Austin Police Department seeing more officers leave

The average number of officers and cadets leaving the agency each month has increased by nearly 34% through mid-June compared to 2019

By Mark D. Wilson
Austin American-Statesman

AUSTIN — The average number of officers and cadets leaving the Austin Police Department each month has more than doubled since the end of 2017 and increased by nearly 34% through mid-June compared to 2019.

The increased rate of departures has sparked concerns within the department about its ability to perform its duties as city leaders tee up major cuts to the police budget.

Austin police cadets stand at attention during their graduation ceremony on Jan. 31.
Austin police cadets stand at attention during their graduation ceremony on Jan. 31. (Photo/American-Statesman File)

But as police officials worry that decreases in staffing and budgetary rollbacks will hamper their ability to conduct proactive, community policing, social justice advocates say those efforts haven't been working anyway.

At the end of May 2019, Austin police had seen 45 officers leave, including cadets and sworn officers, whether through resignation, retirement or termination. One officer also died.

Through the end of May this year, the department had lost 66 officers, 21 more than the previous year.

The department typically would rely on new cadet classes to fill gaps left by those vacant positions. But after city leaders vowed to cut portions of the department's budget — much of which initially comes from eliminating open positions and postponing or canceling cadet classes — it's unclear how, when or if those positions will be filled.

Academy in question

Austin police currently have one class of cadets going through the academy, with those cadets scheduled to graduate in the fall. Another class that was scheduled for this summer has been indefinitely postponed. Austin police Cmdr. Mark Spangler, who oversees the police academy, said the department continues to recruit for a class of cadets in the fall, but whether that class will convene is uncertain.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler said this past week during his State of the City address that he doesn't see how that class, scheduled for November, can go forward as planned while the city is struggling with questions over the kind of police force it wants.

"I believe the academy curriculum lacks sufficient confidence in the community that it will move police personnel to the kind of culture and approach most desire," Adler said.

As of September, the department is expected to have about 192 vacant positions. But after the city's latest budget proposal is approved, that number would drop to 82 as the city eliminates unfilled positions.

Additional cadet classes are scheduled for March and June. Each class costs about $2.3 million to put on and typically graduates about 65 cadets.

Proposals from Austin City Council members have included ideas to shift the academy from under the direct leadership of Austin police, creating an even more tenuous set of possibilities for how and when training could resume.

In a presentation to the City Council's Public Safety Committee this past week, Ed Van Eenoo, the city's deputy chief financial officer, said the department is projected to have 80 vacancies by the beginning of the next fiscal year. If the city cancels the November class, 47 additional sworn positions would be added to that total.

Eliminating that class would save the city $6.1 million. Also eliminating classes for March and June would save a total of about $10 million.

As those questions are being discussed among city leaders, the number of officers stepping away from the department has grown.

In all of 2019, Austin police had 106 officers leave the department, an average of two each week, or about eight officers each month. Spangler said that since the end of 2017, that number has risen to an average of about seven and a half per month.

Through May of this year, the department was losing an average of 13 officers each month, or roughly three per week.

January saw 19 officers and cadets leave the department, followed by 20 in February, seven in March, 11 in April and nine in May.

Austin Police Chief Brian Manley told City Council members recently that a proposal to cut cadet classes through 2021 would take the department down to 2012 staffing levels. Since that time, he said, Austin has added about 150,000 residents.

Spangler said fewer officers means police have less time to connect with residents through community policing efforts, and instead have to hop from call to call as quickly as they can just to meet demand.

He said that trend also is evident in longer response times.

"Obviously doing it with less numbers and less resources is going to make our job harder, which directly translates into the citizens not only being safe, but feeling safe," Spangler said. "That's part of the issue of community policing — that all segments of the city, whether it's geographical or community-based, are safe and indeed that translates into them feeling safe."

Culture and accountability

Spangler said there are a number of reasons why more officers are leaving the department, including family commitments, age and others. However, he said the current debate over police funding and how law enforcement should change also is a point of concern for officers.

