As a longtime Austin Police Department veteran takes the reins as police chief, we urge Brian Manley to embrace the most challenging part of his new job: to be an instigator of change.
Manley’s Austin roots and 28 years of service to the department, including the past 18 months as interim chief, fueled the push by many to give him the top job. He has deep ties to the community, listens to the public and has earned the respect of his fellow officers. Most importantly, he showed his calm mettle in several crises that arose during his tenure as interim chief.
We disagreed with City Manager Spencer Cronk’s decision not to conduct a national search for this high-profile position, which deprived the city of the opportunity to hear other visions of leadership for the agency that protects and polices Austin’s nearly 1 million residents. But we never quibbled with Manley’s qualifications for the job.
Indeed, many residents expressed their confidence in Manley’s leadership in the town hall forums and public comments submitted since Cronk named Manley, 50, the sole finalist in late April. The City Council echoed those sentiments in confirming Manley unanimously on Thursday.
“Your willingness to engage and listen and collaborate is a very powerful tool to have in our chief,” Council Member Jimmy Flannigan told Manley.
But it’s also clear the council expects — and the community needs — some changes in the way Austin police interact with the public, particularly with people of color. As much as Manley has been a product and champion of this department, he must look with fresh eyes at the Police Department’s shortcomings, so he can address them.
Ten hours after giving Manley its blessing, the council approved a pair of recommendations that provide a starting road map.
The first resolution asks Austin police to address an issue that lands a disproportionate number of African-Americans and Latinos in jail. Officers have the discretion to write a citation or make an arrest for certain nonviolent misdemeanors, such as possession of marijuana or driving without a valid license. Police data show those who are arrested for those offenses, despite being eligible for citations, are more likely to be minorities, burdening them and the system with unnecessary incarcerations.
The second measure seeks to limit police cooperation with federal immigration enforcement to the bare minimum required under Senate Bill 4. Manley has already said police will ask about a person’s immigration status only when it is relevant to a criminal case, such as one involving human smuggling. The resolution suggests police advise people they have a right not to answer any questions about their status. It also asks the police department to provide reports to the council whenever it questions someone’s status or assists with immigration enforcement efforts.
These recommendations, both arising from resolutions sponsored by Council Member Greg Casar, are a good start toward improving trust between the public and police. They also dovetail with the performance expectations Cronk outlined in his three-page memo appointing Manley to the job.
Significantly, Cronk’s memo highlights another area of concern that we believe Manley has been slow to recognize: the need for a police culture that consistently emphasizes “guardian” tactics over “warrior” ones. We applauded the de-escalation policy Manley adopted in January, which calls for officers to calm heated situations through dialogue and concern for the dignity of others — the heart of guardian tactics.
But Manley has also stood behind “warrior” aspects of the police training academy, where drill-sergeant-style abuse is heaped on camouflage-wearing cadets, and some trainees have complained of instructors mocking the homeless and stoking fear about the public. Those paramilitary relics are wholly out of step with modern civilian policing.
Manley has committed to more training on de-escalation techniques, as well as combating racism. A more respectful police culture is also likely to emerge as the force more closely reflects the demographics of the community it serves. Manley must push for even more robust efforts to recruit and promote people of color and women in order to get there.
Manley recognizes the long to-do list that comes with running a department that has more than 2,600 employees and an annual budget of $422 million. His officers are working without a contract, suspending the hard-won public oversight provisions under the previous contract, and causing frustrating disruptions to certain stipends many officers have earned. The DNA lab needs a long-term path forward to restore the public’s confidence in the crucial evidence it processes. Communities of color continue to experience the stinging effects of racial profiling. And we still see too many tense standoffs, often with people having mental health crises, end with officers firing their weapons.
The new chief will be judged on all those issues and others to come by one basic metric: Has Manley moved Austin police forward?