Will APD change its militaristic academy?

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On Dec. 29 the city of Austin released two reports prepared by two different consultants that examined the police department’s approach to race and diversity. These reports were prompted by Council actions that preceded the turmoil over police violence this year.

The first report was prepared by Raymond Weyandt, a grad student at the LBJ School of Public Policy and founder of the Peace Mill, a policy consulting group whose website could definitely benefit from a little more information about the group and the people behind it. He was tasked with assessing seven of APD’s 48 divisions on diversity and equity. The second was a report by Joyce James Consulting to “help identify racial inequities within APD and develop immediate and prolonged strategies to eliminate them.”

There’s too much go through in one day, so today I’m just going to focus on what I view as the most topical part of Weyandt’s report: his assessment of APD’s training and recruitment division, which is responsible for the 8-month cadet academy that every officer goes through before joining the force.

City Council members have been calling for reforms to the academy long before the George Floyd protests, citing claims by some former cadets that the training championed a militaristic, antagonistic approach to policing. After last year’s protests, Council, as part of its “reimagining public safety” thing, cancelled three cadet classes –– one that was scheduled for last November, one this spring and one next summer. The idea was that training shouldn’t resume until it is reformed, but in response to a wave of retirements and resignations, the mayor and Council are under increasing pressure to re-open the academy.

Some of the most notable findings by Weyandt:

Of the 70 employees of APD’s training division, only one is black

From 2015-20, only 48% of black men cadets graduated. They were much more likely to quit or leave due to injury, while 83% of Hispanic men and 82% of white men graduated. I would be wary of the stats on women due to their much smaller sample sizes, but about two-thirds of white women graduated, as did just over half of black women and Hispanic women. An oft-cited fact by those who opposed delaying the cadet classes was that the most recently-cancelled class was the most racially diverse in the city’s history.

“Multiple former cadets” in “separate” interviews said training staff denigrated the homeless and recommended the homeless as easy targets for citations on a “slow day”

”Multiple cadets stated that they and their colleagues had been screamed at or punished for checking on one another or drinking water during intense physical drills, which last for hours in sweltering summer heat”

“Data provided by APD confirms that a troubling number of cadets were treated for heat exhaustion and dehydration during the academy”

“The academy’s training staff employ dangerous training tactics that have been described by cadets with military backgrounds as ‘worse than anything I went through in [US military training].’”

Concerns that the academy promotes a Lethal Weapon mentality to policing go back many years. The Matrix Report, published in 2016, said the department’s marketing focused on “adventure, danger and the stress of a military-style academy” and that “APD staff should reconsider the image they are invoking to the public regarding police officers in Austin.”

That’s certainly the impression you get from this video of the academy done by APD. I’m not sure when it was filmed (it was uploaded by someone not affiliated with APD in 2018), but it seems to have been done in the last few years and features a lot of footage of training leaders cursing out cadets for shortcomings.

In the video, officers justify the abuse, saying that part of being a good cop is being able to cope with stress. This is definitely true, but I think a more appropriate test of dealing with stress is how you respond to abuse from non-officers. I don’t care if you can stand there while your boss heaps insults on you. Does that teach you how to resolve a tense situation as peacefully as possible? Does that teach you how to gain the trust of the people you’re serving?

Interestingly, one of the cadets undergoing training in this video is Jeremy Bohannon, who is now an APD recruiter. For what it’s worth, Bohannon’s Twitter is focused on community-minded policing. One recent tweet stressed a person’s right not to consent to a search and another lauded patrol supervisors “who question and cancel ambiguous 911 calls which lead to unneccesary profiling by proxy.”

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Traffic on I-35 is the same as it was 20 years ago. But we’re expanding anyway.

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I-35 expansion divides public opinion during economic downturn - Austin  MonitorAustin Monitor
A rendering of the planned expansion of I-35 downtown. The overhaul adds two HOV lanes in each direction.

Wanna hear something incredible? Traffic on I-35 isn’t any worse now than it was 20 years ago.

That can’t be right, you say. Austin’s most prominent traffic pundit certainly didn’t believe it:

But check out this article in the Austin Chronicle from 2002:

Each day, more than 200,000 cars and trucks cross Town Lake on I-35, making that road the busiest six-lane highway in Texas. By 2020, TxDOT consultants predict, 330,000 cars and trucks will cross Town Lake each day — the transportation equivalent of trying to shove the Colorado River through a garden hose.

This article, by the way, described the plan, which had been in the works since the late 80’s, to expand I-35. Back in 2002, the plan was for the expansion to be complete in 2020.

Twelve years later, in 2014, traffic levels were exactly the same. In a report, TxDOT conceded that traffic hadn’t grown on I-35 but attributed it to a national decline in vehicle activity from the recession as well as the opening of SH 130 and SH 45. However, the report warned that traffic had begun to pick up again and would eventually balloon to more than 300,000 by 2035.

