Bayou City

Houston's Chief Acevedo, Defiant and Introspective, Rails Against SB 4

Houston's Chief Acevedo, Defiant and Introspective, Rails Against SB 4
Meagan Flynn
On the morning after the Texas House passed Senate Bill 4, otherwise known as the "anti-sanctuary" cities bill, Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo was on Twitter, sparring with trolls.

He had been up late following the heated, emotional House debate over the bill, tweeting around 10:30, "Violent crime is on rise across our Nation & some would rather men & women in blue go after cooks & nannies, instead of hardened criminals."

It was not long after GOP House members had voted to add an amendment to SB 4 allowing police officers to ask people about their immigration status not only after arresting them, but also while detaining them for any purpose: for jaywalking, for rolling a stop sign. The bill prevents all law enforcement agencies — including campus police — from adopting policies that prohibit officers from asking about immigration status. And should law enforcement agencies fail to cooperate with ICE and turn over any inmate ICE seeks to detain — something both HPD and HCSO already do—then sheriffs or police chiefs can be removed from office and charged with a crime.

The bill was pitched as being necessary for public safety — but Acevedo, sworn to uphold public safety, testified staunchly against it. And he was far from the only one. Police chiefs and sheriffs in Bexar, Travis and El Paso counties, for example, all testified that the bill's chilling effect on undocumented immigrants would cause them to fear contact with police and reporting crimes. When the bill passed along party lines, to Acevedo, it felt like the none of the Republican lawmakers had listened to any of public safety's foremost experts.

Then, in the morning, a Twitter troll told him to keep his opinions to himself: "Crime is crime. Do your job and stay out of politics," the troll wrote. "Or resign and run for office. (And lose.)"
Acevedo responded to at least three other agitators on the thread, defending his position, and by 11:30 a.m. Thursday he had convened a news conference. He began by saying exactly what he told the trolls: "After 31 years of crime fighting, I have the right to speak out on matters that are absolutely detrimental to the tradition of crime fighting at the Houston Police Department."

The following 30 minutes were perhaps among the chief's most candid as head of Houston's police force.

At times, Acevedo welled up. He cited the Bible, the Book of Exodus, in which humanity's first immigrants are said to have been carried across the desert by God. He cited immigration studies by the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University. He compared the police chiefs of Texas to President Donald Trump's generals in the military: Trump listens to them to make informed decisions, Acevedo said. Why won't the leadership of Texas do the same?

"I’ll be real frank with you: These police officers joined this profession not to stop people jaywalking and ask for their papers. They joined this profession because they want to make a difference. A difference in the lives of the people we serve. And I’m convinced that [the Legislature] can pass all these silly amendments where they’re trying to make us into ICE agents if they want — cops aren’t interested in that. But here’s the problem: The perception we’re going to create by having this legislation is going to have a tremendously chilling effect on the immigrant community."

"If all the sudden I have a police officer who decides 'I’m going to go play ICE agent all day and harass day laborers at Home Depot,' explain to me... how does that enhance public safety?"

tweet this
A few weeks ago, Acevedo unveiled statistics showing that the number of Hispanics reporting rapes has dropped 43 percent compared to the same time last year, with a 13 percent drop in other violent crimes. That's compared to an 8.2 percent increase in non-Hispanic victims reporting rapes and an 11.7 percent increase in non-Hispanics reporting other violent crime. (Acevedo didn't say how the data was collected except that it was data pooled from January to March and compared to the same time last year.) When undocumented immigrants are afraid to report a crime for fear of police handing them over to ICE, Acevedo said Thursday, that means a criminal goes free to prey on more people.

"Now," he said, "for those that think that that doesn’t matter, to blue-blooded Americans, blond hair, blue eyes — any American who’s here legally or is a natural-born citizen — if you don’t think that this will have an impact on your safety, you’re sadly mistaken."

Houston police and the Harris County Sheriff's Office currently have policies that prevent street patrol officers from asking about someone's immigration status. But, asked what would happen to Houston's policy once SB 4 becomes law, it was clear that Acevedo had his hands tied.

Should he continue such a policy — directing officers to focus on stopping criminals, not identifying undocumented immigrants — then the man who spent the last 31 years fighting crime could subject himself to instead being charged with one, and losing his badge. To Acevedo, it seemed, the rule was insulting.

"What this legislation does is say to me and my team that we don’t have the authority to keep our [officers] focused on criminals," Acevedo said. "If all the sudden I have a police officer who decides 'I’m going to go play ICE agent all day and harass day laborers at Home Depot,' explain to me, when I lose my authority to tell my officers they can’t do that, how does that enhance public safety? Tell me that with a straight face."

The bill will head back to the Senate where senators will review any tweaks House members made to their bill, then it will be on Governor Greg Abbott's desk.

He will almost certainly sign the bill, after making it an emergency item at this year's legislative session.

Despite Acevedo's disdain for SB4 and how it impacts law enforcement, he said: "I’m going to close by reminding the people of Texas that, I believe — I have to believe — in my heart of hearts that the intentions are good at the Legislature. I have to believe that. Because if I don’t, I’m not sure that I have faith in the human condition."
KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Meagan Flynn is a staff writer at the Houston Press who, despite covering criminal justice and other political squabbles in Harris County, drinks only one small cup of coffee per day.
Contact: Meagan Flynn