Political upheaval in Austin is not unlike any other situation in big cities across the country. Mass protests swept Austin as they did the nation last year after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, preceded by months of societal discord caused by the pandemic and related government shutdowns.
That was followed by grandiose promises by progressive politicians to “reimagine” the way police interact with their community.
Currently, APD has 200 vacancies and 104 officers on leave on top of the 150 positions eliminated during the 2020 budget cut and redirection. The department’s average response time ballooned from seven minutes to nearly 10 minutes since the summer of 2020. Specialized units are being disbanded and the officers who stay are being redeployed to street patrol to fill the gaps.
APD’s predicament has all the makings of bailing out a sinking boat with shot glass.
“Morale Was Already S— to Begin With”
Michele Aparicio first joined APD in 1997. She lasted 23 years with the department before retiring in 2020 a few months into the pandemic.
Aparicio, a Hispanic, told The Texan that morale has long been a problem within APD and pointed to leadership and its internal decisions as its cause. “Surely seniority and experience had always played a role in promotions, but it got to the point where demographics took precedence over all else,” Aparicio said.
This, Aparicio said, had plagued the department’s morale and devolved into poisonous interactions with its leadership.
“There was a point where we had a meeting with Chief Manley and I asked him what he was going to do for morale, and he just put it back on me as a supervisor,” Aparicio said, adding that she was later approached by one of her superiors who informed her Manley didn’t approve of the interaction.
“I had a lot of respect for Acevedo, he had his flaws, but he was not scared to speak up for what he believed and for all the officers of APD,” said Kyle Sargent, a former APD officer of 15 years.
Contrasting Acevedo with Manley, Sargent added that he felt the latter began falling more in line and catering his decisions with the city council in mind — then beginning to lurch even further left than it already had been. Officer morale, Sargent said, took a hit with that transition and as Manley’s tenure unfolded, but nothing sped up the trend like what’s unfolded since.
Aparicio had a similar assessment.
“In the end, Acevedo wasn’t a bad chief — he was his own worst enemy. And for Manley, we were excited when he first took over during the contract negotiations. But it’s clear now he was just going to be a puppet.”
One contributing factor Aparicio identified was the racial sensitivity trainings officers were put through. “They were literally calling us racist and homophobic officers — a whole class designed to make it seem like we were guilty of being racist, of being homophobic, and that we treated other people differently,” Aparicio said.
“It wasn’t presented as something like ‘Hey, this is what the nation is going through.’ No, it was presented as APD needs this because y’all are a bunch of racists.”
“So, the morale was already s— to begin with and then this was forced upon us,” Aparicio emphasized. During those classes, she added, the presenters faced some serious pushback from the APD rank and file and so they “were toned down a little bit.”
But it didn’t end there.
Continuing that trend, this year the Austin City Council entered a contract with a consulting firm to provide racial sensitivity training for its police heavily imbued with critical race theory teachings. The city is paying the consultant $10,000 per day.
Sargent left just before its implementation, but he heard about it from his former colleagues. “It was just being forced down people’s throat in the department and at the academy, and from what I was told it was hours-long meetings of being told you’re racist.”
Pointing to the racial sensitivity episode she went through, Aparicio said, “That was one of the reasons where I realized ‘I know where this is headed.’ I saw the writing on the wall and I decided it’s time.”
Aparicio retired at age 49 just before the city’s passions were set ablaze by an incident 1,200 miles away.
A Turning Point, For the Worse
In June of 2020, Sargent, then an APD officer with over a decade of experience, found himself inside one of a thousand fires raging across the nation. Days earlier, George Floyd had died while being detained by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.
Now Sargent, a member of the Highway Enforcement Division, found himself in a peripheral role during a mob takeover of I-35.
Sargent was tasked with closing down the interstate before traffic met the mass of protesters. That mass had climbed onto the highway and were now in a standoff with a column of police in riot gear. Orders to leave the interstate were shouted from law enforcement and were answered by loosely coordinated chants, expletives, and miscellaneous projectiles including bottles of urine.
“We had lost complete control of the city,” Sargent said. “If the protesters wanted to burn city hall down, they were going to burn city hall down. If they wanted to burn the [APD] headquarters down, they were going to burn it down.”
The spiral crescendoed when officers exchanged fire of bean bag rounds into an angry crowd on the steps of APD’s downtown headquarters. Those exchanges resulted in a massive policy change: the elimination of the department’s use of less-lethal munitions including tear gas and bean bag rounds.
From that point on, Sargent said, all hopes of regaining control over the chaos evaporated, and with it went police-community relations.
“Just because we had a badge, we were labeled a bad person.”
The mass protests and riots lasted for days while sustained protests and vandalism continued for over a month.
“The fifth floor, at city hall’s request, was tying our hands and it was dangerous. Not only did they take less lethal options away from us but they’re leaving only lethal options in their place,” Sargent added.
After a handful of protesters were injured — including one minor who was knocked unconscious by a bean bag round and suffered brain damage from striking his head on the ground after the fall — the outrage was enough to spur the quick change in policy on less-lethal force.
The events of June 2020 paved the way for Manley’s departure, long sought after by Austin’s far left wing, and for a groundbreaking policy change.
