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Austin Orders Sweeping Probe Of Alleged Racism, Bigotry Among Police, Including Social Media Audit

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Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon
/
KUT

The City of Austin will conduct a department-wide investigation of discrimination in the Austin Police Department, following accusations of racism and homophobia among the highest ranks.

“There comes a time in everybody’s existence to have to do something really hard because it’s worth it,” Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison said before council voted on the measure Thursday night. “I think it’s time for the Austin Police Department to do something really hard because it’s worth it.”

In a unanimous vote following at least two hours of public testimony, council members approved a far-reaching investigation, including an audit of police officers’ social media accounts, materials used in cadet training courses and the department’s recruitment efforts. The council has asked that the results of this investigation, plus recommended changes in the department, be made public by December 2021.

Separately, the city manager will revise training materials for new officers, with those changes to be made no later than June 2020.

The vote follows allegations made against two assistant police chiefs – one former, one current.

In October, the city’s Office of Police Oversight received an anonymous complaint claiming former Assistant Chief Justin Newsom continuously used a racist term for black people, including to describe a former City Council member and assistant chief. After 23 years with the department, Newsom abruptly resigned Nov. 1.

A second complaint alleged Assistant Chief Troy Gay had his child attend gay conversion therapy, a widely discredited practice aimed at trying to change someone's sexual orientation.

“Racist language, slurs, intolerance, and derogatory behaviors are completely unacceptable in our community,” City Manager Spencer Cronk wrote at the time. “I am saddened to have received these anonymous allegations, and I intend to fully understand if there is any truth to them.”

Cronk hired a third-party to investigate the allegations. The department-wide audit won’t begin until the results of this investigation are made public by the end of January.

An overwhelming majority of people who spoke in front of council members Thursday were in favor of the audit. Several former police cadets testified about intimidation and discriminatory language they experienced in training classes in 2017.

“Instructors made derogatory statements about homeless people, telling us that if we did not already hate them we soon would. We were told that if someone resists arrest they had earned quote, ‘a legal ass-whooping,’” said Summer Spisak, who was part of a group of former cadets whote wrote a letter to the city expressing concerns about new officer training, as reported by KVUE and the Austin-American Statesman.

“Those were just a few of the ways in which instructors prepared cadets to be the best police officers for this city,” she told council members.

The city’s investigation into prejudice in the department’s training materials and practices could lead to the delay or cancellation of a scheduled June cadet class, one of three set to happen next year.

Austin Police Association President Ken Casaday told council members Thursday that could set APD back in its attempt to fill 170 current vacancies.

“To many of our members this resolution feels like a slap in the face,” he said. “Cutting a cadet class eliminates another opportunity for men and women of diverse races, ethnicities and sexual orientation and those of lower economic resources from joining the Austin Police Department.”

But several council members said it didn’t make sense to continue hiring new officers until training procedures had been evaluated.

Before voting for the investigation, Council Member Delia Garza said her faith in police leadership had been challenged.

“I was an early supporter of Chief [Brian] Manley,” she said, her voice shaking. “And I’ve been incredibly disappointed.”

Manley became Austin’s police chief last year, after more than a year in the interim role. He quickly got the job after taking down a serial bomber, but some feared the decision to give it to him was too rash.

Manley did not respond to a request for comment.

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