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Photo by Michael Minasi/KUT. Joseph Chacon has spent 25 years in the Austin Police Department and has served as chief since 2021.

Austin Police Chief Joseph Chacon announces retirement

Tuesday, August 22, 2023 by Luz Moreno-Lozano, KUT

Chief Joseph Chacon will leave the Austin Police Department next month. Chacon told interim City Manager Jesús Garza of his plans to retire last week, city leaders said, and he officially gave his notice Monday morning. He has served in law enforcement for 31 years.

Chacon said he had been considering retirement for the last several weeks, adding that “this (decision) was a little bit out of the blue.”

“And the more I (thought about it), the more I knew the time was right for me,” he said Monday. “Because when you know, you just know.”

Chacon’s departure is the latest in a string of city leadership changes since Mayor Kirk Watson took office. But Chacon, 55, said the decision was his own, and did not come from city leadership.

“There were some conversations … about, ‘Chief, please don’t leave. We need this stability right now, and we need you to stay,’” he said. “So, I did feel like I did have very strong support coming from City Hall and coming from the city manager’s office, and I’m very grateful for that. Again, just a very personal decision about where I am with me and my family.”

A year of changes to city leadership

Chacon’s departure follows that of former Austin Energy General Manager Jackie Sargent, who retired in March. There have been several other departures, including former Assistant City Manager Rey Arellano, who hired Chacon. And former City Manager Spencer Cronk was fired in February.

The chief said Monday he hopes “people don’t take my departure as a sign of instability, because it’s not.” But Chacon acknowledged that APD, like many other police departments across the country, has faced a number of challenges.

Chacon became chief in 2021, at a time when the department faced allegations of racism among its staff. The city also had a record number of murders that year. In recent years, Chacon has tackled issues with staffing in the police department.

The Austin Police Department is 330 officers short – many of those patrol officers – and Chacon said that has been frustrating, because it limits what officers can respond to. “Where we sit in staffing today, I’m disappointed,” he said. “I want us to get back to a place where we have more Austin police officers out there.”

Chacon defends APD collaboration with DPS

The outgoing chief also backed up the city’s initiative to bring Texas Department of Public Safety troopers in to help patrol. It’s a decision he still supports.

“The DPS situation was one in which we were able to bring more officers into the community in order to help keep the community safer, and we saw the fruits of that labor,” Chacon said Monday. “I would encourage, if there is a way to get back to it, that we do that again – that we have that strong collaboration.”

Chacon is also leaving amid a looming contract negotiation. The police contract expired on March 31. Cronk attempted to push through a four-year contract before he was fired in February. But that contract was declined as the city waited for voters to weigh in on a police oversight measure that received overwhelming support.

“I know how important it is to have stability in this department, and the way we need to do that is with a contract,” he said. “I’m still encouraging the president (of the police union) to go back to the table, because I know in the end that is going to be better for public safety and better for the department.”

Robin Henderson named interim chief of police

Chacon has spent 25 years with Austin Police Department and served as assistant chief for about five years.

While the city searches for a new permanent chief, Garza appointed Austin Police Department Chief of Staff Robin Henderson as the interim chief of police.

Chacon will stay on to assist with the transition during the next few weeks and step down during the first week of September, according to the city.

“Working at APD has been the privilege of my life,” Chacon said in a news release. “Being the Chief of Police is something that I never thought would have been possible, and it has been the pinnacle of my career.”

Chacon said he doesn’t have a job lined up but believes he will stay in Austin.

Watson said Chacon led the department with “integrity and a deep commitment” to the community.

“It’s one of those situations where anytime you lose a stable leader like that, there is a level of disappointment,” Watson said on Monday. “But the truth of the matter is he’s been at it 25 years and two years as chief. He deserves a retirement, and I wish him well.”

City Council Member Mackenzie Kelly celebrated Chacon’s retirement in a tweet Monday morning. “Chief Chacon’s departure leaves big shoes to fill, but he’s prepared a strong leadership team, including his Chief of Staff, Robin Henderson,” Kelly wrote. “Excited to see Chief Henderson step in as Interim after her ratification on 8/31 at our Council (meeting).”

The Austin Police Association, the city’s police union, also thanked Chacon for his years of service as chief and for his time on the union’s board of directors.

Racial justice advocates push for changes at APD

Chris Harris, director of policy at the Austin Justice Coalition, said he hopes the next police chief will embrace “necessary reforms” to improve public safety.

“Chacon rarely held officers accountable for wrongdoing, resisted important reforms from the district attorney and at the police academy and welcomed and directed the disastrous first months of DPS patrols that saw extreme racial disparities in all their activities,” Harris said.

He urged Council not to allow the interim city manager to select the next permanent chief. “(Garza’s) opposition to oversight and unwillingness to implement voter-approved police reform should give everyone pause about whom he would pick,” Harris said.

Search for a chief

Watson said that the city will begin a search for a new chief. That will be a task for Garza.

“The manager will be the one that looks to make the appointment, and that will be confirmed by the mayor and Council,” Watson said. “We have a lot of confidence in Jesús Garza.”

It is not clear how soon a permanent chief will be named.

But Assistant City Manager Bruce Mills said Monday there is “no urgency in that endeavor.”

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

The Austin Monitor’s work is made possible by donations from the community. Though our reporting covers donors from time to time, we are careful to keep business and editorial efforts separate while maintaining transparency. A complete list of donors is available here, and our code of ethics is explained here.

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