Austin City Council voted 9-1-1 on Thursday to restart the police training academy on a pilot basis by June 7, one year after thousands of residents marched in protest of police brutality and racial injustice. Council Member Greg Casar opposed, and Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison abstained.
"History will remember the 144th cadet class," Harper-Madison said, adding that she hopes its members understand the significance of their role in reimagining public safety in Austin.
Council approval has been meted out in stages. Members voted 8-1 to restart the academy on March 25, pending certain concerns about its curriculum were addressed, but withheld approval of a budget amendment that would fund the class. Since then, city staff have identified $2.2 million in savings, which means a budget amendment is no longer required, but city management still sought council's final approval.
The suspension of the training academy has exacerbated a years-long police staffing shortage. Although some council members argue that the academy can't be improved without a pilot program to assess which changes are working, others have expressed concern about the lack of support from community members and the city's own reimagining public safety task force.
Conditions for approval
Since late March, the Austin Police Department has completed 11 of the 23 conditions required by council and expects to complete the remaining 12 by May 31. "I want to assure Mayor and Council as well as our community that we're working diligently and urgently to fulfill our commitment to reimagining our cadet training academy," Interim Chief Joseph Chacon said during a council work session Tuesday.
Kroll Associates, a New York-based consulting firm hired by the city to review and assess the training academy, also delivered its final report on April 23, which recommends "a shift away from a stress-oriented military-style academy toward a resiliency-based approach" that offers scenario-based, rather than lecture-and-listen, instruction.
APD has already incorporated some of Kroll's recommendations, including lengthening its training academy program to 34 weeks from 26 weeks; increasing diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) content; incorporating more community participation; and strengthening mentorship programs for minority groups.
Now that the pilot class has been approved, Kroll will serve as an independent evaluator, observing all DEI-related courses, community engagement programming and de-escalation and reporting back to council.
📢This week, #ATXcouncil will consider a resolution to restart police cadet classes.
Please consider emailing all Austin City Council Members and ask them to vote YES on item #10.
📧 https://t.co/WNIUUB22M9 pic.twitter.com/HAneDxEFEN
— Council Member Mackenzie Kelly (@MK6ATX) May 3, 2021
Cole Cunov, a policy analyst for the Greater Austin Crime Commission, said it's time to see how the "completely overhauled" curriculum works in practice, especially giving the estimated 130 officer vacancies at APD. "By the time this academy class graduates (in late January), we're going to accrue additional vacancies," he said. Restarting the academy will help "stop the bleeding."
Rebuilding community trust
The academy has been on pause since last July, in response to mass protests following the murder of George Floyd. Council then voted unanimously in August to cancel funding for three planned cadet classes as part of a broader set of police budget cuts. Prior to this, the academy had come under fire for its "fear-based" approach to training, discriminatory recruiting practices and attrition rates.
Thousands of Austinites marched from Huston-Tillotson University to the Texas Capitol on June 7, 2020, in protest of police brutality and racial injustice. (Emma Freer/Austonia)
For many community members, these concerns persist. Dozens of Austinites spoke in response to the March 25 resolution to partially approve the pilot cadet class, with the vast majority opposed.
Paula Rojas, co-chair of the reimagining public safety task force, told council members their partial approval was disheartening. "When City Council moved forward and voted for restarting the APD police academy, despite our formal task force vote against it and many testimonies the day of your vote," she said at an April 20 council work session. "At that point, many task force members wanted to walk away from the process altogether."
Council Member Alison Alter offers two amendments to the resolution related to additional reporting requirements. "Sunshine on this process and council attention is important to reassure our community that we are committed," she said Tuesday. "We're moving forward, but this is a pilot and … we may not get it all right this time."
- List of proposed changes to Austin Police Department after protests ... ›
- Austin City Council OKs another third-party investigation of APD ... ›
- Gov. Abbott signs anti-defunding pledge after Austin police cuts ... ›
- Austin City Council votes to resume police training academy - austonia ›
- Reports find racial disparities, hazing concerns at Austin PD - austonia ›
A $500 million mixed-use development spanning 1,400 acres is coming to Southeast Austin, near Tesla’s headquarters at Giga Texas.
Plans for the development by Houston-based real estate firm Hines include 2,500 houses along with multi-family and townhomes, and commercial land. Hines is partnering with Trez Capital, Sumitomo Forestry and Texas-based Caravel Ventures.
The development, which is known as Mirador, will be located off the 130 Toll and Highway 71, which the developers say provides easy access to the Circuit of the Americas Formula 1 racetrack and other Austin attractions like restaurants, parks and live music venues.
Hines also boasts amenities like a 60-acre lake, over 600 acres of greenbelt, community parks, trails and a swimming pool.
“As Austin continues to grow into the tech epicenter of Texas, coupled with a supply-constrained market, the demand for new housing is at its highest,” Dustin Davidson, managing director at Hines, said. “Mirador will be critical in providing more options for Austin’s growing population and we are excited to work alongside our partners given they each provide a unique and valued perspective in single-family development.”
The local housing market has been hot in recent years, with home sales accelerating earlier in the pandemic. In July 2021, the Austin metro area hit its pricing peak at $478,000. As Austonia previously reported, the area has been expected to see the Tesla effect, with the new workforce driving up demand for housing and other services.
The single-family houses are expected to be developed over the course of six years, in phases. Construction on the homes is expected to start this year and home sales will begin in 2023.
