In addition to scrutinizing the demographics of new APD recruits, members of the Public Safety Commission last week delved into reforms of the Austin Police Academy, which is supposed to be a big part of the ongoing “reimagining of public safety.”
The push at City Hall to reform the academy precedes the post-Floyd upheaval and the subsequent “reimagining public safety” thing. It started in 2019, when, in response to allegations that former Assistant Chief Justin Newsom used racist slurs to refer to Black people, City Council voted to halt new cadet classes until the completion of an independent audit. This spring, Council voted to authorize the first new cadet class in over a year after APD unveiled a reformed curriculum.
Anne Kringen, the criminal justice academic hired earlier this year to oversee the reform of the academy’s curriculum, outlined a number of changes. Cadets spend the two weeks prior to the academy in a program aimed at educating them on the community, introducing them to local organizations, leaders etc. The 32-week academy itself includes an additional 30 hours of “community engagement” experience.
When asked how much time is devoted to training on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) or deesalation, Kringen said it would be hard to say because those themes are now embedded in “all the courses.”
However, there is at least one distinct training focused on race: the “Groundwater Analysis” workshop by Joyce James, a local racial equity consultant whose work is informed by the many years she spent examining disparities for the Texas Health & Human Services Commission and the state Department of Family & Child Protective Services.
On her website, James says she and her colleagues, all of whom are social service veterans, “developed a model which has been effective in reducing racial inequities and improving outcomes for all populations. Our assistance program ensures both long and short term support systems for meeting the needs of your staff and clients.”
Prominently featured on the website is a video of APD Chief Joe Chacon’s endorsement of the training, which he calls a key part of the department’s fostering of “an environment that creates a psychologically safe space for the growth of diversity, equity and inclusion of all populations.”
In a message to cadets and existing officers, all of whom are required to take the training, Chacon urges them to approach the course with an “open mind,” acknowledging that it will “not be an easy course for everyone…there will be some challenging discussions.” Nevertheless, he says, “this is not a course that points the finger at any particular individual, but rather examines the impact of “systems” on certain populations.
Finally, adds Chacon, “Our participation in this course confirms our zero tolerance for racism. Because after completing this course, we will all rest on the same understanding of how institutions impact our society, and how that understanding will translate positively on how each of us engage with members of our community.”
Well, that’s naive. In a country where we can’t even agree on who won the last election, can we really expect every police officer to share an understanding of the extent to which racism has shaped and/or continues to shape our society?
The range of acceptable opinions
During the meeting Commissioner Amanda Lewis (Casar’s appointee) raised concerns about what she viewed as a lack of “buy-in” from cadets on the training. She attended one of the groundwater training sessions, which she described as a “very challenging space,” where many cadets were defensive in response to discussion of institutional racism.
“I talked to another community member who is part of Communities of Color United who said that participants were angry at her, told her that she was a part of the problem, all kinds of issues as a community participant,” she said.
Without knowing anything about the conversation that occurred between this person and cadets, I can say it’s not surprising that they might disagree about a thing or two. CCU last year called for a 50% cut to APD’s budget. The landing page of its website features dozens of activists donning t-shirts that say, “No New Cops.” Its mission statement says, “we continue to reimagine a world without policing.”
It’s probably very valuable for police cadets to hear from people with a variety of views on policing, including radical abolitionists. It’s reasonable to expect cops to learn about the distrust and hostility towards police that exists in certain segments of the community. But it’s not reasonable to expect them to agree with everything they hear.
But I think Lewis later asked an important, but probably unanswerable, question:
“What are we doing when people flat out don’t want to talk about it, (or they) think it’s critical race theory, even though they don’t know what that is … is it something that is core to what we think we should be involved in in public safety positions?”
In other words, what range of expressed beliefs are we willing to accept among police officers? And what limits are reasonable to impose without running afoul of the first amendment?
I don’t think there’s an easy response to that question. We can all agree that the open racism that Justin Newsom is accused of engaging in, which includes calling colleagues the n-word, is disqualifying. But can we really expect every police officer to embrace views on systemic racism that a large percentage of this country rejects?
A Gallup poll last year found that 91% of Democrats believe that racism against Black people is widespread. In contrast, only 34% of Republicans agreed. The way that race and racism is discussed has been an extremely polarizing subject in U.S. politics; backlash against perceived political correctness has become the GOP’s main offering.
The city can try to persuade officers to rethink their worldview or politics, but it’s obviously not always going to succeed.
Praying for success
One thing that definitely sets James apart from most diversity consultants, and may make her more capable of bonding with conservatives, is her religion. In a 2014 address to a Lutheran congregation that she posted on her website, she describes her work as “guided and driven by spiritual knowledge and wisdom and understanding that comes from knowing and believing in God.”
She acknowledges during the address that some of what she says might make the congregants uncomfortable or conflict with their firmly held beliefs. “Nonetheless,” she adds, “I have made the commitment to speak to these issues because when I said yes to Jesus’s call for me to do this work, I made the decision to not let anything get in the way of this calling.”
As an atheist, I think harnessing the Bible on behalf of social justice is probably a much better strategy than drawing on the academic garbage that progressives are tripping over themselves to quote these days. Far more people have been to Church than to a college sociology course.
This is an excerpt from the Dec. 15 edition of the Austin Politics Newsletter. To get daily breaking news and analysis on city politics, click here to subscribe.