"Absolutely, the current political climate affects officers staying in the department," he said.

Austin police came under criticism in late 2019 when allegations surfaced that former Assistant Chief Justin Newsom used racist language to describe colleagues and elected officials for years with no consequence. Those allegations led to investigations into the Police Department's culture that remain ongoing.

Early this year, as protests against police brutality erupted in the aftermath of the deaths of Austinite Mike Ramos and George Floyd in Minnesota, local leaders vowed to make sweeping changes to policing that would address disparities and violence. Ramos was fatally shot by Austin police officer Christopher Taylor in April. Floyd died after Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck while he was on the ground.

However, Spangler said the number of officers leaving the force has been trending upward over the past few years, not solely in the wake of allegations of a culture of racism in the department or in the fallout of protests that sparked a shift toward reimagining public safety.

In 2017, when a bitter battle over a labor contract between the Austin police union and the city stretched on for nearly a year, many officers soured, feeling unsupported, and opted to leave, Spangler said.

Proposed cuts

Initial proposals from city staff for the 2020-21 budget included about $11.3 million in funding cuts to Austin police, including about 100 officer positions. However, City Council members have brought forward several proposals that would cut tens of millions from the department, working toward a goal espoused by some community members to cut the department's budget by $100 million.

The proposals include removing internal affairs and the forensics lab from the department, cutting cadet classes, moving police out of their downtown headquarters and a broad restructuring to put police under civilian leadership.

The cuts or monetary diversions could then be shifted to other agencies, like Austin-Travis County EMS or civilian social services providers better equipped to handle calls related to issues like mental health and addiction.

Manley said he was concerned at the prospect of cutting $100 million from the department "just to say we cut $100 million."

"We need to have officers on the street ready to take calls," Manley said.

But whatever final shape the coming changes will take, they are coming. Council members have said larger changes that are not included in this year's budget, which must be approved in a week, will be rehashed by next year, likely as an amendment, giving the city time to build out infrastructure around new systems it could develop.

What is certain is that Austin police leaders will see fewer officers join the force than they had planned.

On patrol

As the department navigates the new normal, those already on the streets say they are struggling.

"I would say it's extremely tiring," said Bino Cadenas, a senior officer with the Police Department.

Cadenas said the added stresses of the COVID-19 pandemic combined with recent protests and calls for defunding the department have taken a toll on officers.

"I've never seen officers as tired as they were," Cadenas said. "The only other time in my seven-year career was the bombing incident in 2018, where our officers were working day in, day out, tirelessly."

Cadenas said some officers have resigned, saying the amount of negativity they and their families face because of their work is not worth it. He said some officers have retired early.

Cadenas said policing has a paramilitary culture that attracts certain kinds of people. There are methods to change that culture, he said, but it will take a few years.

Since growing up in East Austin, he said he's seen changes in how police interact with the community.

"You know, we never, in essence, saw them doing community outreach events. They were always, you know, coming to our neighbor's house, arresting our neighbor or stopping someone and giving a citation," he said. "We hardly ever saw them, you know, engaging with me or the youth in a positive manner. So just growing up, I had that perception that I wanted to change things and I wanted to be a part of the solution."

Cadenas said many issues like addiction, mental health and homelessness have been placed on police officers' shoulders, and he agrees that there are areas where police should not be responding, but he said he doesn't think defunding police is the answer.

Chas Moore, a founder of the Austin Justice Coalition, said that's the point of defunding the department: To move resources to agencies that could take those responsibilities away from police. A study conducted by the group found that from January 2019 through June, fewer than 1% of calls for service to the department were for violent crimes such robbery, assault, homicide and rape.

"(Police) are almost insistent that, although they do a city job, they are the only ones who can do it. If they're not the ones to do the job, the world is going to burn down, the world is going to end and it will be crazy. And that is just not true," Moore said.

Austin City Council members will hold budget adoption hearings Wednesday and Friday, during which amendments to the current budget that will nail down more specifics on the impact on the Austin police budget will be considered.

©2020 Austin American-Statesman, Texas

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