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Videos used to train Austin police perpetuate ‘racism, sexist gender norms and classism,’ panel finds

Thursday, January 21, 2021 by Audrey McGlinchy, KUT

A panel of community members has recommended the Austin Police Department remove 60 videos from its training curriculum after concluding they bolster racist and sexist ideas and do little to help officers constructively interact with the public.

“The vast majority of the videos we reviewed over these seven months were disappointing in quality. Most were outdated, many were hard to follow and had poor viewability, and some had unprofessional or sensationalistic commentary,” the panelists wrote in a 26-page report released Monday.

“But by far the most alarming pattern we witnessed was the harmful stereotypes perpetuated against Black and Brown communities,” it said.

The report also echoed the concern that APD officers are trained with an “us-versus-them” mentality that may escalate encounters with the public, an issue most recently raised in a separate examination of the police department’s training curriculum.

“In their interactions with community members, we repeatedly watched officers cling to ideas of control that perpetuate the need to be an aggressive alpha male and having to assert dominance,” the panelists wrote. “We saw little to no room offered for police officers to turn aside from a ‘need’ to be dominant in order to better connect to, and work with, the community on a human level.”

A city spokesperson said APD management worked closely with the panel and agreed with its recommendations.

“APD made immediate changes where possible and planned for longer term changes,” the spokesperson said in an email.

APD would not elaborate on the changes it has made.

The 11-member panel spent the better half of a year watching 112 videos used by APD to train officers. The report is part of a larger review and revision of police training materials being done by City Manager Spencer Cronk’s office. (A city spokesperson said the office would review the recommendations in this latest report.)

Council members asked for the review in December 2019, and decided to pause any new cadet classes until training materials could be reviewed and revised. While that has yet to happen, at least two Council members have expressed an interest in restarting new training classes.

At the same time, Council asked for a sweeping audit of racism and bigotry within the police department; late last year, Council members approved a $1.3 million contract with a third party to do that investigation.

These efforts have taken place against the backdrop of a national call for changes to policing that erupted last summer after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. As hundreds protested in Austin, Council members voted to cut millions from the police budget.

Of the 112 videos panelists watched, 44 percent depicted Black people as the subject in interactions with police. (Austin’s Black population is about 8 percent.) In addition, panelists wrote in their report, white subjects appeared to be afforded the benefit of the doubt in police interactions, while officers acted more violently toward people of color.

Source: Austin Police Department Training Video Review Panel

“For example, one video of an armed white man showed an officer speaking calmly and reiterating the person’s right to carry a firearm,” the report reads. “In contrast, in videos where people of color were armed or even unarmed, police officers treated them as threats and moved towards use of force with great speed.”

Panelists argue that the results of this “unequal policing” are very tangible; they pointed to a recent report from several city departments, including the Office of Police Oversight, that looked at the race of those stopped by APD officers in 2019. Their analysis found that Black drivers were three times more likely to be arrested after being pulled over by police.

The report also notes that the majority of videos watched by the group presented sexist views of women. It was rare to see a female officer, and when there was one, she was disregarded by male officers.

Overall, panelists wrote that the vast majority of the videos presented only ideas of how officers should not respond to situations, rather than giving examples to new officers of how to handle certain situations.

This, the panelists wrote, could have dire consequences.

“The continuous repetition of ‘What NOT to Do’ interactions actually reinforces negative behavior; can lead to officer desensitization about abuse, injustices and corruption; and dehumanizes the community that the officers are sworn to protect.”

The report includes a number of recommendations, including a discussion of biases during training and a course on the history of policing and race in the U.S., depictions of how officers should behave instead of how not to behave and a move away from an “us-versus-them” mindset.

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT.

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