- Real Estate - austonia ›
- Luxury real estate to get special tax status under 'blight' statute in ... ›
- Austin sees record-breaking real estate year in 2021 - austonia ›
- What billionaires like Elon Musk look for in Austin real estate - austonia ›
- Austin luxury real estate market booms in pandemic - austonia ›
- What $10 million (or more) can get you in Austin real estate right now ›
- Austin's housing market is hot, but buyers feel burned out - austonia ›
- Fall breeze begins cooling Austin housing market ›
Editor's note: This story summarizes Sports Illustrated's story detailing Michael Center's involvement in the Varsity Blues college admissions scandal, based on interviews with SI's Jon Wertheim. Additionally, Austonia received comments from Michael Center, included in this story.
Confined to his couch, former Longhorns tennis coach Michael Center praised his players via FaceTime after the program he built produced the Longhorns’ first national championship in 2019—a bittersweet moment as Center faced federal charges as part of the Varsity Blues college admissions scandal.
His name dragged through the mud, Center was fired, arrested by the FBI and sentenced to six months in a Central Texas federal prison after pleading guilty to two charges related to mail fraud. And over a year after his release, Center told Sports Illustrated he doubts he was the only one in burnt orange involved.
When the Varsity Blues scandal broke out to the public in 2019, the investigation was a perfect storm for nationwide attention: Hollywood glamour, blue blood conspiracy and faith in the tried-and-true American education system came to a head as 33 movie stars and other elites were found guilty of paying more than $25 million to pave their children’s way into eight colleges, including the University of Texas.
UT was one of eight schools caught in the college admissions scandal. (Laura Figi/Austonia)
The figure behind Varsity Blues, “college consultant” Rick Singer, would plead guilty to four felony counts for faking SAT scores and bribing coaches at prominent universities for his elite clients—but not before throwing Center under the bus.
Singer's client, private equity executive Chris Schaepe, was looking for a way to bend UT's tight admissions policies for his son, who was seeking a position oddly as a manager on UT’s basketball team. Through a middleman, Singer contacted Center, who eventually agreed.
Schaepe's son hadn't played tennis since his freshman year of high school. It was a detail that Center says passed through plenty of hands before he was admitted, including "academic support staff, the compliance office, the sports supervisor and, ultimately, the athletic director," SI's Jon Wertheim writes.
No one in the entire athletic department, including seven "risk management and compliant services department" employees, was named, implicated or punished. After an internal investigation, Center was the only one named in the Varsity Blues "subterfuge" in a September 2019 UT news release signed by the university president.
He told Austonia he was never contacted by the university during the investigation, and when the NCAA interviewed him for its investigation, he says it cleared him of any violations.
“I almost fell out of my chair,” Center said. “I literally couldn’t breathe. There’s no college coach in America—much less at a state school, much less a coach of a nonrevenue sport—who can admit an athlete without consulting other people in the athletic department. What they were asking people to believe, it’s just impossible.” SI said Center's assertion was backed by multiple UT coaches and administrators at other schools.But why would the Forty Acres be complicit?
Center said UT’s then newly named athletic director Steve Patterson made clear that Center suddenly was responsible for more than building a successful tennis program. He was to be a "fundraiser first and coach second" and he would need to find donors to fund a new tennis facility. Patterson admitted to SI that he wanted his coaches to find donors and said the department was "$15 million in the red" when he started in 2013, though he denies any knowledge of the false tennis recruitment.
Center said he knew he would be "considered a team player" if he let in the son of a Silicon Valley magnate. And sure enough, Schaepe immediately began pulling out his wallet, donating $100,000 to UT tennis and a six-figure check to the school's communication program.
"I never entered this as a way to profit. This was a fundraising mission where I made a terrible mistake at the end,"
Months after Schaepe's son was admitted, Center agreed to meet Singer at the Austin airport and found himself accepting a backpack filled with $60,000 in cash meant for him, personally. He said he immediately knew he had made a mistake. He told SI “I put the money in my basement and gave most of it away.”
“Why did I do it?” Center told Sports Illustrated. "I go to bed and wake up each day asking myself the same question. I had to convince myself that I somehow deserved the money."
Once in court, Center showed texts with UT's compliance official and mentioned Chris Plonsky, a department executive involved in "overseeing men’s tennis, compliance, academic support (which generates letters of intent) and the Longhorn Foundation," according to SI.
“I knew I had to answer for my guilt,” Center said. “But I was like, 'Man, schools are going to get hammered.'"'
INMATE 77806-112 but out on Sunday: Actor Felicity Huffman in prison uniform outside low-security Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin to visit actor husband William H. Macy & their daughter. Huffman admitted to paying $15K to have fixer boost daughter’s SAT score. 📸: @TMZ pic.twitter.com/9jALmqnA0U
— Henry K. Lee (@henrykleeKTVU) October 21, 2019
But Center was the only Longhorn to go down for the crimes. “I was no rogue actor,” Center said. “And this wasn’t my word against their word. There were signatures that went along with it. That’s the system... There wasn’t one point in the process where I thought people wanted to learn the whole truth.”
Back at home in Austin, Center watched as actress Felicity Huffman served just eleven days for her part in the scandal. Some served up to five months; others simply paid a fine, and others, like Singer, await sentencing.
And because the prosecution chose to blame individual coaches, framing schools as victims in the case, universities like UT have received less than a slap on the wrist for their possible involvement.
“I was always taught that actions have consequences,” Center said. “What I’ve come to realize is that, yes, for some people actions absolutely do have consequences. Serious, heavy ones. For others, actions can have no consequences at all.”
- Excitement, tensions build as Austin expects 18k fans at first Texas ... ›
- $10 million Austin NIL scholarship fund to help Longhorn athletes ... ›
- UT plans on Longhorns football in fall 2020 - austonia ›
- UT is going SEC! Texas board of regents approves move to future ... ›
- Former UT tennis coach Michael Center in halfway house after ... ›
- Former UT tennis coach Michael Center completes 6-month ... ›