As Austin Reviews How It Trains Police, The City Graduates The Last Cadet Class For At Least A Year
Forty-two new police officers graduated Friday at a ceremony at a church in North Austin. It was the last graduating class of new officers for the foreseeable future, as the city put the department’s academy on hold as it audits training materials.
“It means I’ll be the rookie for a really long time,” said Vanessa Swesnik, who worked as a teacher and gym manager before applying to APD’s training academy. “But that also means that I’ll get to learn a lot.”
In December, Austin City Council members asked city staff to review how the department trains new police officers after former cadets said leadership intimidated them and used discriminatory language during training in 2017. Council members decided APD would gather its last class of cadets in February, then put the program on hold until after the city finished its training audit.
Those February inductees graduated Friday. At least 100 people gathered to watch the graduation, most of them masked. (KUT asked APD why it decided to hold an in-person ceremony as local public health officials warn of another uptick in COVID-19 cases. APD said it was following the governor’s latest emergency order, which states there are no occupancy limits for “local government operations.”)
“We are at a pivotal moment in policing, both nationally but especially in our Austin community,” City Manager Spencer Cronk told graduates. “More so than ever, our community is watching closely your performance and the performance of your department.”
The Austin City Council voted in August to cut and reinvest $20 million from the police budget, earmarking another $50 million in potential cuts over the next year. The decision came after protests erupted in May against police violence, and after hundreds of people told City Council members to move at least $100 million out from the police department and spend it elsewhere.
“I think all of us were watching it pretty closely,” said graduate Kate Hagemeier, who starts her first shift with the department Sunday. “It definitely made us want to be better officers for our community.”
Swesnik said police violence and how police handled the protests came up during the academy.
“What we tried to do is make the best out of it and use those as jumping points for discussion in the classroom, understand our policy and why we have the policies the way we do,” she said.
APD changed some of its policies after officers seriously injured several people when they shot lead-filled bags during protests this summer. Police Chief Brian Manley said in June the department would no longer shoot this type of ammunition into crowds, although it would still use it in other situations.
Other new officers said they tried to stay away from footage of this summer’s protests.
“I was more concerned with learning the job so I can best serve the citizens of Austin versus paying attention to what’s going on in the news or the media,” Terrell Ellis said.
Some of the officers said they anticipate having to work more and harder than predecessors, saying they believe council’s actions mean the department will be understaffed.
Part of the council’s budget cuts included eliminating vacant officer jobs city staff decided would likely remain unfilled; this amounted to about 150 positions. Once the new officers complete three months of field training, the department will have 1,778 full-time officers.
It’s difficult to compare this to years’ past; APD does not publish the number of full-time officers they’ve employed year over year. But the department budgeted for (but did not fully employ) a similar number of officers in 2013 and 2014.
“It just means we’re going to stay busy, if anything,” Jackson Pierron, a new APD officer, said. “Hopefully more classes open up in the near future.”
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