From longshot to Austin's next police chief: Behind Joseph Chacon's rise

Ryan Autullo
Austin American-Statesman

In a slightly different universe, Joe Chacon could have spent this past Wednesday dismantling a prostitution ring or mourning the shooting death of a toddler who was killed while playing with a family member's gun.

Those were the day's headlines in Boise, Idaho, and in Waco — two cities that gave consideration to making Chacon their chief of police before turning to other candidates.

Joe Chacon addresses the media after he was chosen to be the permanent chief of the Austin Police Department.

In those searches, completed in 2020 in Boise and 2021 in Waco, Chacon proved to be a strong candidate, but not strong enough. That same result seemed likely to be repeated in Austin's search for a police chief, as few gave Chacon, a former assistant chief in the Austin Police Department, a chance to be handed the reins to a department under scrutiny for problems that arose at a time when he was in a leadership role.

In a comparison sports fans might understand, Chacon being hired to replace former Chief Brian Manley might seem the equivalent of firing a football coach for losing — only to replace him with a top assistant who was on the coaching staff for those losses. But there Chacon was on Wednesday, walking into Austin City Hall to stand alongside City Manager Spencer Cronk and be introduced as the city's next police chief.

Cronk acknowledged that wasn't something he had expected when the search began in March. And the same goes for Chacon himself. It wasn't until two months after he was named interim chief that he decided to submit an application — and he didn't think he'd actually get the job, Chacon said.

"No, not really," Chacon said. "Not because I didn't think I could do the job. I think it was more about what we're going through as a department and the community and perhaps a desire to go in a different direction for leadership."

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Chacon's hiring is subject to approval by the Austin City Council, which is set to take a vote during its next meeting on Thursday. A majority of six members must agree to hiring. His salary and benefits have not been finalized, the city said this week. As a point of reference, Manley's annual pay reached $244,337 prior to his stepping down in March.

So how, exactly, did Chacon overcome such long odds to get the job? By embracing his status as the only internal candidate and making it an advantage.

APD had 46 candidates for police chief

He used his contacts and access to build alliances with community members who felt alienated by Manley and needed assurances that things would be different with Chacon in charge. He took public stances and made policy decisions that aligned with what Austin city leaders were looking for. And he benefitted from a misstep by one of the other candidates being seriously considered: Emada Tingirides, a veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department.

Los Angeles Police Department Deputy Chief Emada Tingirides speaks during an Aug. 19 community forum for the three Austin police chief finalists. Tingirides says she was "perplexed" by opposition from Austin's activist community.

A consulting firm hired by the city to run the search generated 46 candidates. That list was cut to seven candidates and then to three: Chacon, Tingirides and Avery Moore, assistant chief with the Dallas Police Department. In separate interviews with the American-Statesman, both Moore and Tingirides said they were appreciative of being considered for the job and said they wished Chacon and the city well.

"I have complete confidence in him," Moore said. "Austin will be just fine."

Tingirides said: "The process was top-notch and professional. In my mind, I really believed they were doing everything they could to ensure they had a thorough search and were inclusive of the Austin community."

Joe Chacon's policy and positioning

Chacon's steps toward landing the chief's job started in his first week as interim chief.

In a move that scored him points with criminal justice reform activists but drew fire from some of his own officers, Chacon testified before the Legislature in opposition to a bill — now signed into law — that penalizes cities if they cut funding from their police departments. The Republican-led effort was clearly aimed at Austin, whose City Council eliminated or reallocated $150 million from the police budget in 2020. In defending the cuts, Chacon said he agreed with the City Council's decision to cut money by pausing three cadet training classes to improve the way new officers are trained.

The testimony came just three days after Chacon was named interim chief.

He was just getting started.

Joe Chacon

Chacon introduced a violence intervention initiative aimed at seizing guns possessed illegally. He also revised the department's policy on the release of critical incident videos, accelerating the timeline from 60 days to 10 days.

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After Austin voters in May approved a measure to reinstate a ban against camping in public, Chacon responded by taking a light touch to enforcement, instructing officers to issue citations only as a last resort. That likely won him fans on the City Council, whose members had voted to lift the camping ban in 2019 and were excoriated by many in the community once it became obvious the policy had failed. As of Thursday, only 31 citations had been issued despite people continuing to camp illegally in many areas of town — including one campsite that remains just across the street from the Austin Police Department's headquarters.

Chacon made another noteworthy declaration at the end of June, this time telling an audience at the Headliners Club that he does not support a police staffing proposal headed to voters this November that would require the city to employ two officers per 1,000 residents. Mayor Steve Adler and a number of City Council members oppose it, and have contended it would cost the city $271.5 million to $598.8 million over five years. Chacon said the two-officers-per-thousand residents metric has not been proven to increase public safety.

His comments came at a time when the department was suffering through a significant staffing shortage, which has since worsened with about 200 unfilled positions.

Although he opposed the proposal in June, Chacon declined to answer questions about the topic when it came up at his introductory news conference. "That's a ballot item and not something I'm going to talk about today," he said.

Misstep by other finalist? 