Shortly after the protests and riots, prodded by an array of progressive activist groups like the Austin Justice Coalition, the city council moved forward with a quarter budget cut and redirection from the department. Three cadet classes were nixed and multiple city functions, such as the 911 call center and forensic lab, were removed from the APD umbrella.
Already facing vacancies, the city removed authorized funding for 150 patrol positions. The call center and forensic lab were placed back into the APD budget in the 2021-2022 budget, but the 150 positions remained left out.
The 2020 cut made national waves and sparked a pointed response from Governor Greg Abbott and the state legislature. They approved legislation setting in place punishments, such as stripping tax revenue, for cities deemed to have “defunded” their police departments.
In an odd move, interim Chief Joseph Chacon, having just taken over for Manley, testified against the legislation, saying, “Cuts in budget are not necessarily ‘defunding.’”
Contrasting Chacon with Manley, Sargent said, “When Chacon took over, I felt like it went completely downhill. He might as well not even wear a badge, because I feel like he’s just an arm of city council.”
“From that point on,” Sargent lamented, “it just wore on me mentally and my home life started to deteriorate as my stress level was really high.”
Troubles Behind, Troubles Ahead
Sargent retired on June 5, 2021, almost exactly a year after the first weekend of mass protests and riots roiled the city. The combination of it all was enough for him to walk away completely, resigning at 15 years on the job. He left a large portion of his pension benefits on the table by retiring before reaching 23 years of service time.
“They say that 20 years is the new 23,” Sargent said. Officers are buying forward their service time — paying out of their own pockets to reach retirement age.
One officer Aparicio knows spent $200,000 just to retire early.
“Officers are taking money out of their own savings accounts just to leave, that’s how bad it is,” she said.
A change in that buying forward rate is coming early next year. Sargent told The Texan he’s heard as many as 150 to 200 officers could leave in January next year before the change starts in February.
That would be over 13 percent of the current APD employment leaving in the blink of an eye.
When officers leave, they are often able to purchase their gun and badge as mementos of their career. But when Sargent resigned, this courtesy was denied to him per a new policy from interim Chief Chacon.
“It was just vindictive — I felt like he was just trying to punish us for leaving and it sort of put an exclamation point on my decision,” Sargent said. “It’s a small thing but it’s that kind of stuff that just brings morale from low to even lower.”
APD is desperately trying to prevent further attrition. Multiple recently departed officers received a reinstatement bonus offer to return. One officer was offered $5,000 to return and turned it down once Chacon was named permanent chief.
“I am personally offended by your offer,” the officer’s response letter read. “I did not leave APD for money [and] I suspect my peers did not either.”
The officer then said the department’s problem is its leadership, and has been long before Chacon took over.
“You have a broken and failed promotion system that does not value the amazing leaders you have in the ranks,” the letter continued, further insinuating that Chacon cannot right the ship. “He was brought up in this failed promotion system and has fostered a toxic leadership facing the department.”
Aparicio echoed that same sentiment from her time in the department. “During my time, there were certain moments where I or another officer were at first overlooked for another position. I had seniority and the experience, but I didn’t fit the right demographic for the position.” Only after calling out the decision was it remedied and the correct person with experience given the position, per APD protocols.
Other officers took Chacon’s hiring as the last straw, too, but for a different reason. One wrote on social media after the news broke, “I turned in my ‘notice of intent to retire’ the next day.”
“I planned to stay 3 more years but I just don’t see the current political climate changing anytime soon and it’s tiring, unhealthy, and flat out dangerous for my career.”
As Sargent’s career progressed, he said that the job’s surrounding anxiety shifted from “worrying about days off, to worrying about getting fired, to worrying about getting indicted and going to prison.”
That shift is due, in large part, to new Travis County District Attorney José Garza, who supplanted his longtime predecessor Margaret Moore in 2020. Garza ran on a platform of ramping up prosecutions of police misconduct, a promise on which he has delivered.
But Garza, according to APD’s most decorated homicide detective, is approaching his newfound job ham-handedly. Detective David Fugitt attested in a court affidavit that Garza suppressed exculpatory evidence and that top APD brass, including Chacon, engaged in witness tampering in a July 2020 shooting involving Sgt. Daniel Perry and protestor Garrett Foster.
An internal review cleared Chacon and his Assistant Chief Rich Guajardo of the latter charge, but the reputational hit still remains.
“There’s a real disconnect between the patrol officer on the street and the fifth floor,” APD slang for the department’s leadership, Sargent said. When asked about APD’s internal dynamics contributing to the attrition, Chacon told The Texan, “I can tell you that while we have seen record numbers of people leaving, we have seen record numbers of people applying.”
Because of the attrition, APD has changed its call response policy to only emergency situations where the suspect is still in the area and the victim is still at-risk. That means incidents like robberies that have already concluded will not receive a visit from a black and white. Austin has more than eclipsed its all-time homicide record with months remaining in the year.
Sargent managed to land on his feet, starting a new and now successful business outside of law enforcement. Aparicio, meanwhile, is enjoying retirement and has no plans to rejoin law enforcement.
“I never would have thought things would have unfolded the way they have over the last year — it’s just unreal,” Aparicio concluded.
There is an exodus underway within Austin’s department, and it’s at least partially by design. City leaders have reimagined their way into a police staffing crisis paralleled by a nationwide violent crime spike and topped off by brooding fight at the ballot box over the future of the Austin Police Department.
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Brad Johnson is an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.