A few days ago, I attended the graduation of the Austin Police Department’s 143rd cadet class. I’ve asked the Chief to deliver this letter to the members of the class, our newest police officers:
Congratulations on graduation and thank you for offering yourself as a member of one of the finest police forces in the country. A few days ago, you took a solemn oath to serve our community and to respect the constitutional rights of all to liberty, equality, and justice. You vowed to maintain courageous calm in the face of danger, scorn, or ridicule; practice self-restraint; and be constantly mindful of the welfare of others. In an unprecedented and challenging time, you took an oath to protect and serve all Austinites — putting your own life on the line, if need be, to save the life of a stranger. Your mission is to contribute to the public safety in our community – both in fact and in how we each perceive our individualized personal safety.
As thousands of Americans take to the streets to demand an end to racial disparities in law enforcement, you are being challenged to lead policing in this country into a new era — an era in which parents of white, Black, and brown children have equal confidence that police will make them and their families safer. At this difficult time, we are looking to you to lead and protect our community with unprecedented empathy, respect, and understanding.
Make no mistake, the safety of our community depends on our rebuilding trust with communities that have lost faith in government institutions that were not historically built for them, and which have discriminated against them for generations. I learned something of the weight of that challenge when I became mayor of a city that had intentionally segregated Black and white residents in a 1928 Master Plan. As I sat down with East Austin community leaders in hopes of rebuilding trust in city leadership, it was clear that I entered those rooms carrying the full weight of that racist legacy, even as a well-intentioned newcomer to city government. But I persist in this work because I fundamentally believe that a community’s future is not dictated by its difficult past or even an imperfect present. I believe in Austin’s future – and I believe in you.
I witnessed your anticipation and resolve on the graduation stage. With loved ones standing beside you, pinning on your new badges, you displayed many different walks of life and backgrounds, racial, bi-racial, and ethnic, as well as gender and LGBTQ diversity. I saw a cadet class ready and determined to meet this moment. Your class, needed by the community as change agents, is part of the recognition that change happens at the speed of trust. It is our hope and expectation that you will help deliver both.
For every police story that crosses my desk, where a Black person has died from excessive use of force or experienced unacceptable racism in an interaction with an officer, some originating in our city, there are many more stories about an Austin police officer going above and beyond to serve the homeless, connect with a young person, or prevent sexual assault or murder. I will remember, always, when the serial bomber that terrorized our city was stopped, our officers running towards his vehicle knowing it might (as it did) explode without regard for their own safety. But as every good cop knows, the multitude of heroic police officers in this country does not diminish our unequivocal obligation to combat the unacceptable safety threat posed by officers whose behavior and racial biases – conscious or unconscious- make us all less safe, police included.
To be clear, our challenge with policing is not merely one of removing “bad apples.” That is a legitimate element. However, reducing the task we face simply to this apologist frame is to minimize and divert attention from the more serious and entrenched difficulties we face. There are historical, cultural, and systemic underpinnings that must be examined and recognized before we can, as we must, reimagine the present form of policing in service of even greater public safety. This challenge will not be met by merely graduating new cadets into a system with inherent and institutionalized flaws that would subsume them if nothing more happens. There’s a limit to what you and your class can solve on your own.
Our commitment to you is to maximize all the good that you can bring. Police require and deserve to be supported and positioned for success by city government – that means robust, high caliber training, public safety investments to prevent crime from occurring in the first place, and more appropriate handling of mental health crises and social services.
Reimagining public safety requires us all to be open to new ways to maintain Austin’s status as being the safest big city in Texas and one of the safest in the country. This requires taking head-on the controversial conversations and difficult policy decisions associated with not simply relying on the status quo. Your roles as new police officers are critical in this pivotal moment as is your participation in this process.
We are counting on the 143rd Cadet Class to lead the Austin Police Department into the future. Your cadet class represents our best hope for an ever-greater culture of guardianship, transparency, de-escalation, and equity.
You have my promise that the city and I will do our part to support you in this endeavor, as well as our best wishes for your successful career. Welcome to the force, all of you. And to those who are new to Austin – welcome home.