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| Crime |

As Acevedo Packs For Miami, His Mixed Legacy In Texas Comes Into Focus

Outgoing Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo leaves a mixed legacy of outspokenness and obfuscation.
Outgoing Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo leaves a mixed legacy of outspokenness and obfuscation.
Photo by Marco Torres
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Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner admitted Monday that he was surprised Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo decided to leave Texas to take over the Miami Police Department. He wasn't the only one.

Before the news of Acevedo’s departure broke late Sunday night, it felt like most Houston political observers would have been less shocked if Acevedo had announced he was running for mayor in the mold of local cop turned politico Lee P. Brown.

Acevedo always seemed to be priming himself for the next big gig — during the nine years he spent as Austin’s head cop prior to joining HPD, he openly showed interest in police chief openings in San Antonio, Dallas and Fort Worth, all larger cities than Austin. He even parlayed his interest in the San Antonio gig into a nice 5 percent pay raise back in 2015.

His eagerness to jump in front of news cameras coupled with his proclivity for getting into Twitter spats with Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, Sen. Ted Cruz and former President Donald Trump led many to guess he’d eventually jump into the political spotlight full-time.

For someone pegged as a ladder-climber early on in his Texas law enforcement career, Acevedo’s new job is definitely a demotion, at least in terms of the gig’s profile.

Acevedo is leaving the nation’s fourth most populous city for its 42nd in Miami. At HPD, he’s led a force of around 5,300 officers in a city that’s 671 square miles large. His new force is less than half that big — around 1,300 officers — and polices a relatively scant 35 square mile radius.

One thing that isn’t smaller is Acevedo’s new paycheck: Miami’s CBS4 News reported that Acevedo’s new salary will be $315,000 a year, a solid bump from the $295,000 he made annually at HPD. But while an extra $20,000 a year is a nice chunk of change, it’s hard to believe that was all it took to attract an ambitious leader like Acevedo to an objectively lower-profile job. At 56-years-old, he’s not exactly in feet-up retirement mode either.

Maybe he was drawn to the Miami gig because the city seems to be looking for a police leader who will actively reach out to the city’s minority communities as Acevedo made a concerted effort to do during his four and a half years in Houston. After a summer of racial unrest and accusations from Miami’s black police union that former MPD Chief Jorge Colina used the N-word on the job, Acevedo may have been drawn to the challenge of building trust between Black Miamians and the local police.

He could have been enticed by the city’s large Cuban community as a Cuban immigrant himself. Acevedo is also still a registered Republican, and even though he told Texas Monthly that he’s long considered himself a RINO (Republican in Name Only), that combination  of heritage and political party affiliation (nominal as it might be) could be a recipe for gaining public support in a city like Miami that tends to back Republican officials by and large.

In his likely final press conference with the local media on Tuesday, Acevedo said the allure of living in Miami was definitely a big piece of the puzzle. "If you can't understand why I'm going to Miami, then I don't know what planet you've been on. You might not've been to Miami," Acevedo said.

He said that the uncertain future of who will run City Hall once Turner is term-limited out of office in two years played a role in him accepting a job elsewhere, but made sure the press knew he had plenty of other options to consider.

"I contemplated a federal position. I won't say what it is, but it was significantly bigger than any other department in the country. I contemplated going back to LA to run for sheriff, because again, it's law enforcement, and I contemplated going into the private sector," Acevedo said.

There’s also the chance that Acevedo wants to distance himself from the aftermath of the horrific 2019 Harding Street raid, where his officers shot and killed married couple Dennis Tuttle and Rhogena Nicholas in their own home in a raid that turned out to be set up by allegedly falsified evidence from HPD narcotics cops.

The Harding Street raid is just one of many high-profile incidents in Acevedo's headline-grabbing career so far, one that's been marked by both openness and obfuscation.

During his time in Houston, Acevedo worked hard to present himself as a public safety advocate who wasn’t stuck in the past. He got rid of stupid rules that forbade HPD cops from having beards or visible tattoos on their arms, and even let police wear shorts during Houston’s blistering summers.

Acevedo made regular appearances at community meetings and pushed his subordinates to do the same, always publicly stressing the importance of police transparency and “relational policing.” He railed against a 2017 state law that sought to outlaw so-called “sanctuary cities” for illegal immigrants by allowing Texas cops to ask suspects about their immigration status:

During last summer’s protests following the murder of Houstonian George Floyd, Acevedo made headlines for marching with demonstrators pushing for racial justice, and a video of an impassioned speech he gave during the protests went viral.

“If you’ve got hate in your heart for people of color, get over it. Because this city is a minority-majority city, and this is a city where Blacks and white and browns and legal and illegal all get together because we judge each other by the content of our hearts,” Acevedo shouted from the streets.

But critics claim Acevedo’s talk about fighting racial hatred with the power of love didn’t line up with how his officers handled protesters when the news cameras weren’t rolling. Black Lives Matter Houston’s lead organizer Ashton P. Woods told the Miami New Times as much: “The people he was shown hugging were arrested hours after those videos were taken. I believe that’s hypocritical because if you think people have the right to demonstrate, you shouldn’t be arresting them,” he said.

HPD cops arrested dozens of protesters during the summer’s unrest, and one woman was trampled by a horse-mounted HPD officer when cops moved on activists who were blocking a downtown street, prompting a public apology from Turner.

Acevedo has also been criticized for how he ran the Austin Police Department. In September, Acevedo was named in a lawsuit over Austin PD’s alleged mishandling of sexual assault cases while he was in charge; The suit accuses Acevedo of not taking assault allegations from female Austin cops against their male colleagues seriously, and claims he said they may have have just regretted “bad sex.”

