‘A nightmare job’: Manley's retirement means Austin is thrown in the national ring for hiring a new police chief, but will a progressive agenda hinder the search?
Austin Police Chief Brian Manley received intense criticism for the police killing of Michael Ramos, an unarmed Black and Latino man, last April and his department's response to mass protests over the summer. When he announced his retirement Feb. 12, he said the criticism did not factor into his decision. But it will undoubtedly shape the nationwide search for his successor.
Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said the top job at the Austin Police Department, which he led until 2016, used to garner 70 or 80 applicants. But that's no longer the case. "People are hesitant to apply for cities with misguided, reactionary city councils," he told Austonia. "It's having an effect."
Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo at George Floyd's funeral on June 8, 2020 in Houston. (Bob Daemmrich)
There is also the challenge of hiring a police chief at the same time as many other major cities across the country. Acevedo estimates around a third of the police executives who belong to the Major Cities Chiefs Association, of which he is president, have either left their jobs or been asked to leave in the last year due to political pressure.
"Some of these elected officials are tripping over each other to be able to demonstrate they're reform-minded ones, when they're no different from the right-wing extremists who look at everything through the prism of political theater, and that's really damaging the long-term health of policing across this country," he said.
Austin City Council Member Greg Casar, an avowed progressive and the architect behind recent cuts to APD's budget, agreed that heightened public scrutiny and the city's ongoing effort to reimagine public safety will influence the search process. But he doesn't see this as a bad thing. "I think that we will find candidates who want to bring the community together in Austin," he said, "around making police better."
The ideal candidate
Dennis Kenney, a professor at the John Jay School of Criminal Justice and a former police officer, said the role of police chief is a politicized position that has grown even more so in the post-George Floyd era. In addition to managing overall department strategy, police chiefs also have to contend with strong unions, binding labor contracts, city management, a broken mental health care system, declining budgets and a divided public. "It's something of a nightmare job right now," he added.
Progressives and criminal justice reform activists want a chief who can improve accountability and transparency while addressing racial disparities among arrests and use of force incidents.
NAACP Austin President Nelson Linder believes Austin's next police chief should be more visible and engaged with the community, while also capable of holding his or her officers accountable when they make mistakes.
"Chief Manley had a very challenging tenure because, in essence, he got hijacked, first with the Austin bomber and then with the George Floyd death," he said. "I think he's a very committed policeman, but I think he was not prepared for the escalation of police issues around the country and in Austin."
As an alternative, Linder suggested someone like Frank Dixon, a former APD assistant chief who went on to lead the Denton Police Department and now serves as the city's interim assistant city manager. "There are people out there who can meet this criteria," he said.
Others would like to see a chief who can rebuild a beleaguered department.
Ken Casaday, president of the Austin Police Association union, wants a chief who can address APD's years-long staffing shortage and support its officers. "It will take a very, very special person to come to this department and start the healing that it needs from a very brutal contract negotiation … (and) the de-policing issue," he said.
APA members have thrown out names of people they would like to see in the top spot, Casaday said, including:
- APD Assistant Chief Robin Henderson, a Black woman who was promoted shortly after allegations of racism rocked the department's top ranks;
- APD Commander Donald Baker, who joined a discrimination lawsuit against the city in 2016, claiming he faced retaliation for pointing out that older and minority officers were being transferred from an elite division;
- And former Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best, who retired last September in protest over the city council's plan to cut the department's budget and lay off officers.
APD Assistant Chief Robin Henderson, APD Commander Donald Baker and former Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best.
These competing priorities can lead to unmeetable expectations. "The problem that you've got as chief is: You're expected to come up with solutions that don't exist—or at least aren't likely to be doable—to address social problems that we can't even agree (on) and to do so in an organization that you have limited control over," Kenney, the John Jay professor, said.
The search process
Another challenge is the nationwide game of police chief musical chairs currently underway.
This search will be different than the one City Manager Spencer Cronk conducted in 2018, in the wake of the Austin bombings, in which he named Manley, then interim police chief and one of Fortune's top world leaders, lone finalist. In a Feb. 12 memo to City Council announcing Manley's retirement, Cronk wrote that he would "immediately start to conduct a national search for our next Chief and look forward to an extensive engagement with our Austin community in that process."
In addition to heightened public scrutiny, there will also likely be more competition. "There's a kind of circuit of chiefs who move from one place to the next," Kenney said, adding that protests and politics are leading to a wave of chief resignations and retirements. "That's kind of uniformly hitting chiefs around the country. So where do you recruit your new chiefs from?"
Headhunting firms will help, such as the California-based Public Sector Search & Consulting, which exclusively recruits police executives. "While demonstrably smaller, the folks in the pool are really committed to reimagining policing and advancing it to the next level," CEO Gary Peterson recently told Axios.
Casar is both optimistic that such a candidate is out there and pragmatic about what a new chief can accomplish. "It's not all on them," he said. "In the end, we'll need the city manager to be committed to change. We'll need the community and all of our city employees to shift." Still, this is a unique opportunity. "We usually have to wait years before there is change at the top of the police department," he said, "so we really want to get this one right."
