Photo by Michael Minasi / KUT
Friday, October 1, 2021 by Audrey McGlinchy, KUT

Austin City Council confirms Joseph Chacon as new police chief

Joseph Chacon is Austin’s new police chief, after City Council members confirmed his nomination Thursday night. Chacon has been serving as the city’s interim chief since Brian Manley’s departure from the top job in March.

“Thank you for trusting me to do this job, and I promise that I will not let you down,” Chacon said, after his new job was confirmed by a vote just before 10:30 p.m.

Council members spent more than two hours questioning Chacon publicly and behind closed doors about issues that have marked several tumultuous years for the police department, including reports of mishandled sexual assault cases and allegations of racism within the department.

The vote to appoint Chacon was 9 to 2, with Council members Alison Alter and Mackenzie Kelly voting against.

The scene stood in stark contrast to the last time Council members voted on a police chief. In 2018, they spent less than 30 minutes publicly questioning Manley before deciding to appoint him.

Chacon, who has worked for APD for more than two decades, said Thursday he sees himself as a reformer.

“We need change agents. You need people who are going to lead from the front … even if there is resistance,” he said. “I think I have already started doing that with the Austin Police Department.”

Alter, who represents parts of West Austin, pushed Chacon on how the department has historically handled sexual assault cases. In 2019, the city hired a third party to audit how APD handles these investigations after numerous reports revealed that the department had misclassified rape cases.

Chacon said APD had “fallen short” when it came to sexual assault investigations. He said that he was committed to making sure officers are better trained in how to handle these cases.

“We expect change and we are going to hold you to that, and it can’t just be in words,” Alter said.

Almost 50 people applied to be Austin’s next police chief, a list the city whittled down to three candidates. Last week, City Manager Spencer Cronk announced he was nominating Chacon for the permanent job over two other finalists, Dallas Police Department Assistant Chief Avery Moore and Los Angeles Police Department Deputy Chief Emada Tingirides.

Upon taking the top job, Chacon inherits a department whose culture, values and training have been heavily criticized over the past several years.

Last year, in response to protests over police violence, the City Council reallocated about $20 million from APD’s budget to other city departments.

But elected officials have been voicing concerns about the department and its leadership for years, particularly after staff had been accused of fostering a culture of racism and former cadets said the academy employed bullying tactics. In 2019, Council ended up pausing the cadet academy, eventually voting to restart training new police after reviewing the department’s curriculum and adding an additional two weeks of training.

While all of this has been going on, Austin recorded its highest number of murders this year and Chacon has said the department’s ability to respond to the public has been limited by resources and staffing.

Earlier this week, Chacon asked the public to avoid calling 911 unless someone’s safety or property is in immediate danger. At the time, he cited “recent staffing challenges,” but added Thursday that this move was also in line with his goal of moving officers off non-emergency calls.

At a press conference last week, Cronk said Chacon would bring to APD’s helm both a sense of security and an openness to change.

“He brings the relationships that are needed for this role. He brings a stability that our community needs at this point in time,” Cronk said. “He really brings the reform-mindedness that he spoke of even in this interim capacity.”

Chacon began his career with the El Paso Police Department before being hired by APD in 1998. During his two decades with the department, Chacon has worked as a sergeant in the homicide and internal affairs units and has overseen the Austin Regional Intelligence Center, a law enforcement surveillance and data-sharing partnership that spans 10 counties in Central Texas.

Chacon eventually became an assistant police chief, the role he held before being named interim chief.

“I was not anticipating necessarily to select an internal candidate, but again, the process played it out and [Chacon] was the right person for the job,” Cronk said.

But on Thursday, Alter asked Chacon how someone as homegrown as himself could have the capacity to make change within APD. He said public safety would come before any loyalty he felt toward people in the department.

“Coming up in the department does not mean that you cannot do things differently and that you cannot find better ways to do things,” Chacon said. “It’s very important that I have good relationships with the officers, but I won’t sacrifice public safety for it.”

Hiring a police chief from within APD means the city does not have the power to fire Chacon. According to state law, if a police chief is removed, they have to be reinstated in the department in the role they had prior to their promotion. This means Cronk, the person with the power to fire the police chief, only has the ability to demote Chacon.

In response to a question from Council Member Greg Casar, who represents North Central Austin, Chacon said he would resign if asked to do so rather than invoke this provision of state law.

“If the city manager indicated that my employment were no longer wanted or needed … I would go ahead and resign or retire,” he said.

The limits of Cronk’s firing power came to light last year after council members called for then-chief Manley to resign over what they said was his mishandling of police response to protests against racial injustice. Cronk agreed to keep Manley in the top job.

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

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.

Austin Police Department: the law enforcement entity for the City of Austin.

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