Alas, five years later, in 2019, daily traffic was still hovering at around … 200,000. Here’s the daily traffic count at Lady Bird Lake & I-35, year by year:

Just as it did before, TxDOT has simply moved the projection up by a few years. Now instead of talking about 300k vehicles by 2035, they’re talking about 300k by 2045. This is from the Statesman article last month:

Pre-pandemic, more than 200,000 vehicles traversed the highway each day. TxDOT estimates that number will grow to more than 300,000 by 2045.

I have not been able to get in touch with someone from TxDOT to talk about this today but I feel compelled to share this ASAP because the public comment period on the proposed I-35 expansion ends on Dec. 31.

There may be some nuances I am not accounting for. It’s not clear to me, for instance, whether the projected traffic takes into account the proposed expansion or not. If it does, then it aptly illustrates why expanding will simply induce demand and not relieve congestion. However, what is clear is that the projections 20 years ago assumed that the road would roughly stay the same but that traffic would explode. That did not happen. Nor has traffic increased in the past decade –– it’s actually declined.

This is not an uncommon issue in highway planning. The U.S. Department of Transportation systematically exaggerates future highway use when justifying expansions.

It appears that U.S. DOT, which gets its data largely from local agencies, like TxDOT, always assumes that traffic will be higher than it actually is.

For instance, in 2012 Eric Sundquist, a transportation policy wonk at the University of Wisconsin, took a look at the U.S. DOT’s annual traffic projections and found that they always overestimated future traffic:

When the U.S. DOT’s most recent Conditions and Performance Report to Congress hit the streets in 2012, it forecast that national vehicle-miles traveled would reach 3.3 trillion that year. A few months later we learned that their estimate was almost 11 percent too high.

Enough time has passed by now that 61 yearly projections can be compared to the reported VMT. And in 61 cases out of 61, the C&P estimates were too high. For example, the 1999 C&P overshot 2012 reported VMT by more that 22 percent—almost 11 extra states’ worth of driving.

In fact, though the national VMT trend line began flattening in the 1990s and actually turned down in the 2000s, the slope of the C&P projections has remained nearly constant.

State and local agencies, like TxDOT, have an incentive to overestimate future traffic. The more traffic they can project, the more likely they are to convince the feds that they need more money.

As is the case with so many other highway expansions, the proposed expansion of I-35 is paved with bad data.

You’ve got two days left to tell TxDOT what you think about expanding I-35. You can tell them by submitting a comment here.

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City Council races: Win for GOP, loss for housing

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Two runoff elections in West and Northwest Austin were decided by razor-thin margins last night and ended with the defeat of City Council Member Jimmy Flannigan by Mackenzie Kelly and the reelection of Alison Alter over Jennifer Virden.

Results from KVUE.

Since both Alter and Flannigan fell well short of a majority in the general election, my initial inclination was to believe they were both in trouble heading into the runoff, since the small number of voters who show up in runoffs tend to be older and more conservative. And yet, some Dems were still confident that they’d win both runoffs, perhaps easily. They believed that although these were two of the city’s most conservative districts, both have become clearly Dem-leaning in state/national politics and they believed their advantage might be even greater among the small group of weirdos who turn out for runoffs. By highlighting Kelly and Virden’s ties to Trump and right-wing extremists, they hoped partisan polarization would deliver for both incumbents.

Mackenzie Kelly.

In the end, turnout in the runoffs were much higher than ever before. In Alter’s bougie West Austin District 10, turnout rose from 14,820 in the runoff four years ago to 24,109 last night –– an increase of 63%. As I indicated in yesterday’s analysis of early vote figures, there was a particularly big increase in the number of voters with no history of voting in primaries, which made it hard to project their party/ideology. In the early vote (which was 75% of the total vote) in D10, these no-primary history voters accounted for 15.8% of the electorate, up from 6.5% in 2016. (To be clear, few of these people were first time voters –– they simply didn’t have a history of voting in party primaries, suggesting a lower level of political engagement)

As many suspected, it appears that most of these voters with no primary history were activated by the conservative candidates or causes.

As for D6, the conservatives showed strength in last month’s general election, when Flannigan finished with only 40% of the vote, while Kelly took 33% and Jennifer Mushtaler, who ran as a moderate but embraced Kelly’s positions on the biggest issues (police/homelessness/LDC/Project Connect) got 19% and then endorsed Kelly last week.

In other words, liberals can’t just blame the loss in D6 on a low turnout runoff where nobody under 65 voted. Runoffs are still a terrible way to select public officials, but in this case it looks like the conservative message legitimately carried the day in Northwest Austin.

There are many different variables that affect the outcome of a race. In races these close, it’s almost impossible to know what could have changed it.

When Alter trounced Gallo in the runoff four years ago, the conventional wisdom was that Gallo lost because of highly motivated voters upset over Gallo’s support for two controversial developments (the Grove and Austin Oaks) and because liberals were reeling from the shocking victory of Donald Trump the month before and wanted to take it out on anyone vaguely associated with the GOP.

