Art Acevedo Likes to Be Heard

“I love being a cop. You get to stand up for your cops when they’re right. You get to hold them accountable when they’re wrong. When we talk about justice, it’s for everyone.”

By Gwendolyn Knapp September 21, 2018 Published in the October 2018 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Image: Daniel Kramer

“I’ve been kind of quiet lately on Twitter,” said Art Acevedo, juggling two cellphones on a Monday morning as he scrolled through his jam-packed calendar, texts, alerts, and emails. A large stack of papers and a fresh cup of coffee sat in front of the 53-year-old HPD chief, on a gleaming wood table, the only space in his office free of the keepsakes he’s collected over 30 years in law enforcement: coins, CHiPs action figures, a signed Shaq headshot.

It was a light week—for him, anyway. The Democratic National Committee was in town to talk security and venues (we’re a potential host city for the convention). He had a luncheon for State Sen. John Whitmire’s birthday to attend, disciplinary reviews, board meetings, fish fries. But before Acevedo darted off, we had to ask: Had he been laying off tweeting to his 55,300 followers because of blowback from haters and the NRA? “Oh, hell no,” he said, eyes smiling. “The National Russian Alliance? No.” He’d just been busy.

Houston’s first Hispanic police chief, Acevedo operates in an unorthodox style he calls “relational policing,” which emphasizes building trust between residents and the 5,200 cops who serve them through transparency and accountability. That means a lot of press conferences and public appearances. It also means a lot of changes in the department since Acevedo took over in November 2016.

The chief has installed a unit devoted to investigating shootings by officers and the use of excessive force. He’s pushed for all officers to wear body cameras that start rolling automatically when they open a car door. He’s also added LGBTQ-terminology training for officers, and made scheduling changes to tackle slow response times. “Now, at a critical incident, you’ll see half a dozen [assistant] chiefs there in the middle of the night,” said Acevedo. “You talk to these cops—they never used to see that.”

If he has free time, Acevedo likes to head out on patrol himself—usually unheard of, but then, he likes to be heard. “Some of the officers don’t like that—me talking,” Acevedo admitted.

After the Santa Fe High School shooting, the chief made headlines by calling for stronger gun safety. “I know some have strong feelings about gun rights,” he wrote in a widely shared Facebook post, “but I want you to know I’ve hit rock bottom and I am not interested in your views as it pertains to this issue. … This isn’t a time for prayers, and study and inaction, it’s a time for prayers, action, and the asking of God’s forgiveness for our inaction.”

Other targets include Texas’s anti-sanctuary-city SB4 law and the separation of immigrant families. But Acevedo resists easy categorization as a liberal. For one thing, he considers the Abolish ICE movement to be idiocy. “We chase crooks, not cooks,” he recently told a crowd. “We go after gangs and drug traffickers.”

Acevedo was just 4 years old in 1968 when his family of six arrived in the U.S. from Cuba as political refugees. They settled in El Monte, outside LA, where his aunt and uncle already lived. His dad worked construction, kept his earnings in a pipe in the basement, and never learned perfect English. His older sister Sandra worked at a shoe factory to help out.

Acevedo recalled an incident in fifth grade when a teacher announced to the entire class that all Cubans were communists, and kids started making fun of him. “My old man went to that school and was so pissed,” said the chief. “Next thing you know, Mr. Lexington is apologizing to the class. My old man—may he rest in peace—he was a fighter. That’s when I learned not to keep my mouth shut and say what’s on my mind.”

After that, Acevedo would call out teachers if he thought they were sympathizing with Castro, reprimand classmates for speaking ill of Ronald Reagan. He even wrote political stories for his high school’s student paper. And all along, he had a vision for his future. “They used to call me the policeman,” he jokes. “Even as a kid, my dream was to be a cop, a DA, or go to West Point.” 

At 21 Acevedo became a naturalized citizen and entered the California Highway Patrol Academy, graduating the following year, 1986, and landing a job as a field patrol officer in East LA. “It’s predominantly an immigrant community, densely Hispanic,” he said. “It was violent—a lot of shootings, lot of crime, lot going on. But I knew I could have the biggest impact there.”

He rose through the ranks and, in 2007, moved to Austin with his wife, Tanya, to take over as chief of police. In 2015, after one of his officers shot David Joseph, a naked, unarmed black teenager, Acevedo fired him. For continuing to discuss the shooting in the community after being asked not to, he was stripped of five days’ worth of pay and called insubordinate by the city manager. He later stated during the 2016 Texas Tribune Festival, “If someone runs at you naked and unarmed and your first instinct is to shoot them, you have to be fired. You can’t be a cop.”

In his current role, Acevedo continues to speak up when he’s frustrated. For example, he regularly rails against the city’s revenue cap—which makes it nearly impossible to raise taxes, limiting the HPD budget (it’s currently about $865 million)—and against the fire department’s push for equal pay, calling it the equivalent of nurses going after doctors’ salaries.

But his primary concern, he said, is fighting violent crime. “We have to stay focused on what matters,” he recently told a group of recruits at Houston’s Police Academy. “Every night when we wake up and they call us, people are being shot. I can’t tell you not to contact ICE—you know the SB4 stuff—but I can direct your work. If that’s going to be your focus, you need to become an ICE agent, because we’re busy chasing crooks. We’re here to be crime fighters.”

He walked the room shaking hands before heading back to his SUV, chatting along the way. “I love being a cop,” he said. “You get to stand up for your cops when they’re right. You get to hold them accountable when they’re wrong. When we talk about justice, it’s for everyone.”

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