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Behind the blue line: Who’s interested in becoming an Austin police officer now?

Seventy-seven potential Austin Police Department cadets attended orientation on Monday. (Joseph Chacon/Twitter)

Drew Daniels, 23, has checked the Austin Police Department website every day since last October in search of a job opening. The training academy has been on hiatus for nearly a year due to concerns about its curriculum and training methods. A pilot class is set to start June 7, but Daniels didn't have time to relocate to Austin on such short notice. "Now I have to wait again," he told Austonia.

Despite what the International Association of Chiefs of Police calls a crisis of recruiting and the public reckoning prompted by George Floyd's murder last May, local criminal justice professors say student interest in policing remains steady. In fact, recent events may have strengthened interest among prospective police officers, who see themselves as a force for good.

"I don't think George Floyd is going to cause people... to change their minds about being police officers," said Charles Scheer, director of the Mississippi Statistical Analysis Center at the University of Southern Mississippi, where he has studied student interest in policing.

'Eyes wide open'

Daniels, a former college football player who is completing his degree, has wanted to be a police officer since high school. The murder of George Floyd and the mass protests that followed reaffirmed his commitment. "Around that time in March (2020), with the pandemic and everything and all of the things that followed with the riots… I figured there needs to be someone like me in policing right now, one that's not going to make bad decisions," he said.

Drew Daniels, 23, lives in Reno but hopes to enroll in the APD training academy. He recently visited Austin. (Drew Daniels)

Lorraine Samuels, an assistant professor of criminal justice at Huston-Tillotson University, has noticed a similar trend among her students who plan to become police officers. Although they may worry about being viewed as bad apples or face pushback from family members concerned about police killings of people of color, they rarely reconsider. She cited one of her spring semester students, a young Black man who recently interned with the Bee Cave Police Department. "He thinks it's going to be very important for others in the community to see him behind that budget, someone who looks like them," she said.

Frederick Toler is a 25-year veteran of APD and interim director of Austin Community College's Public Safety Training Center, which offers training for those interested in becoming a licensed peace officer. Although pandemic restrictions have limited the number of students the center can enroll each semester, demand remains strong. "They're all… going into this profession with their eyes wide open," he said.

The cop crunch

APD has suffered a years-long staffing shortage, and public safety advocates argue that the city's effort to "reimagine public safety" has exacerbated attrition. But the so-called cop crunch has been an issue for years and reflects a combination of factors, including the retirement of Baby Boomer officers and the long-term impact of budget cuts arising from the Great Recession, Scheer said.

There is also a generational challenge. Police departments need to meet potential millennial and Gen Z recruits where they are—on social media—and respond to their desire for increased transparency around the application process. "You can't just put a stack of applications on the table and wait for everyone to show up," Scheer said.

Daniels follows APD on all of its social media channels and is eagerly waiting for APD to announce a second cadet class, which will require City Council approval and hinges on the success of the pilot. If they do, he and his girlfriend plan to relocate to Austin. The couple recently visited. In addition to paddleboarding on Lake Bird Lake and visiting Mozart's Coffee, they also walked along Dirty Sixth, where he spotted many APD officers. "I'd love to patrol this area," he said. "Be in this spot and arrest a bunch of drunk kids who are out of control."


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