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Public Safety Commission calls out APD’s resistance to training academy reform

Thursday, January 26, 2023 by Emma Freer

The city’s Public Safety Commission criticized the Austin Police Department for stonewalling a committee formed by City Council in 2021 to review the police training academy curriculum as part of a broader push to “reimagine” public safety.

“Just to summarize, two years ago, maybe longer, the City Council, which is supposed to run this city, passed a resolution creating the curriculum review process and put some citizens on that,” Chair Rebecca Bernhardt told APD leadership during a Jan. 9 meeting. “And in that resolution, it said you were supposed to let them into trainings, and now we’re in 2023, and they still can’t get into trainings.” 

Council approved the formation of the Academy Curriculum Review Committee in March 2021 as part of a broader resolution adopting the city manager’s blueprint for a revamped police training academy.

Less than a year earlier, Council had temporarily suspended the training academy following mass protests against police violence and racial injustice, at which APD officers injured dozens of protesters.

The committee was charged with “incorporating community input into the curriculum” and “shifting from a ‘warrior’ to a ‘guardian’ orientation in the curriculum and addressing racial disparities in policing.”

But its members quickly ran into problems. Community representatives raised concerns in August 2021 after APD “abruptly paused meetings,” even as cadets continued to learn from the training curriculum they were tasked with reviewing.

These problems persisted. 

At the Public Safety Commission’s Dec. 5 meeting, committee members asked APD leadership why they weren’t able to review much of the training curriculum, attend academy classes or ascertain which of their recommendations had been implemented. 

“It is increasingly hard to believe that there’s a real desire to improve those relationships (between the community and the Austin Police Department) and improve the way that the community both perceives and interacts with the police,” community representative Serita Fontanesi said. 

The Public Safety Commission invited committee members back for its January meeting after APD leadership declined to answer their questions.

Phil Hopkins, another community representative, reiterated these concerns.

“It’s one thing to sort of make recommendations on a lesson plan, and it’s another thing to see how those recommendations are implemented during the process of training the cadets,” he said. 

APD Assistant Chief Jason Staniszewski responded that the police department was working with the city’s legal department and the city manager’s office to “come up with the possibilities and any procedures that we would need to do” to grant the committee members access to training classes. 

Commissioner Rebecca Webber pushed back, saying APD should have addressed these issues in 2021, when the committee was formed. 

“I’m skeptical that anything has been done on that,” she said. “And so I think it’s insulting to come in and say the chief is considering it because I don’t think the chief is considering it. I don’t think anyone has considered it.” 

In the meantime, two outside consulting firms, Kroll Associates and Joyce James Consulting, recently began an independent review of the curriculum review process.

Mark Ehlers, managing director of Kroll Associates, told commissioners he expects to issue a joint report, with recommendations for improvement, by early March.

“Clearly, I think everybody did agree that whatever happened in 2022 with the work of the Curriculum Review Committee sort of hit a standstill (and) wasn’t as effective as I think everybody had hoped it would be,” he said. 

Still, Bernhardt expressed reservations about the process.

“It is our deep frustration that there are some areas where there appears to be little or no progress because there’s just a deep unwillingness to change,” she said. “And I don’t know if paying consultants who have retired police chiefs on their staff is the way to get through that deep unwillingness to change. It’s definitely an immovable force, currently.” 

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