No Response to Letter on Austin Police Use-of-Force Training

In December 2014, in collaboration with other concerned Austinites, I sent this letter to Austin’s Chief of Police, asking about specific elements of our police department’s use-of-force training. After applying some pressure through the Austin City Council, we finally received a reply. In response, we sent the following letter, asking to meet with relevant city representatives to discuss how police use-of-force training could be improved. Four months later, we still have received no reply from any of the twelve city officials to whom the letter was sent.

Two days ago, Austin police shot and killed a naked, unarmed, 17-year-old black boy who was behaving erratically.

October 13, 2015

Art Acevedo, Chief of Police
Austin Police Department
715 E. Eighth St.
Austin, TX 78701

xc: Mayor Stephen Adler
Council Member Ora Houston
Council Member Delia Garza
Council Member Sabino “Pio” Renteria
Council Member Gregorio Casar
Council Member Ann Kitchen
Council Member Donald S. Zimmerman
Council Member Leslie Pool
Council Member Ellen Troxclair
Council Member Kathie Tovo
Council Member Sheri P. Gallo

P.O. Box 1088
Austin, TX 78767

Dear Chief Acevedo,

Thank you very much for your response to our previous letter about police use-of-force training. We are heartened to learn that the Austin Police Department takes de-escalation training seriously, and exceeds state training requirements. And we deeply appreciate your willingness to help us understand how APD handles this portion of its officers’ training.

The training requirements you describe in your letter are laudable. We are glad to know that APD exceeds TCOLE standards for cadet training. However, in-service training for officers seems much less intensive, apart from the monthly firearms training. As you are no doubt aware, communication, cultural awareness, and emotional regulation are skills that must be practiced regularly in order to be used effectively in an emergency. Additionally, your letter states that tactical communication training is elective, not mandatory. For these and other reasons, we feel there is still room to strengthen APD’s use-of-force training procedures. Recent events in Austin and across the country should strengthen our resolve to do so.

Law professor and former police officer Seth Stoughton, writing in publications such as the Harvard Law Review, has recommended that police departments prioritize the following updates to their training:

  1. Add ongoing risk calibration training. As Stoughton explains, police training needs to go beyond emphasizing the severity of the risks that officers face by taking into account the likelihood of those risks materializing. For all of its significant risks, policing is safer now than it has ever been. In percentage terms, officers were assaulted in about 0.09 percent of all interactions, were injured in some way in 0.02 percent of interactions, and were feloniously killed in 0.00008 percent of interactions. Adapting officer training to these statistics doesn’t minimize the very real risks that officers face, but it does help put those risks in perspective. Officers should be trained to keep that perspective in mind as they go about their jobs.
  1. Training should compensate for the unconscious racial biases that lead officers to perceive a greater threat from black men than from others. Officers are not unique in having racial biases, but it is of special concern in the context of policing because officers use more force when they perceive a greater threat. While the cadet Community Immersion projects your letter described are no doubt helpful, research strongly suggests that other methods could complement and deepen this important training. In particular, scenario training that takes place in a de-adrenalized setting not only improves subjects’ decision-making processes, but trains the body to be calm in decision-making moments. Such experiences can actually lower trainees’ cortisol levels in the moment and help them plan ahead, thinking about possible scenarios, which makes it easier to respond more effectively (and calmly) in the moment. These somatic approaches to crisis response can lead to more accurate threat identifications, and help correct for racial bias that officers may not even be aware of.
  1. Use-of-force training should also emphasize de-escalation and flexible tactics in a way that minimizes the need to rely on force, particularly lethal force. Police agencies that have emphasized de-escalation over assertive policing, such as Richmond, California; Kalamazoo, Michigan; and Seattle, Washington, have seen a substantial decrease in officer uses of force, including lethal force, without seeing an increase in officer fatalities.
  1. Officers should be trained and required to initiate non-enforcement contacts with community members. Building on training that grew out of the U.S. Department of Defense’s Strategic Social Interaction Modules training, a “non-enforcement contact” means an interaction in which officers are prohibited (except in emergencies, of course) from taking enforcement actions: no asking for identification, no running criminal history checks, no issuing tickets, and no making arrests. The purpose is threefold: give officers and community members the chance to get to know each other as individuals, emphasize the agencies’ visible commitment to community policing, and teach officers communications skills that they will use countless times over the course of their careers.
  1. When violence isavoidable, officers should be required to use tactical restraint even when that means holding their position or temporarily withdrawing. We are curious about APD’s official policies on tactical restraint, and whether its use might be expanded.
  1. Police executives need to move beyond the reflexive refusal to engage in meaningful review of police uses of force. Walter Katz, Deputy Director of the Inspector General’s Office that oversees the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, has suggested that police shootings be reviewed by applying the Human Factors Analysis and Classification system used to investigate plane crashes. The emphasis is on identifying that factors that contributed to incidents so they can be prevented from happening again. Officer training should be constantly revised to incorporate the lessons learned from those reviews. We would like to know more about APD’s review process, how it compares to the Human Factors system, and what changes have been made in recent years as a result of use-of-force incident reviews.

We want the community we live in to be a national model of respectful, just, community-oriented policing. Many changes are needed locally and in the larger culture in order to realize that ideal, but ensuring the very best training for law enforcement is an important step in the process. We know that APD’s officer training program faces many constraints and challenges. However, we believe that improved training methods would significantly improve citizen safety and community relations with APD. We also feel that state-of-the-art de-escalation training would significantly reduce the risk and stress experienced by the officers who serve our community. Therefore, we would like to further discuss these types of training with you, and to advocate with the city on behalf of the police department for appropriate training resources.

To that end, we are requesting a meeting with available City Councilmembers, relevant APD and City staff, and interested citizens to further discuss these and other suggestions for stronger de-escalation training at APD, and how we can best contribute to making Austin’s police force a model of responsible, community-based policing.

We look forward to continuing this conversation with you, and further strengthening the spirit of collaboration between APD and the greater Austin community.

Sincerely,

Susan Schorn, PhD
1900 Forestglade Dr.
Austin, TX 78745
(512) 693-8020

Scott Swearingen, PhD
Paige Schilt
Tina Posner
Jason Craft
Michael Craigue
Dr. Lisa Lynne Moore
Jack Kaulfus
Laura Hayden
Carmel Drewes, MSW
Laura Gomez-Horton
DeAnna Harris-McKoy
Wen Nguyen
Dr. Pauline Strong
Dr. Trish Roberts-Miller
Victoria Davis
Lisa Rawlinson
Doris Ann Newton
Coty DeLacretez
Graham Smith
Alicia Philley
Dr. Barbara Jones