Last fall, President Barack Obama sought Art Acevedo's help. Acevedo was Austin's police chief at the time, and was representing the voices of dozens of chiefs as the first vice president of the Major Cities Chiefs Association. The president wanted to know: How did police leaders feel about sentencing reform for nonviolent drug offenders imprisoned for lengthy sentences that were costing taxpayers millions?
Acevedo told Obama he and many others were all for the reforms — an opinion Houston's new chief recently shared at length on KPFT's radio show Cultural Baggage with host Dean Becker, a longtime marijuana reform advocate in Texas.
“You know, when you have people that didn't commit any violent crime, that are doing 30, 40 years, 20 years in prison for drugs, it's just not really a good use of jail space, of prison space, especially when it's costly,” he told Becker. “[We were] making it real clear to the President that we absolutely believe in [sentencing reform] — that we want to push for it, not just at the federal level, but at the state level as well.”
In the 30-minute radio show, which aired late afternoon last Friday, Acevedo covered everything from the future of medical marijuana in Texas to police initiatives intended to connect drug users with treatment and resources rather than jail. On Tuesday, Acevedo offered more details to the Houston Press about two of those initiatives he intends to implement in Houston: cite and release and what he calls a “drug market intervention” — both of which were a success in Austin, he said.
In 2009, Acevedo was among the first police chiefs in the state and the only chief of a large Texas city to implement cite and release. Thanks to 2007 legislation, the policy allows police to write low-level, nonviolent offenders tickets and give them court dates on the spot instead of arresting them and hauling them to jail — a process that can take up hours of officers' time. Cite and release is available to misdemeanor marijuana offenders (the main focus for Houston reforms right now) as well as criminal mischief or graffiti, driving with an invalid license and low-level theft suspects.
Houston and Harris County have toyed with cite and release in the past, but it's never materialized, partly because of computer software problems in generating offenders' court dates on the spot and concerns about their failing to appear on those days, former district attorney Devon Anderson told us last year. At one point, Travis County's rate of failure to appear in court for cite and release defendants was as high as 40 percent. Acevedo said that, while failure to appear is a valid concern, the benefits of cite and release for nonviolent offenders outweigh it by far.
“Despite the fact that [Austin] was a very lean department dealing with explosive growth, we were able to keep it one of the safest big cities in the country because we were focusing on what matters most: taking care of violent crime and property crime,” Acevedo told the Press. “We've got limited resources here like every other police department — it never made sense to me to be tying up police officers for low-level offenses. We've got to rethink our priorities, and that's why I've already started a conversation with the mayor and the new DA [about cite and release].”
Both Mayor Sylvester Turner and District Attorney Kim Ogg have signaled their support for the reform, Acevedo said.
As for the “drug market initiative,” Acevedo said it entails undercover officers infiltrating drug hot spots and building cases on some of the small-time users. But instead of throwing the book at them, Acevedo said, police invite the users and their families — as well as job counselors and drug counselors — to what could perhaps best be described as a glorified intervention. The cops explain to the offenders that, if they stay clean and get their act together using available resources, prosecutors will drop the drug charges.
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As he told Dean Becker: “I separate our efforts combating drug trafficking [from] those that are just users — we've got to get them treatment; we've got to get them help to try to kick the habit....Now, for those that are involved in the violence of the drug trade, that's who I want to focus on. I want to focus on the people that are the big movers and shakers that are poisoning young people.”
All in all, Acevedo expressed optimism for the future of drug reform in Texas, and believes legislators will begin to take baby steps to expand medical marijuana legalization. In the meantime, he said, police agencies can use their discretion to stop waging a failed war against users and instead take advantage of things like diversion and cite and release. He is not the only Houston police chief to have appeared on Cultural Baggage to denounce the drug war: Former chief Charles McClelland made national news after labeling the war against drugs a failure on the show as well.
By contrast, however, Acevedo appears to have bigger plans for the Houston Police Department when it comes to putting that belief in practice.
“I'm working for a mayor and council supportive of what I would call smart policing and smart justice,” he said, “and so I really think there will be some good things coming down the pipeline.”