among the local advocates calling for the removal of Austin Police Chief Brian Manley for months, said he is not hopeful that APD’s current leadership will put the recommendations in this report to practice.

“I don’t think change, the radical reform we need, a step in the right direction, is capable under the leadership of Chief Brian Manley,” Moore said.

Moore believes at this point, the city does not need any more reports or task forces, or charts to diagnose what needs to change.

“At what point does the department actually want to change? It’s just that simple,” he said. “But luckily for them, it’s a new year, maybe this can be their New Year’s resolution, APD can look themselves in the mirror and say, we want to be better.”