The most obvious analysis of last night is that a large group of voters –– including a fair number of Biden voters –– were unhappy with the handling of the homeless and policing issues. My sense is that those had a bigger impact than Project Connect taxes or the land development code, but I could be wrong. And did the outcome of the presidential election affect the runoffs? Was it Republicans this time who were out for a consolation prize? Perhaps.

Flannigan: Proud of “hard work.”
Addressing a gathering of supporters on Zoom, Flannigan said he was proud of the work he had done during his four-year term and said he believed the city would be better off because of the moves Council made on police reforms, Project Connect, homelessness and racial equity.

“This is a tough night for all of us, but it doesn’t mean that any of this work ends,” he said. “And of course none of us are going away. We didn’t go away when we lost in 2014, and we’re not going away now.”

“Just because the path to equality isn’t straight doesn’t mean we’re not on the right path,” he later said.

He said he was proud to be the first openly gay man on Council and the first Williamson County resident. He urged his supporters to continue pushing on the issues –– saying that the “hard work” will continue.

He didn’t specifically congratulate Kelly but said, “To the new Council member, I hope she does her best to represent this district with honor.

Neither victor show much love for opponent
Kelly released a statement to the press:

“From standing courageously behind our law enforcement community to demanding safer conditions for our homeless population to fighting for transparency at City Hall, the voice of Northwest Austin has been heard. Considering the stark differences between my campaign’s priorities and the platform of the incumbent, their united voice is resoundingly clear this evening. I am honored to be the next District 6 representative and will work immediately to begin healing the divisions in our community.”

The “healing” comment was Bidenesque, although the rest wasn’t particularly conciliatory. In another message she sent to media, Kelly said:

“Congratulations to Council member Jimmy Flannigan on a hard-fought campaign. I, along with my staff, will look forward to working with Austinites from all backgrounds and political persuasions to build a better future for the greatest city in Texas.”

In District 10 Alter posted a FB message with only a veiled (and unflattering) reference to her opponent:

“Thank you to the voters of District 10 who voted in favor of my integrity, policy experience, and proven leadership, and against the politics of fear. “I look forward to serving another four years representing District 10. Austin’s best days are in front of us!”

I haven’t seen anything from Virden yet.

RIP LDC? A setback for housing
Kelly’s victory over Flannigan is a setback for housing and smart growth. Project Connect is a done deal, thanks in part to Flannigan’s advocacy, but the path to a new-and-improved land development code has grown much narrower with his departure. Even piecemeal efforts to address the city’s housing crisis may be doomed.

Land use was definitely not the focus of Kelly’s campaign, but she has said that she opposes the new LDC. Her statements on housing in general have been vague: she has expressed support for reducing regs on development but says she wants to protect the character of single-family neighborhoods.

But it’s hard to know from Kelly’s statements how she’ll vote on the many zoning cases she’ll see every Council meeting. It’s definitely too early to assume she’ll be a reliable vote with the preservationist bloc. Maybe she’d even be willing to support some relatively big reforms if they weren’t accompanied by the political baggage associate with the LDC rewrite.

At the very least, however, there is NO LONGER A MAJORITY in support of the proposed land development code on Council. With Flannigan and Delia Garza on Council, there was a 7-4 majority in favor of the new LDC and in favor of the city appealing the ruling by a county judge that Council needed to approve the new code by a 9-2 vote. With Kelly replacing Flannigan and Vanessa Fuentes, who said she does not support the LDC in its current form, we now have a 6-5 majority against the LDC.

What about Vanessa Fuentes?
Or do we? A lot of that depends on Vanessa Fuentes, the new CM for Southeast Austin’s District 2. Fuentes is an across-the-board progressive who says she supports increasing housing stock in all parts of the city. Her campaign generally did not talk much about development but when I asked her about housing in October this is what she said:

We need more missing-middle and multi-family housing in all areas of this city. I do not support the current LDC. I wish the equity overlay would have come in at the beginning of the process and not the 11th hour.

The equity overlay was the policy championed by Garza and Greg Casar aimed at “protecting” certain low-income areas from gentrification/displacement. The idea was to upzone them less than the rest of the city. (I actually think that’s a recipe for more displacement, not less)

Fuentes certainly enjoyed support from both groups. She took part in the ATXcelerator, a program run by former RECA president Ward Tisdale that tries to get growth-friendly people across the political spectrum involved in city politics. Tisdale, who lives a block away from me, had a Fuentes sign in his yard. But her contribution list also showed support from a number of prominent anti-development types.

The first question is whether Fuentes would side with the five other anti-LDC folks in trying to get the city to stop appealing the court ruling, which a fair number of insiders believe has a decent chance of getting overturned. And if the ruling were overturned, and Council only needs six votes to approve a new LDC, what changes could be made to the draft to get Fuentes to support it?

And if a new LDC isn’t in the cards, can Fuentes be counted on to usually vote for more housing on zoning cases? Are there other reforms aimed at boosting housing supply and reducing sprawl that she will support?

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