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'I can't graduate these cadets soon enough': Austin police cadet class restarts amid 'staffing crisis,' interim chief says

After being put on pause, the 144th Austin Police Department cadet class began on Monday.

AUSTIN, Texas — On Monday, 100 cadets started the new reimagined Austin police training academy. 

"This class represents a significant shift in the way that we conduct our cadet training, moving from a military or paramilitary-style environment in our academy into one that is resilience-based, that is grounded in active learning components and an adult learning environment. So there will be much more interaction between the cadets and the instructors. And we have also placed a greater emphasis on physical training," said Interim Chief Joe Chacon, adding there will also be reality-based training, as well. 

Austin police said the goal is for this academy to have a heavier focus on community engagement. 

"It's a lot more community-based. It's a lot more cultural," said Demond Kitt, one of the cadets going through the June class. 

Kitt said he never considered being in law enforcement until about a year and a half ago. 

"With the staffing issues that APD has been having, paired with the rise in criminal activity, I feel like Austin is in the infancy stages of possibly becoming a high crime rate city," said Kitt. "So I kind of felt like it was my moral obligation to serve my community and join this department."

Staffing shortage

KVUE's Molly Oak asked Interim Chief Joseph Chacon about APD's current staffing status. 

"We are in a staffing crisis. We've had many officers that are retiring. They're retiring at record rates, and we have many that are resigning. And that is causing us to make shifts in the way that we are delivering police services, including having to suspend operations in many critical non-patrol units in order to send those officers back to patrol," said Chacon. "So I can't graduate these cadets soon enough. But we want to put out that same level of properly trained professional officers that the community expects. And that just takes time."

Chacon said he's had to move officers out of critical units to address the patrol shortage. However, he also noted that he's grateful the cadet class started up again, saying he thinks "a better police officer" will graduate with the new curriculum. 

Greater Austin Crime Commission President Corby Jastrow said APD has 140 vacancies now in addition to the 150 officers cut last year. 

"We will graduate that class in January, but you can see the numbers that we are far behind what we need to be in regards to staff in that APD," said Jastrow.

The cadet class is set to graduate on January 28, 2022. However, since this is a pilot class that has to be evaluated, Chacon said a fall cadet class is unlikely.

"We're looking forward to having these officers hit the street," said Swann. "These extra bodies are going to definitely help out our patrol officers with the defunding and postponing the academy class for a year. I mean, that almost crippled us."

Academy changes

“We are transitioning from the military-styled academy into one that is based on adult learning concepts and active learning,” Chacon said. “Our experience and academic research indicate it leads to a better experience for the cadets, and they’re going to take that knowledge and apply it in the field in a positive way.”

"They wanted to kind of go away from the paramilitary style, and what that would be is if someone made a mistake, they have to do push-ups or they have to run or some sort of physical retribution, so to speak. This is more, 'Hey, this is the standard. These are are the things we need you to learn,'" said Joe Swann, APD detective and Austin Police Association treasurer.

"Our instructors and staff have worked tirelessly to ensure that we have created the most comprehensive, effective and thought-provoking curriculum for our cadets," said Commander Catherin Johnson. "And we're committed to preparing them to be the best of the Austin Police Department officers to serve our community. Our instructors have been really focusing on adult learning concepts and how to implement new learning strategies into the curriculum."

Past actions

In May, Austin City Council passed an item that gave the green light for another Austin police cadet class. 

The 9-1 vote, with Councilmember Greg Casar voting no and Mayor Pro-Tem Natasha Harper Madison abstaining, came after City Manager Spencer Cronk postponed the June 2020 class for an audit of the recruitment and training policies, protocols, procedures and materials.

RELATED: City council votes to slash $150 million from Austin Police Department, approves city budget

In August 2020, the City Council approved a new budget in reimagining public safety, which slashed funding for three cadet classes.

"This is a city that does not want to defund police," said Mayor Steve Adler in May. "This is a city that supports our police, and we need to make sure they have the resources to do the job we want them to do."

Diversity

Additionally, Chacon said, with 57% diversity, this is the most diverse Austin Police cadet class to date. Chacon broke down that percentage:

  • 17% African-American
  • 38% Hispanic
  • 18% Female

"We were actively recruiting minorities because we need for our department to reflect the community that it serves," said Chacon. 

Kitt noted some of his classmates came from places like Europe or Jamaica, including Cadet Jodean Dixon. 

Dixon was born in Jamaica and moved to the US when she was 13. She later moved to Austin, she said, specifically to be part of APD. 

"I started looking into like APD itself, and then I started realizing that they are really involved in the community from Blue Santa, which is amazing. And then coffee with a cop. This makes my eyes light up. So I was like, I need to be a part of a police department that wants to be a part of the community and not just what a typical police department usually does. And that's APD," said Dixon.

Dixon said she moved to Austin before the 144th class was put on pause and decided to wait for over a year for it to start again. 

"I believe with the academy class being postponed, it showed who was dedicated to the job--that would wait no matter what the obstacle was," said Dixon. "And that's me, in general, because I moved here for it, and I would risk anything to be a part of APD and the family it is and also risk anything to save the community that I stand for."

Curriculum

The 144th cadet class will be 34 weeks long and will include a new curriculum, including:

  • 30 more hours of community engagement programming
  • A two-week community immersion orientation program
  • Anti-racism training
  • A newly designed course on the history of police
  • Regular physical fitness training
  • Fewer week-long blocks of technical course content to allow for more effective implementation of adult learning strategies
  • A formal process of community and civilian input into training content to ensure that issues of racial equity and procedural justice are reflected in all aspects of cadet training

“Welcome to the 144th Austin Police Academy Cadet Class," Cronk said. "I’m excited you're all here today. Many of you came to the police academy for different reasons. But after you go through this you will all be united in one common purpose, to serve our community with dignity, integrity, respect, compassion and professionalism."

Evaluation

In the reimagined police cadet academy blueprint, it said that after June, the community will stay involved and answer questions like what changes worked and what needs to be looked at again.

Chacon said the training is being looked at "through a number of lenses."

He said there is an outside, independent evaluator that will observe classes throughout the academy. 

Chacon said there are also two different review committees. He said one is for curriculum. 

"They're going course by course. And they are looking at the way that we are teaching the cadets, and they're making sure that we include elements of diversity, equity and inclusion," said Chacon, noting that they are also looking at the de-escalation practices.  

The other review committee will look at the videos used in the academy. 

"Every single video that we show in the academy has to be vetted through this committee and has to be approved," said Chacon. 

Cronk also thanked APD instructors and staff for all of their hard work developing the training and curriculum to make this reimagined cadet class a reality. 

Chacon said the independent evaluator will also produce a final report once the class is finished. He said he hopes the final review and evaluation of the 144th cadet class is done within two to three weeks of its completion. Chacon said once they get the green light, they will start actively recruiting for the 145th class.

Key dates for the new academy class include:

  • June 7, 2021 –144th Academy Community Connect program begins
  • June 21, 2021 – 144th Academy Training begins
  • Jan. 25, 2022 – Chief’s Run
  • Jan. 28, 2022 – 144th Academy Graduation

On Tuesday, June 15, people can meet the 144th cadet class at Edward Rendon Sr. Park from 4 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.

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