The Austin Police Department Needs an Attitude Adjustment, Stat

The Austin police chief's response to two officers that cracked rape jokes—implying that "their heart[s] were in the right place"—is just the latest demonstration of a department culture that appears to be uninterested in addressing the needs of the city's most marginalized citizens.

The Austin police chief's response to two officers that cracked rape jokes—implying that "their heart[s] were in the right place"—is just the latest demonstration of a department culture that appears to be uninterested in addressing the needs of the city's most marginalized citizens. Shutterstock

Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo’s Twitter page features a banner photo of the uniformed chief grinning next to a patrol vehicle decked out for breast cancer awareness. It’s a nice little picture, one that sends a PR message about a police chief who apparently—judging by his proximity to a pink vehicle, at least—cares about women. But the way Acevedo handled a recent incident involving his own officers mocking rape survivors, combined with a past history of being investigated for sexually harassing a co-worker, seems to indicate otherwise.

The background: In October, an Austin lawyer obtained a dashboard camera recording that shows two officers, Mark Lyttle and Michael Castillo, making derisive remarks about people who report their rapes. The tape was made in May.

“Go ahead and call the cops. They can’t unrape you,” Lyttle, an 11-year Austin Police Department veteran, was recorded as saying.

Then, Castillo, who has worked for the APD for three years, laughed on tape, agreed with him—”Hahahahaha, yeah, exactly!”—and belatedly wondered if they remembered to turn off their dash-cam.

This week, a month after the video went public, Chief Acevedo announced that he would suspend Lyttle and Castillo without pay for five and three days, respectively. What’s more, he promised to send them to “sensitivity training.”

During the announcement, Acevedo tried to downplay his officers’ behavior, suggesting that their “heart[s] might be in the right place,” and that their remarks “may be a coping mechanism.”

With responses like these, is it any wonder that survivors of rape and sexual assault aren’t exactly clamoring to file police reports?

Now, I understand gallows humor, and I understand the need for coping mechanisms. Sometimes humans have to laugh to keep from crying. That is about feeling powerless to stop an awful, inevitable thing, and coping with that powerlessness by throwing laughter at it. That is not what happened here.

These cops, and cops in general, are not powerless to do anything about rape. In fact, they’re in a unique position to do much, much more than many members of the public to address the problem of rape and to combat rape culture writ large. They can do this by believing assault survivors, taking their stories seriously, and conducting thorough investigations of accused rapists.

Instead, these two officers’ “jokes”—which also included laughing about blowing a “rape whistle” at a female passerby—are, at their core, not about feeling powerless to help a rape survivor. They’re about these individuals’ own disinclination to take rape seriously, and their evident belief that “unraping” someone is the only possible way to address assault.

This attitude isn’t a “joke” at any time. But it’s especially egregious when it’s held by two law enforcement officials who could be called upon to respond to a sexual assault on any given day—well, except for the whole five days that Lyttle will be off work, or the three that Castillo won’t be out on patrol.

These measly suspensions are a shallow half-measure that, at best, addresses a particularly public incident of willful police incompetence and sets the department—and Austin—up for more incidents like this in the future. Acevedo himself called the incident “embarrassing.” But according to media reports, Acevedo’s own attitude toward women has a less than stellar history. Ten years ago, Acevedo was investigated in California for sexually harassing a fellow California Highway Patrol (CHP) officer, with whom he’d had an alleged relationship in the 1990s.

As reported in the LA Times, the CHP officer in question said that Acevedo passed around nude Polaroid photos taken of her during their relationship, showing them to “high-ranking” CHP officials and storing them in his patrol vehicle. The officer said she hadn’t even known that Acevedo had been allegedly showing the photos to their co-workers until CHP internal affairs investigators approached her about them.

The LA Times piece quoted the officer as saying in the claim that she felt her “reputation has been irreparably tarnished,” and that her “career as a CHP officer is essentially over.”

The officer was granted a state disability claim as a result of “stress injury” from the sexual harassment investigation. At the time of the investigation, Acevedo cast the harassment claims as a smear campaign intended to derail his attempts to become CHP commissioner.

Now, he is the highest-ranking police official in Austin, Texas, presiding over a department that has repeatedly been shown to employ aggressive officers who disproportionately use lethal force against Austinites of color, particularly Black Austinites.

Even so, Acevedo has shown a real desire to raise the police department’s public profile over the last seven years since his installation as Austin’s top cop. He’s active on Twitter, where he lists his official APD email address in his profile. He makes frequent public appearances, and he has been lauded for occasionally going out on patrol instead of sitting behind a desk. But for a police chief who seems interested in smoothing out the public image of his department, Acevedo also has a real tendency to put his foot in his mouth. Earlier this year, Acevedo defended four cops who were caught on video aggressively detaining a jogger for jaywalking by effectively saying that it could have been worse, because at least they didn’t rape her.

And when I tweeted at Acevedo earlier this month to ask him about his handling of the cops from the dash camera video, he actually thanked me for not interrupting his day making appearances at the local Formula One track with pesky questions about police officers and rape jokes.

None of this—Acevedo’s preoccupation with fluffy public relations appearances, the California sexual harassment investigation, the “at least they didn’t rape her” attitude, the running tradition of APD police brutality, or the paltry suspensions for Lyttle and Castillo—leads me to believe that Acevedo is invested in changing a department culture that appears to be uninterested in addressing the needs of the Austin public, and the city’s most marginalized and potentially vulnerable citizens.

And with the most recent incidents with Lyttle and Castillo in mind, it would be encouraging to hear Acevedo instead talk about implementing long-term department-wide training as a move toward changing the institutional norms that allowed them to believe they could get away with this kind of thinking in the first place.

Perhaps such training could involve local activists and educators who work against sexual assault. And Chief Acevedo himself should absolutely be in attendance. In the front row. Whether or not any news cameras show up.