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APD survey shows police officers are proud but frustrated

Friday, January 10, 2020 by Jessi Devenyns

As the Public Safety Commission came back to a new year on Jan. 6, members began with a lengthy discussion about the state of the Austin police force.

After receiving a presentation from the department highlighting the personal, professional and emotional barriers officers face, the commissioners began by asking how APD is addressing the concerns expressed by its personnel in a survey conducted in November 2018. That was just before City Council voted to approve a new police contract and after a year of negotiations with the police union and local activists to gain more oversight and transparency within the department.

Survey feedback reflects the mindset of officers in the middle of the first no-contract period in Austin history. As APD Senior Chaplain Rick Randall said, “Morale was pretty low during that time.”

In the survey, officers expressed dissatisfaction with the department’s disciplinary and promotion process, its insufficient firearms training in shoot-don’t shoot scenarios, and the lack of understanding from the public about what it means to be a cop.

At the same time, 86 percent of those surveyed said they felt committed to policing as “it is a noble and honorable profession.”

“What I see is the officers really love their profession … but they think the promotion process sucks. It’s pretty clear,” said Commissioner Preston Tyree. In the data presented to commissioners, 83 percent said that desirable postings are assigned based on who one knows rather than merit.

Randall said, “Many officers have concerns about the assessment center.”

Assistant Police Chief Todd Smith said APD is aware that the way promotions are granted needs to be reassessed. Today, he said that rising through the ranks is a matter of test-taking rather than an evaluation of leadership skills. “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,” he said.

The leadership that does get promoted, explained Randall, has a disconnect with rank-and-file officers. “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,” he said.

A part of that disconnect can be seen in officers’ opinions regarding the department’s disciplinary process. Eighty percent of respondents indicated the process is unfair and 61 percent said those who make minor mistakes frequently get punishment instead of coaching or counseling.

The cumulative result of these various stressors has left 72 percent of the officers who responded to the survey feeling “frustrated by my work.”

Beyond their frustrations, 67 percent of officers said they either infrequently or never get enough sleep, and a third reported struggles with alcohol abuse.

Randall noted that the APD Wellness Department is focusing on early intervention to help officers handle the stress of the job proactively, and experimenting with a resiliency training approach to address trauma and stress. APD is also working with the University of Texas LBJ School and Vanderbilt University to study eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), a psychotherapeutic treatment for post-traumatic stress. “The preliminary results are very promising,” said Randall.

Even with the department’s increased attention to overall officer wellness, Commissioner Meghan Hollis said there are several components of wellness that she felt the department was not addressing, including financial and physical wellness.

She also encouraged APD to retake the survey in light of accusations of racism and homophobia within the department. The investigation has increased media and public scrutiny, which the 2018 survey indicated has a substantial contribution to officers’ declining feeling of overall safety.

The survey had a 57 percent response rate, which Randall said was well above the national average.

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Photo by Edward Kimmel from Takoma Park, MD [CC BY-SA].

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