AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austin’s Public Safety Commission learned a great deal Monday about how Austin Police officers feel about working for the department.
Commissioners received a presentation from APD about safety and wellness in the department, a report which also highlighted personal and emotional hurdles officers face.
The results demonstrate pride within APD around the profession of policing but also show burnout and frustration throughout the department. Those frustrations include concerns among officers about APD’s disciplinary process and show that many officers feel the public doesn’t understand what their job entails.
Rick Randall, APD’s Senior Chaplain and Wellness Director, told commissioners Monday that 57% of APD’s officers took this survey, a rate which he says surpasses the national average. The survey is part of the National Police Foundation’s 2018 Law Enforcement Officer Safety and Wellness Survey Report.
The results were gathered in November of 2018, Randall said, just before Austin City Council voted to approve a new contract with the Austin Police Department nearly a year after the previous agreement had expired.
“Morale was pretty low at that time,” Randall explained.
Of the officers surveyed, 95 said that increased scrutiny/attention from media and public protests had “not at all” or “to a minimal degree” made them more concerned about their safety than in the past. Many more officers (994) said that the increased scrutiny/attention from media and public protests made them more concerned about their safety.
The results showed that the increased scrutiny has made 86% of respondents less willing to stop and question those engaging in suspicious behavior.
Pride in the Profession
The survey findings also indicated that most APD officers have a sense of pride associated with their profession.
86% of those surveyed said they feel committed to policing because they believe it is “a noble and honorable profession.” More than half say they intend to stay working at APD because they like working there. More than half also felt that police officers do not have reason to be distrustful of most community members.
Interactions with the public
Most of the officers said they believe officers should comfort victims of crimes.
More than half of the officers said that the community members they run into on the job often seem grateful.
But despite that gratitude, the officers largely believe there is a gap in the public’s knowledge of their profession.
Overwhelmingly they agreed that the public doesn’t understand what it means to be a cop.
Burnout and Frustration
73% of the officers reported feeling somewhat to highly frustrated about their work and 59% reported feeling burned out because of their work.
The survey results also showed some concerns about how discipline is handled within the department. A majority of officers did not feel that the APD discipline process is fair. More than half said that when minor mistakes happen, they believe the department responds with punishment rather than coaching and counseling.
More than half of the officers felt the process for getting promoted within APD is open and fair, but a majority also reported that getting good assignments depends on who you know and not on your merit.
Nearly 21% of the officers said they are considering or actively looking for work in another agency and 31% are considering quitting law enforcement altogether.
“While most of our officers felt their immediate supervisor was fair and they trusted them, the further up the chain you go, the further away from that front line supervisor, the less trust there was, the less sense of connection,” Randall explained.
He noted that many officers reported feeling that upper management made decisions without adequately consulting the people who those decisions would impact.
Most of the officers surveyed who received training in de-escalation, shoot-don’t-shoot scenarios, mental health crises, non-lethal methods, respectful treatment, and bias/fairness agreed that they felt competent to deal with the situations they were trained for. Most officers said they had received bias/ implicit bias/fairness training but more than half reported they had not received firearms training involving shoot-don’t-shoot scenarios in the past year.
Officers indicated they were using safety equipment the department gave them at high rates. Most reported they always wear their ballistic vests and body armor, body cameras and seat belts. Results were mixed about how frequently officers wear reflective vests.
What the department is doing
Randall explained that under Austin Police Chief Brian Manley’s leadership, APD established a wellness bureau, consolidating all wellness resources to allow the department to “be more strategic.”
With the current police cadet class, Randall said the department is offering a resiliency training for the first time. This training, he explained, teaches the cadets tools like how to deal with trauma and how to de-stress, “so that we are building in them strategies to help their career last a lifetime.”
So far, the training has been successful and well-received by the class of cadets, Randall said.
Blue Help, a nonprofit that tracks police suicides, reported that in 2019 there were 228 police suicides across the county with 19 of those suicides happening in Texas. Randall refers to these numbers as a “national epidemic” and explained that APD has recently completed a training of all officers on recognizing the signs of suicide as well as how to intervene.
He noted that Austin Police is also working on a research project with UT Austin’s LBJ School and Vanderbilt University regarding eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). Randall said that preliminary results from that research show EMDR is appearing to be more effective than traditional stress management techniques. Randall said these findings mean the department will start looking to use EMDR in a proactive way in units that are continually exposed to trauma.
Austin Police has also entered into a partnership with Austin Travis County EMS and Austin Fire to create a public safety wellness center. Randall hopes this center can help the departments learn more about the common issues that first responders face.
Assistant Police Chief Todd Smith said he’s been working with a group of officers committed to changing how promotions happen in the department.
“We realize that within our ranks that if you want to promote, it’s just a matter of taking 100 questions, ” Smith told the commission. “So honestly I can look at many officers and say, ‘the only difference between me and you other than years of experience are four 100 question tests’ and that’s a problem.”
“Our police department, much like the American education system, is creating good test-takers, not pathfinders, not leaders,” Smith continued. “And that’s something we have officers that are committed to work towards a valid solution.”
Smith and the other assistant chiefs have also recently started taking turns on the weekends doing ride alongs with patrol units. Randall said that this allows APD leaders to connect one-on-one with the officers on the front lines.
Commissioner Meghan Hollis recommended that APD look into other indicators of health like financial wellness. She also suggested that the department examine officer morale again in light of recent allegations made of racism and homophobia within APD’s leadership.
Austin City Council approved an audit in December of the department’s training materials which would pause APD’s June cadet class if the audit wasn’t finished 30 days prior.
Austin Police Department and the Austin Police Association have been vocal in recent years about the need for more officers among their ranks and the difficulties the department has had in retaining employees.