WILLIAMSON COUNTY, Texas (KXAN) — A sergeant with the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office resigned, and a lieutenant received an official reprimand after an investigation into mistreatment of cadets at a training academy.
The enforcement division of the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement (TCOLE) began an investigation after receiving complaints in August about the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office Training Center. Police departments in the Austin area claimed that their cadets experienced mistreatment during the academy that lasted from Nov. 2018 to May.
The 82-page case report recently released by TCOLE stated that Sgt. David Nickel used a racial slur against a black cadet and commented inappropriately about a female trainee’s attire.
According to the report, the black officer told investigators that at one point Nickel “got very close to [his] face and said, ‘You’ve got to understand that people on the streets are going to call you a f—— n—–.'”
An audio recording released to KXAN included Nickel confirming during an interview that he used the racial epithet against the cadet, arguing that he did so only to test the trainee’s composure.
During the interview, he said, “Somebody’s going to try to push your buttons. It’s your responsibility to remain professional and not let that push your button outwardly.”
However, the investigators stated in the conclusion of their report, “His decision to use the word ‘N—–‘ when addressing an African American cadet to teach him a lesson violates the lesson he was allegedly trying to teach: maintaining your composure in the face of stress. Nickel’s immaturity and lack of leadership will not assist a struggling new police academy achieve TCOLE’s minimum standards and ultimate goal of achieving compliance. Nickel’s immaturity and lack of leadership will not assist a struggling new police academy achieve TCOLE’s minimum standards and ultimate goal of achieving compliance.”
The report also stated that Nickel told a female corrections cadet, “‘You shouldn’t be dressed like a whore at a police training facility.'”
Multiple witnesses confirmed that they heard Nickel make all of these comments, according to the report.
The TCOLE investigators said they also found that Nickel shortened classes for trainees on hazmat situations and emergency communications.
Lt. Craig Gripentrog also received a reprimand from TCOLE and had his training license revoked after the agency’s investigation found that he changed academic standards without approval.
According to the report, the rules stated that a cadet could be dismissed for failing three tests. However, the investigation revealed Gripentrog changed that policy to benefit struggling cadets, mainly those who planned to work at the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office.
The report stated Gripentrog “said he made an announcement to the cadet class saying that they were getting rid of the ‘3-test failure’ rule and were sticking to maintaining an 80 [grade point] average to relieve some of the stress or test anxiety that was on the students. He also acknowledged that the policy was amended based upon the failures of WCSO cadets.”
TCOLE issued a reprimand to the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office Training Center, too.
The report stated in the conclusion, “The common theme at this particular police academy is laziness and lack of attention to detail. No one would admit to knowing how cadets were graded. The chain-of-command disagreed on multiple details and weren’t consistent in following their own policy manual. They weren’t consistent on where the manual came from.”
Investigators also recommended that SWAT team members no longer serve as instructors at the police academy.
Before the investigation began, the Sheriff’s Office stated in a news release sent out Oct. 18 that Sheriff Robert Chody had already terminated an academy commander and sergeant in an effort to maintain the integrity of the academy.
A spokesperson told KXAN that Sheriff Chody was not available Thursday for an interview or additional comment.
The incident comes after months of controversy surrounding the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office.
In April, a Georgetown lawyer filed a complaint alleging that former commander Steve Deaton told deputies it was his goal for one of them to have sex with a producer of Live PD, an A&E crime show the office had previously been featured on. At the time, a sheriff’s office spokesperson told KXAN that they had no comment.
Later, Deaton again made news after a series of graphic Facebook posts the commander made became public. Those included “racist and misogynistic” images, Georgetown resident Gary Richter told the Commissioners Court. This incident followed a long campaign by dozens of residents to call upon Chody to fire Deaton.
In a letter to colleagues about the incident, Deaton said in part: “I have sat on the side lines and watched this agency and our sheriff be characterized as a lot of things other than the fine professional organization that we are. This is sadly due in large part to a few photos I posted on my personal Facebook page some time ago.”
In September, a former WCSO detective said he opened a criminal investigation into Chody — for which he says he was later fired. According to former detective Brian Johns’ lawsuit, Johns believed he saw Chody abusing his power and using tax dollars for personal use. At that time, KXAN reached out to the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office, but did not receive a response.
In regard to the Oct. 18 incident involving the training academy, WCSO says it will not be releasing any further statements.