AUSTIN, Texas — Dozens of new Austin police officers were sworn in during a graduation ceremony at the Bannockburn Church in South Austin on Friday.
The commission of the 63 men and women, from two cadet classes, helps the Austin Police Department (APD) move closer to representing the community it serves, especially the Asian American community.
The KVUE Defenders looked into the progress the department is making even as hiring officers is as challenging as ever.
Officer Ehlar Htoo is one of the newest members of the APD.
"It is a big day for me," Htoo said.
We first met the 24-year-old about a year ago when he told us why he wanted to go into policing.
"We were going to go somewhere ... we were lost ... and we just happened to run into a first responder and he just helped us out," Htoo said. "He also, you know, goes out of his way to direct us to where we want to go ... The way people make you feel, it will never change, and you always remember that gratitude and want to pay for it. So that's why I want to do it."
It was also about a year ago that the KVUE Defenders discovered that Asian American Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) made up just under 3% of sworn officers in the department. Compare that to the AAPI population in Austin during the same time, which was nearly 9%, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
In June 2022, Austin's Housing and Planning Department released updated figures that show the Asian population in the capital city is at nearly 10%.
Lt. Jay Swann oversees the recruiting unit.
"We are definitely making improvements," Lt. Swann said.
Newly released APD data reveals that AAPI numbers are improving. For APD's three most recent cadet classes, AAPIs represent between 4.1% to 4.9%, numbers that aren't official yet because cadets were officially commissioned this week.
"My anticipation is, it's going to be a long, slow, grinding process to continue to bring our numbers up," Lt. Swann said.
Recruiting remains a challenge after it came to a halt in 2020 after the city council canceled three cadet classes and cut APD's budget by $150 million aimed at reimagining policing.
But the recruiting unit's efforts have only increased, like sending officers to the National Asian Peace Officers Association symposium for the first time. Senior Patrol Officer Dean Tran attended and saw firsthand why representation matters.
"It was a huge eye opener ... 'Wow, maybe I can advance forward and promote,'" Tran said.
Diversifying the department also includes trying to hire more women. The KVUE Defenders first reported about that initiative, called 30x30, earlier this year. In March, Chief Joseph Chacon pledged to get the department to 30% females by 2030.
"We're looking at lots of different things to make it easier for families and women to get in if they have small kids," Chief Chacon said.
For Htoo, the past eight months of academy training have been hard. He said there were times he didn't think he would see this day.
Out of the 84 applicants who started in his cadet class, he is one of 55 who succeeded. Now, his focus is serving the Austin community.
"I just want to help bridge the gaps between the Asian community and the police," Officer Htoo said.
The chief also said the 63 graduating officers won't eliminate department vacancies, as there are now more than 280 openings. But he added that when the newly commissioned officers finish their field training in about three months, detectives and officers in some specialized units, like SWAT and homicide, will stop working patrol.