On May 5, Houston Police Department Chief Art Acevedo shared a story on Twitter about Texas police chiefs who oppose SB 4, the new Texas law that requires local officers to help enforce federal immigration laws.
“3rd World America!” another user, called Deplorable Jason, posted in response.
“I'm sorry, did you mean the 3rd Reich?” Acevedo shot back.
Four days later, a user named Randy Adams questioned why the Texas Standard radio program would bother to invite Acevedo, a “well known leftist,” onto the program.
“I am not a 'leftist,' but next time you're in church, consider the teachings of Jesus, who just may [be] the biggest so-called leftist in history,” Acevedo shot back.
To the list of evils Acevedo vows to protect Houstonians against, add Twitter trolls. To be clear, Acevedo does not see his role as that of an enforcer of Internet politeness, nor as a vain exercise to protect his honor online. Rather, he sees an opportunity to use social media — which he views as partly responsible for a rise in extremism and partisanship in American society — to bring the police department closer to the residents officers serve, and to speak out on issues of public safety.
“You have to realize that we're operating, probably the last ten years, at a time when mistrust of government is at a fever pitch. If you think about law enforcement, we are the most visible cog of that government wheel, right?” Acevedo said during an interview in his office. “To me, social media is part of transparency.”
Subordinates on different floors of the police department's downtown headquarters say the 52-year-old Acevedo keeps a whirlwind schedule. He spoke with the Houston Press between shooting a PSA and meeting with the Travis County tax commissioner, in town from Austin.
Yet he finds time to tweet, day and night, even on weekends. His handle, @ArtAcevedo, boasts more than 17,000 posts since 2012. The 61 messages he posted in the first week of June range from the benign (a retweet of his officers impressing kids with their loudspeaker) to the serious (a post warning of the possible unintended consequences of the controversial SB 4). And, every few days, an interaction with a city resident who has a question about the police department.
"I have had times when people contact me on social media, like they are angry," Acevedo explained. "And when they realize it's me responding, it seems to have a real calming effect. And I think they just appreciate that we are — to me, it's part of being accountable — responding to folks."
And then, of course, there are the Internet trolls. Acevedo says he welcomes honest debate on social media, and says he feels a moral obligation to give his opinion on public safety issues. He says he steers clear of commenting publicly on issues outside of his expertise (you won't see him endorsing political candidates, he promises). Still, his willingness to speak his mind plunged him into two debates that riled Texans from Beaumont to El Paso this legislative session — SB 4, which compels local police to help federal authorities enforce immigration law; and a bill that would permit Texans to carry handguns without a permit.
The chief firmly opposes both. SB 4, he argues, will strain his already understaffed force and also foster distrust between the Hispanic community and the police. And while asserting his commitment to the Second Amendment, Acevedo said permit-less handgun carry would put guns in the hands of Texans whom the state had previously determined to be too irresponsible to have them.
This willingness to defend himself and his point of view sometimes gets him crosswise with his constituents. Pressed about his remark about Jesus and why he would question someone’s interpretation of the Bible in a deeply religious state, Acevedo stood his ground. The chief said he saw a disconnect between the Christian faith the user proclaimed in his profile and some of the comments he posted about.
“I kind of find it disingenuous that people talk about their values, then you read about what they’re tweeting about certain issues, and I don’t know what Bible they’re reading. I don’t know what Christ they’re following,” he said. “I think that’s sometimes a way of calling hypocrisy out.”
And Acevedo smarts whenever anyone calls him a leftist, which likens him to the oppressive Castro regime in Cuba that his family fled in the 1960s.
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“Those are fighting words,” he said. “So I really have to take a deep breath. People calling me a communist or a leftist probably don't know that's one of the most offensive things you can call a Cuban.”
In a nutshell, that’s Acevedo — take him or leave him. He says he believes most Americans are pragmatic and reasonable, and those people, ultimately, are who he is trying to reach. To do that, Acevedo says he refuses to walk a tightrope on issues so as not to rub anyone the wrong way. And lest Texans get the idea Acevedo only stands up to anonymous Twitter users, he was also content to tell legislators why he thinks they were dead wrong to pass SB 4.
“I always say hey, if you’re in a high-profile position, and you’re not controversial, you’re not doing your job,” the chief said.
And try as he might, he concedes the best tactic is sometimes to ignore the instigators — hearts and minds can’t always be swayed in 140 characters. But he'll sure as heck try.