Austin police respond every day to unpredictable situations that could put themselves and others in harm’s way. Sometimes deadly force is needed. But more often than not, officers can achieve a better outcome by responding with creativity, understanding and restraint.
Austin’s finest — and the community they serve — deserve a training program that best equips officers with all of those skills.
However, the complaints recently aired by 10 former cadets have put a fresh spotlight on the techniques and tenor of the Austin Police Training Academy. Those complaints, according to reporting by the American-Statesman’s Tony Plohetski, include allegations that instructors insulted trainees who expressed an interest in helping the public, mocked homeless people and prostitutes, and stoked feelings of fear and aggression toward people that officers may encounter.
Those characterizations, which the Austin Police Department disputes as unfounded or taken out of context, tie into a long-running debate in the law enforcement community. Should police officers be warriors on high alert, ready to use force to subdue people perceived as threats? Or should they be guardians who first try to resolve problems through cooperation, with concern for the dignity of others, before using force as a last resort?
APD’s answer is: Yes. Both. Officers should be guardians at heart, but warriors when needed.
We worry this yes-to-both view overlooks key differences between these two distinct approaches to law enforcement. This response blurs the vision of an agency at a time when Interim Police Chief Brian Manley, himself in the spotlight as the lone finalist for permanent chief, needs to provide a focused outlook for the department he wants to lead.
We recognize law enforcement officers have extremely difficult and dangerous jobs, a fact underscored by this week’s funeral of Round Rock police officer Charles Whites, who was struck by a car while directing traffic, as well as a couple of instances this year in which suspects opened fire on Austin police. Several events in the coming week will honor 18 Texas peace officers who died in the line of duty last year.
Based on efforts like the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, law enforcement leaders across the country have also reached a strong consensus in recent years that the best way to protect officers and the public is with guardian-style tactics designed to slow down situations and establish rapport, whenever possible, with people in crisis.
Unfortunately we have seen too many appearances by warrior-cops on Austin streets, in the cases of three officers indicted this spring on charges of using excessive force; in the rough takedown of a suspected prostitute last fall by an officer who never gave the woman a chance to comply; in the fatal shooting of unarmed, naked teenager David Joseph in 2016; in a training academy instructor who defended that shooting at the time by saying officers “don’t have a duty to retreat”; in the tackling of three people charged in 2015 with jaywalking; in the officer who slammed elementary school teacher Breaion King to the ground during a 2015 traffic stop, and in the other officer who told King that police are sometimes wary of blacks because of their “violent tendencies.”
It should not be lost on APD that many of these incidents involved people of color, and that these tactics have undermined the department’s efforts to improve its relationship with minority communities.
The de-escalation policy that Manley adopted in January is an important step forward, requiring officers to try to defuse situations before resorting to force. Assistant Chief Chris McIlvain told us that APD naturally draws guardian-minded recruits who want to serve and protect, and that outlook permeates the training at the police academy. Cadets learning de-escalation communications tactics, hear about the experiences of crime victims and spend time meeting residents in the neighborhoods they will soon patrol.
But APD sends an inconsistent message by layering that guardian ethos atop the military-style boot camp environment at the training academy, where some instructors yell and curse at camouflage-wearing cadets who are repeatedly warned that any call could become a deadly showdown.
Manley and others have defended the drill-sergeant-style abuse heaped on cadets as a kind of stress test that weeds out hotheads and prepares officers for absorbing the verbal taunts they may face on patrol. Unfortunately, there is also an implicit lesson being taught when instructors win cadets’ compliance through aggression or humiliation: This tactic gets results.
The academy can do better. Instructors should model professionalism in the classroom and during physical training. They have ample opportunity to test cadets’ emotional resilience during field-training scenarios, where trainees practice making traffic stops or arrests with combative actors. And instructors always carry the largest stick: Cadets who don’t meet expectations won’t graduate.
McIlvain said APD looked at its training academy practices in light of the former cadets’ allegations and found no need for revision. But he also noted the law enforcement profession has been evolving. We urge the department to learn from others further along the curve, particularly on training to de-escalate situations with people who are on drugs or have mental health issues. Other departments have developed successful tactics to disarm knife- or bat-wielding people without officers firing their guns.
APD’s leadership should take this opportunity to do what any officer arriving at a scene should do: Slow down. Ask questions. And develop a strategy to best protect the safety and dignity of everyone involved.