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Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty on three charges—second- and third-degree murder as well as manslaughter—in the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man whose final moments were recorded by onlookers, sparking a global protest movement over police violence and racial injustice. He faces up to 40 years in prison.
Jurors deliberated for 10 hours over two days after an intense, three-week trial before reaching a verdict Tuesday afternoon, four days shy of the first anniversary of the Austin police killing of Mike Ramos, an unarmed, 42-year-old Black and Hispanic man whose name became a rallying cry—along with Floyd's—for Austin protestors, who marched en masse last summer, prompting some police reforms.
Austin Police Department Officer Christopher Taylor was charged with first-degree murder—an unprecedented charge in Travis County—in the case of Ramos' death on March 10. But Warren Burkley, community outreach director for the Austin Justice Coalition, was measured in his response to the Chauvin verdict. "It's highly visible accountability, so it will give people hope in the system," he told Austonia. "But it's just one innocent life taken. And even in this city, this happens regularly, and it doesn't make national news."
Local elected officials, community leaders and residents also responded to the news as APD officers spent their second day on tactical alert, prepared to respond to any protests or demonstrations, and City Council heard recommendations from a task force on how to reimagine public safety.
Chauvin guilty on three charges!!!!
— Chas Moore (@iGiveYouMoore) April 20, 2021
Full justice would mean that George Floyd was still with us. But today's guilty verdict represents a historic step toward justice and for his family. So important now for the Senate to approve the House George Floyd Justice in Policing Act.https://t.co/9zUOgZYg4L
— Lloyd Doggett (@RepLloydDoggett) April 20, 2021
For the first time we saw accountability in the courts for the murder of an innocent Black person.
Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd on camera.
This prosecution is historic. People are feeling temporary relief. This is more than Justice, this is #AccountabilityforGeorgeFloyd. https://t.co/HlBqW7sScx
— Rep. Eddie Rodriguez (@EddieforTexas) April 20, 2021
Many of us have been afraid for days that Derek Chauvin would be found not guilty, despite what the video so clearly showed in broad daylight. The guilty verdict today provides important accountability, but it does not provide real justice. (1/5) ⬇️
— Gregorio Casar (@GregCasar) April 20, 2021
George Floyd's murder led to national protests and calls for the enactment of policing and social justice reforms, including here in Austin. We have made a commitment here to holding police officers accountable and to implementing social justice and policing reforms.
— Mayor Adler | 😷wear a mask. (@MayorAdler) April 20, 2021
Derek Chauvin's conviction is only one step towards providing healing/justice for George Floyd's family + for our nation as a whole. It's up to us to honor Mr. Floyd + the many others lost to police violence by transforming public safety and making our communities safe for all. https://t.co/RVgQmcAf6I pic.twitter.com/hCHLibYjoy
— Council Member Alison Alter (@ALTERforATX) April 20, 2021
No person should be above the law. If you transgress the law you should be held accountability.
Derek Chauvin- GUILTY
— Emmanuel Acho (@EmmanuelAcho) April 20, 2021
George Floyd's murder heightened the long-overdue national conversation on systemic racism. Derek Chauvin has been found guilty, but this is just one step on a long road towards racial equity. We must enact significant systemic changes in order to achieve justice.
— Every Texan (@EveryTxn) April 20, 2021
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Californians love Texas, and Austin—with its liberal politics, relatively affordable housing and job opportunities—is particularly adored. In fact, the Lone Star State was the main recipient of departing Californians in 2019, according to the latest available U.S. Census Bureau data.
But other states, including Florida, are seeing increased interest. Miami Mayor Francis Suarez has made a name for himself on Twitter recruiting techies and hyping up his city, which has a lot in common with Austin—with the added benefit of a beach and sans the "Don't California my Texas" attitude.
California expats and industry experts say Austin remains the bigger draw for Californians, especially those in the tech sector, but warn that this advantage could shift to Miami if the city doesn't address the policy challenges that prompted the migration in the first place: housing affordability.
"If Austin doesn't accommodate this influx, I think all the talent will come to Miami," said Peter Yared, a tech entrepreneur who moved to Miami from San Francisco in September. "I think Miami's going to be the one that sucks it all up."
Both Texas and Florida promise business-friendly state tax policies, and their governors tout the relocations of companies such as Tesla and Oracle from California. But Darien Shanske, a law professor at the University of California Davis whose specialties include taxation, said this is a red herring because corporate taxes are based on where sales occur rather than headquarter locations.
This is not to say other state policies are irrelevant. "The area in which California regulatory policy has been, in my opinion, not a complete failure but problematic … is housing policy," Shanske said. Austin and Miami can offer "not cheap, just cheaper" housing than what is available in Silicon Valley. Plus, both cities are developing a critical mass of talent, which further draws Californians in. "If you're a software engineer, you want to live near other software engineers," he added.