Chacon's courting of Austin liberals and city officials put him at odds with the Austin Police Association, the labor union for Austin's police officers. The union refused to express support for Chacon, either publicly or privately. Then, after he was announced as chief, the union issued a statement saying it was disappointed in Cronk's decision and that it had preferred another candidate: Tingirides.

A deputy chief with the Los Angeles Police Department, Tingirides checked a number of boxes that aligned with Austin's mission to modernize policing and build trust with communities of color. For starters, Tingirides is a woman and she is Black — an appealing combination at a time when a number of big cities are moving away from hiring white men and turning to diverse candidates to run their police departments.

The two other finalists are also racial minority members: Moore is Black, while Chacon is Hispanic and speaks fluent Spanish.

In August, the Austin Police Association surveyed its 1,600-plus members on which candidate they preferred. Of them, 655 responded. Tingirides was the top choice on 74% of the completed surveys. Moore was second with 15% of the vote, followed by Chacon at 10%.

Tingirides presented herself as a reformer, having earned national acclaim for launching an initiative aimed at strengthening the Los Angeles Police Department's relationship with residents of the Watts neighborhood, a diverse community with a crime problem. That reverberated all the way to Washington, where Tingirides visited for the State of the Union address in 2015 as a guest of first lady Michelle Obama.

For good measure, Tingirides also professed her love for Austin. She said her family nearly bought property here while visiting in 2017, the first of several trips she made to Austin prior to applying for the job. In August, after moving her daughter into school at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, she drove three hours to Austin to attend the funeral of officer Andy Traylor, who died in an on-duty traffic accident.

But a couple of statements that put her at odds with Austin's activist community might have cost her the job.

At a community engagement forum at the Palmer Events Center, Tingirides was asked about systemic racism in the Austin Police Department.

The questioner might have been looking for Tingirides to address past allegations made against two former Austin assistant chiefs for using racist language or a report showing that Black cadets are more likely to get injured and drop out of the training academy than non-Black cadets. 

Instead, Tingirides responded that she did not believe the department is "institutionalized with a bunch of police officers that are racist." She then articulated steps to help advance the careers of minority officers.

A candidate report card issued by the activist group Austin Justice Coalition gave Tingirides an overall grade of D — lowest among the three finalists — and gave her an F for her response to that question.

Tingirides said she was "shocked" and "perplexed" by the pushback to her candidacy. She said her answer was based on feedback she received from Austin officers during conversations with them on racism. The Austin Justice Coalition also gave her a D grade for saying the city needed more officers to address an uptick in violent crime — an answer activists seemed to take as a sign that she might not be as reform-minded as they had hoped.

Tingirides — who said she learned she didn't get the job during a phone call from a consultant — said she thinks the activists simply "didn't know enough about me."

"If they did, they'd understand exactly what cities need to make change and build relationships and increase trust in communities," she said. "I didn't take that report card personally. I found it quite entertaining. I would welcome any of those activists to come to Los Angeles to talk to the civil rights groups" she's worked with to build trust in communities.

As they cooled on Tingirides, activists warmed up to Chacon.

'I won't let you down'

Chas Moore, head of the Austin Justice Coalition — the group that published the report card — spoke publicly of Chacon's "grit" and admitted that Chacon might make him "eat my words" for not initially wanting him.

Among the activists in town, none have as much political clout as Moore, who has a direct line of communication to a number of city leaders and helped orchestrate last year's police budget changes.

Of the three finalists, Moore pushed for Chacon or Avery Moore to get the job.

Kathy Mitchell, of the criminal justice reform group Just Liberty, also trimmed her list to Chacon and Moore.

In going with the choice pushed by Austin's activist groups, Cronk sided with a community from which he has often drawn criticism. He rejected their calls last summer to recommend $100 million in cuts to the Police Department, instead proposing only $11 million, leading the City Council to bend to the activists and make much deeper cuts. Cronk also publicly stood by Manley as calls for the chief's dismissal grew. Some activists even showed at Cronk's home and protested.

Austin City Manager Spencer Cronk shakes hands with Joe Chacon after choosing Chacon to be Austin's next police chief after he served as interim chief for several months.

When Manley did step down, Cronk was pressured to hire an external candidate to run the department on an interim basis. He instead tapped Chacon.

Cronk now has chosen Chacon for a second time, entrusting the future of the Austin  Police Department to a 23-year department veteran during a time of great debate over the role of policing.

"I won't let you down," Chacon told the cameras during his introductory news conference.

Dallas Police Department Assistant Chief Avery Moore speaks during an Aug. 19 community forum for the three finalists to be named Austin's new chief of police.

Three council members have said they will approve Chacon's hiring: Leslie Pool, Ann Kitchen and Mayor Adler. A fourth council member, Mackenzie Kelly, a conservative who is friendly with police officers and the police union, said she will not.

That leaves seven council members who have not made a commitment and are wanting to hear more from Chacon prior to Thursday's vote.

Chacon needs at least three of them to back him to get the six votes he needs for the job.

Given how he's navigated the search process so far, it would seem a surprise if he didn't land their support.

"I want to be responsive to them," Chacon said, "and I'm hoping that the things I say are going to resonate with them."