He also drew the ire of Austin police-defenders and some of his own commanders when he quickly fired the officer who shot and killed David Joseph, a Black 17-year-old who was unarmed and naked when he was shot to death in 2016.

Years later in Houston, Acevedo was blasted for blocking the release of police bodycam footage from six officer-involved shootings during April and May of 2020, including video from the killing of 27-year-old Nicolas Chavez.

In September, Acevedo finally released the video of Chavez’s killing and fired the four HPD officers responsible, but activists were still frustrated it took so long for the chief to take action.

But the greatest controversy of Acevedo’s career has to be the Harding Street raid. At the scene of the crime, Acevedo called the raid’s lead narcotics officer Gerald Goines “a hero,” but it eventually came out that Goines lied about a fake informant purchasing heroin from Nicholas and Tuttle in order to get a no-knock warrant to raid the couple’s home. Only small amounts of marijuana and cocaine — and no heroin — were found at the scene.

Acevedo ordered an internal audit of the narcotics division that uncovered widespread misconduct, but only made the report public after months of hectoring from local media and activists. Goines and former HPD officer Felipe Gallegos were later charged with murder for their roles in the raid.

In January, the Nicholas and Tuttle familes sued the City of Houston over HPD’s two-year-plus refusal to release the ballistics report and other physical evidence from the deadly raid. The family’s legal team believes that evidence may reveal that Nicholas was killed by blind fire from an HPD cop outside of the house, which contradicts HPD’s assertion that officers shot and killed the couple after Tuttle fired at the officers and once Nicholas grabbed for one cop’s shotgun.

John Nicholas, Rhogena’s brother, hopes Houstonians will remember his sister’s needless death and Acevedo’s refusal to share the evidence of what exactly happened during the raid. “He was at the scene. He knows what happened. And he knows that my sister did not deserve to be murdered by HPD in her own home,” he said.

“To this day,” Nicholas continued, “he still has not contacted our family or apologized. His legacy in Houston must include his coverup of this terrible incident. In the end, Mr. Acevedo did our family no justice.”

Nicholas family attorney Mike Doyle said he wasn’t stunned that Acevedo is departing Houston. “I’m certainly not surprised that he’s leaving given all this stuff hanging over his head at this point,” Doyle said.

For all of Acevedo’s progressive posturing, he was adamantly opposed to left-wing proposals like defunding police, and never stopped beating the drum that Houston needed more cops.

The message seems to have gotten through to Turner — When discussing Acevedo’s legacy and HPD’s future in a Monday press conference, the mayor was quick to remind folks that he’s approved extra funding for an additional police cadet class this year, in part because of the rising local homicide rate during the pandemic and the years-long decline in HPD’s murder solve rate under Acevedo’s tenure (which Acevedo has blamed on the pandemic, a lack of police funding and Harris County bail reforms designed to keep fewer people in county jails).

Acevedo was emotional and animated as ever in his likely final two-step with the Houston press corps.
Acevedo was emotional and animated as ever in his likely final two-step with the Houston press corps.
Screenshot

On Tuesday, Acevedo hit the bail issue hard. "No matter how good the officers are, no matter how good the leadership cadre is, you cannot have a criminal justice system that absolutely allows violent criminals to go in one door and out the other," Acevedo said. "You can't have a criminal justice system where people are out on one bond, two bonds, three bonds, four bonds, 11 bonds for violent crimes."

"And no, I'm not against bond reform, which is an absolute lie. I don't believe that people should be in jail just because they can't afford bail... for violent crimes, it should be risk, based on risk," he said.

Acevedo said that he's praying for HPD, Houstonians and Harris County residents because in his view, "violent crime will continue to go up if the community doesn't speak out."

"So as a suggestion," he continued, "if you want to march, and you want to save lives, let's march. March on the criminal courts building. March on the DA's office. March on the criminal justice system that is getting people hurt and getting people killed. That should not be happening."

As for Harding Street, Acevedo said he knows the saga is far from over. He once again credited HPD's internal investigation with being the real heroes in the story for allegedly uncovering the corruption within his narcotics unit, never mind the extensive coverage of the scandal by local investigative reporters.

"I'll be back for Harding Street," Acevedo said. "I'll be continuing to follow Harding Street. It happened on my watch. But let's be real clear, because I know you guys want to pretend like it didn't happen: we uncovered Harding Street."

Turner said he’ll name Acevedo’s immediate successor in the next few days, but it’s unclear who he’ll tap for the job and whether or not that person will be a permanent hire or just an interim placeholder. Houston City Councilmember Greg Travis voiced his support for hiring either of HPD’s two Executive Assistant Chiefs, Matt Slinkard and Troy Finner, on Twitter Monday.

Acevedo signaled his confidence in the two officers in his email to HPD announcing his departure, writing that the timing of his move was good “because Executive Assistant Chiefs Slinkard and Finner are ready and highly capable of continuing to move our department forward.”

He doubled-down on Tuesday: "I hope that what's next — and I think it's what's next —
is that one of these Executive Assistant Chiefs will be the next Chief of Police of the Houston Police Department. I have been praying for that," Acevedo said. The outgoing chief also hinted that it may be tough to lure a top candidate from outside of the force given that the Turner administration will be over in two years.

In his public introduction to the city of Miami Monday, Acevedo talked about what he thinks makes for good policing. “It’s about transparency. It’s about respect,” he said.

Doyle sure doesn’t think Acevedo’s Houston track record backs that up. “I don’t think I’m the right person to kind of judge him overall, but I can say that the legacy of Harding Street and the continued concealment of the facts has to be a big part of his legacy, unfortunately,” he said.

When asked if he’s optimistic at all that a new leader at HPD might lead to more police transparency in Houston going forward, Doyle implied he’s not holding his breath.

“What was that line in Dumb & Dumber? There’s always hope? There’s always a chance?”

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