But not every Californian is motivated to move. "San Francisco is a fantastic place to live if you can afford it," said Brandy Aven, a professor of entrepreneurship at Carnegie Mellon University's Tepper School of Business. As a result, it's more common for what she called the labor—engineers, programmers and even company founders—to relocate to cities such as Austin and Miami than the monied venture capitalists. Burgeoning tech cities may find that they need to develop homegrown investor networks to support local ventures in the absence of Californian transplants, but she believes this is doable.
Paul O'Brien, CEO of the Austin-based MediaTech Ventures and a startup veteran, moved to Austin from California in 2009, during the Great Recession. "I'm a firm believer that the world has been seeking an alternative to Silicon Valley for a long time," he said, pointing to Austin as the natural heir for myriad reasons.
Austin has regional appeal as the epicenter of three of the country's largest cities—Houston, Dallas and San Antonio—and their respective industry niches. Tech entrepreneurs could cater to the local consumer goods industry or Houston's oil and gas sector. Plus the city has cultural appeal, thanks to the Red River District and South by Southwest, which made it attractive to job seekers. "The whole reason everyone moved to Silicon Valley is opportunity," O'Brien said. "The whole reason people are now looking beyond Silicon Valley to somewhere else is opportunity."
It's less clear what Miami's key industries are, O'Brien said, but the city offers other selling points, including the mayor's buy-in and "a tremendous depth of wealth" to support a technology and startup ecosystem.
Although Yared didn't consider moving to Austin, he is aware of its appeal to engineers, especially now that their hero, Elon Musk, has moved there, shunning California. "Austin has a lock on tech," he said, but Miami draws a different crowd, including financiers from New York. This parallel migration, coupled with the city's more outwardly pro-growth building policies, gives him hope that Miami could supplant Austin in the coming years. "In the end, communities get to choose what they want," he said.
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In the days after Austin FC's inaugural match against LAFC on Saturday, Head Coach Josh Wolff says he's watched the game "a number of times, to say the least."
In the match, Wolff and over 500,000 other viewers looked on as Austin FC took to the pitch for the first time, held their own in the first half against LAFC and eventually fell 2-0 to a team that's sometimes regarded as the best in the league.
Austin FC had the largest television audience of any soccer match in the U.S. over the weekend, surpassing even the USWNT. In a showcase of the club's dedicated fan base, dozens of Los Verdes fans were spotted in green and black around the stadium—even with the match limited to 20% capacity.
Salute the support. 👏
It's only the beginning for @AustinFC. pic.twitter.com/TduorqYr2y
— Major League Soccer (@MLS) April 18, 2021
While the team lost their first-ever match, they didn't make it as easy as some expected.
Wolff said that the team did relatively well offensively, holding possession for 48% of the match and keeping a solid passing game. Once they got to the box, however, Wolff said they could use some work on creating scoring opportunities.
"We saw a lot of good connections, good spacing (and) good speed of passing," Wolff said. "I think we can obviously have more presence centrally to have more numbers in between lines. I just want us to create more chances. There's a lot on both sides of the ball that we still need to work on."
LA pulled some dramatics and slowly gained more possession throughout the half, but ATXFC's defense wasn't initially as shaky as it seemed in preseason. Later on, however, the team gave up some goals and seemed to struggle with endurance. Wolff said the backline did "okay" and that the club, including young center back Jhohan Romana, are still getting conditioned to play a full match.
"It's a lot of information for a young player," Wolff said. "I think as he fatigues then the decision making, as with most players, becomes a little bit more cloudy and then thus the execution becomes cloudy."
An honor to represent this city and y'all. We're just getting started. 💚🖤 pic.twitter.com/tmOqCfbXvs
— Austin FC (@AustinFC) April 18, 2021
Goalkeeper Brad Stuver had his work cut out for him, fending off 24 shot attempts, 11 of which were on goal.
Going into the match, Stuver and fellow goalkeeper Andrew Tarbell were neck-and-neck, with both labeled potential starters. However, it was Stuver, who many thought signed as a backup, that wore the goalkeeper's jersey on the field for the first time.
"I think both Andrew and Brad did relatively well in preseason, but we decided with Brad just based on how we felt preseason went," Wolff said. "I thought he performed pretty well to be honest. I think he and Andrew are similar in some aspects... it's being mindful of where their strengths and weaknesses are."
Five starters made their MLS debut in the match, including midfielder Daniel Pereira and forward Rodney Redes. While Wolff said Pereira held his own in the match, he saw a weak spot in the team's right side, making it difficult for Redes to make offensive plays.
"For Pereira, I think it was a solid day for a young kid coming in his first MLS game against that opponent," Wolff said. "Obviously there's there's a different physicality to MLS and I think those are things that all these guys are going to acclimatize to.
Now, the club looks to put the ball in the back of the net for the first time as they head to Colorado. Austin FC will face the Colorado Rapids at 8 p.m.on Saturday. The match will stream on the Austin FC app and be broadcast on the CW Austin. Austonia will keep an eye out for potential weekend watch parties.
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