Austin cops question whether to stay or go: 'APD will always be home'

As some officers leave, others join. How does the next generation see their role?

By Tony Plohetski
Austin American-Statesman

AUSTIN, Texas — Austin police Sgt. Anthony Hipolito reached his breaking point in July.

Twenty-three years after leaving his job as an H-E-B customer service employee to follow his father in wearing a police badge, the 45-year-old decided the public had turned too hard on the profession he loved.

Yes, the former Austin Police Department spokesperson said, he understood why thousands poured into Austin's streets after George Floyd was murdered by a police officer in Minneapolis.

"I don't know an officer who agrees with what happened to George Floyd," Hipolito said.

But when he felt he had to defend his core mission day in and day out, followed by what he considered city leaders' efforts to hamstring the department through cutting cadet classes and shifting responsibilities to other agencies, Hipolito cleared out his desk.

"It was the negativity toward law enforcement," he said. "I got tired of being kicked down and not feeling supported."

During last year's protests, one of Hipolito's fellow officers found himself in the thick of the fight outside Austin police headquarters, trying desperately to have a calm conversation with chanting protesters and colleagues in riot gear.

As a Black officer, Jeremy Bohannon felt his profession plopped him in the middle of a societal debate. Rather than walking away, he has chosen to stay, using his position to foster a much-needed dialogue between people of color and law enforcement.

"I want to help people understand that policing isn't the enemy," Bohannon said, "and help police officers understand that the community isn't the enemy. There are a lot of people in this community that want policing, that love police officers."

Why some officers leave and others stay

The experiences of Hipolito and Bohannon highlight the career crossroads many officers have faced in the past year as a movement of reform swept the nation and took hold in Austin: whether to remain in a profession that often felt under assault or pivot to something new.

Hipolito is among an unprecedented number of officers — more than 130 — who have left in the past 16 months.

The departures have rippled through the Police Department and left it struggling to put enough boots on the ground for patrol shifts citywide — a reality that city officials acknowledge caught them unprepared.

Although experts do not agree on the relationship between staffing levels and crime, the department for months has lagged behind its response time goals for the most serious emergencies. In reaction, police leaders have gutted specialized units to make sure they meet minimum staffing levels on street patrols. The problem has been made worse as officers have had to take sick time because of COVID-19.

In many instances, officers such as Hipolito were near or at retirement eligibility and left with full pensions. Others were so hurt by a societal shift that they think turned their job from hero to villain almost overnight that they abandoned the profession.

Former officer Katrina Ratcliff posted why she was leaving the force on social media last fall. Her fellow officers responded that she was exactly the kind of up-and-comer the department couldn't afford to lose.

"To those who judge our actions ... do more than scream vulgar and repulsive comments in the faces of officers who would sacrifice themselves for you," Ratcliff wrote. "Have a real conversation and we will condemn illegal and unethical acts with you. We want to make change, too, but we should not all be defined by the poor choices made by bad officers."

But as many have watched friends and colleagues surrender their badges, that the majority have chosen to stay is often overlooked. Some, including Bohannon, say they viewed the past year as a deeper call to help shape public perceptions of policing and to prod colleagues to redefine old notions of the job.

When the city opened applications for its current cadet class, it saw no significant dip in the number of aspiring officers: Roughly 2,000 applied, the department said, resulting in the most diverse academy class ever.

Some community leaders acknowledge that as part of the transformation of policing in Austin, the city has lost experienced officers and they fear a drain in expertise.

But the Rev. Joseph Parker, senior pastor at David Chapel Missionary Baptist Church and a veteran of three decades of activism in Austin, said departures also probably included officers who wanted to operate by an outdated playbook that has proved detrimental to communities of color.

"If that is the reason, some of you need to leave — because you can't make the leap where we need you to be," Parker said. "So, you need to go."

Hipolito, who also worked in the internal affairs and organized crime units, said he still feels called to serve. But he hopes to take his major metro experience to a smaller department in suburban Central Texas, where back-the-blue sentiments are more prevalent.

"APD will always be home," he said. "I look back at the great memories, the different units I got to work in and the people I got to meet, and it is something I will never forget. But I didn't want to leave completely disgruntled and mad at the world."

Response times to urgent police calls for stabbings, shootings have worsened

The Austin Police Department is among many law enforcement agencies nationally that have contended with an officer drain in the past year.

A national survey in May by the Police Executive Research Forum found a 45% increase in retirements and nearly a 20% increase in resignations compared with 2020.

In Minneapolis, where officer Derek Chauvin was convicted of murdering Floyd, the chief warned city leaders that the department was becoming "one-dimensional" with officers only responding to 911 calls and doing little proactive policing.

In Seattle, a record 180 officers left in 2020, and 66 have left in 2021, the survey found. Seattle's chief said the staffing is the lowest in years.

Austin began seeing a spate of departures last fall, and by mid-January it had 79 vacancies, a number that increased to 130 by early May. Of the 130 officers who left, 64% were on patrol, considered the backbone of the agency. In the past year, the department lost officers at a rate of 12.5 to 20 per month, compared with 7.5 per month in 2019. Six years ago, the rate was 4 per month.

Officials note, however, that in the late 1990s the department had several larger cadet classes, with 100 or more graduates, because of an influx of federal funding and that many of those graduates are now eligible for retirement.

Interim Chief Joe Chacon said higher rates of retirements leave the Police Department with a loss of experience that comes from years on the job. Experienced officers benefit the community, including by training younger officers in how to follow leads to solve crimes. He said the city also suffers when officers who have been on the job for only a few years decide to leave.

"We spend a lot of time, money and resources in training and outfitting, mentoring young officers to make sure they are fully ready to become officers in our Austin community," Chacon said. "To see them leave after a few short years on the job is not what we want."

The departures have come at an unfortunate time for police officials. While the attrition rate has been lower historically, the department also has typically offset departures with an influx of new cadets. But when city officials suspended three cadet classes in a row to reconfigure the academy's curriculum to root out alleged racism and later as part of budget changes in August 2020, they felt the attrition more acutely.

The result, officials say, is that the department is struggling to reach its goals of answering the most urgent emergency calls, such as shootings or stabbings "in progress," within 7 minutes, 30 seconds — a three-year average for that timing of response.

Based on department data, the agency needs 694 to 672 officers on patrol to meet that goal. Without those numbers, its response to the most serious emergencies rose to 9 minutes, 32 seconds by May. Because of departures, sick leave and military deployments, the department dropped to just over 600 patrol officers this spring.

The gaps prompted Chacon to make what he said were difficult choices. In a two-phase plan that started in June, he shifted 33 officers in specialty units, including those in the auto theft unit and recruiting, back to street patrol. Another round of officers — an additional 49 from divisions that include the motorcycle unit, which performs traffic enforcement — was reassigned to patrol in August.

Officials say the measures are likely to remain in place until the spring, when the current cadet class graduates.

Officers question whether to stay or go

The decision on whether to stay or go — both in Austin and nationally — has been especially acute for Black officers who work in a profession some friends and family members might view skeptically.

"At each level of my career, there has always been an issue of, 'Am I a member of the blue, or am I a Black police officer?'" said Charles P. Wilson, chairman of the National Association of Black Law Enforcement Officers and a former police chief in suburban Cleveland. "It's a fine line, and we tiptoe as we go through it. We try to balance very carefully the job we do in the community with our place in the community."

Bohannon, who grew up in Pasco, Wash., played football in high school and college at Washington State University and enjoyed wearing a uniform and serving as a role model.

"I always had a desire to help people," he said. "Even as a kid, I always wanted to give a helping hand when you can. There was just a natural fit."

After moving to Texas for his wife's career, he worked at the University of Texas Police Department for four years before joining Austin's department nine years ago because it had more opportunities for career advancement.

"People would say, 'Oh, you're going to be a cop now?'" Bohannon said. "I would have some people who were supportive and some people who said, 'Now, you're going to be a snitch?'"

Before Floyd's murder, Bohannon, 38, said he believed his years of work in the profession helped friends and others realize that officers with his policing style — a softer approach with an emphasis on community relationship building — were common on the force. Like many officers, Bohannon was deeply struck by Floyd's murder and the aftermath. During protests outside Austin police headquarters, he saw his interactions with protesters as a continuation of the work he had already been doing.

"I know that most people just want to be heard, and I knew if I could do anything, just talking and engaging," he said. "Some of their feelings — I have some of the same feelings, and I want to offer that perspective from being a law enforcement officer. I was just letting people know that there are people who wear this uniform that understand them."

'Who is going to look out for you?'

As Austin works to reform policing, its future partly rests on the cadets it hired this spring for an academy class that started in June.

After a national recruiting effort that emphasized minority hiring, 88 of the original 100 cadets remain. The class is 39% Hispanic, while Hispanic residents are 32% of the city's population; 16% Black, while Black people are 7% of residents; 2% Asian and Pacific Islander, while those groups make up 9% of residents; and 41% white, while non-Hispanic whites are 47% of Austin residents.

To learn about community relations, cadets from the department's 144th class gathered under a pavilion at Edward Rendon Sr. Park at Festival Beach in East Austin for a meet-and-greet on a sunny June afternoon. The group is part of what officials say is a "reimagined" class that incorporates public engagement. Training has shifted from a military-style boot camp to an adult education program that more closely resembles college classes.

Standing in groups with residents, many discussed why they joined the force and goals for improving relations between community members and police.

Dana White, an Austin native and mother of two young children who had been working as a pharmacy technician, got especially personal, sharing details of a family tragedy that shaped her desire to enter law enforcement.

In 2014, her brother-in-law died after being shot by a Houston-area deputy constable when, according to authorities, he pointed a gun at officers, published reports said. She said her family was forced to contend with not only his death, but a lack of transparency from investigators, which she said compounded their grief.

"I don't want other people to deal with that," White, who is Anglo, said through tears. "Where can you fix a problem? Being that person who fixes things from the inside."

Shanta Stacker, who grew up in North Carolina and was stationed in Brownsville and San Antonio as a full-time Army reservist, applied to the department in spring 2020 while studying business at Texas State University. Stacker said when she got the call a year later that the cadet class would start, she felt so strongly about enrolling that she left college.

"I don't see enough of us," she said of women and minorities. "Maybe a little girl will come up to me on the street and say, 'I can do this!' We are going to run into a very diverse culture when we get out on the street, so that diversity is very important."

Ultimately, Stacker said she left the academy after a COVID-19 diagnosis that caused her to miss classes.

Craig Campbell, a Black 29-year-old former Army soldier stationed at Fort Hood, said he had always been interested in law enforcement growing up in Jamaica and living in New York. He shared a goal of trying to aid in relations between minorities and police.

"I see where everyone is saying there is not enough diversity, and a lot of colored folks are against the cops," he said. "I'm like, 'Who is going to look out for you if you are not part of the team?' If you don't, there is no change."

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