Point Austin: The Chief Considers His Options

Dallas' recruitment of Art Acevedo deals him a very strong hand

Point Austin
Likely by the time you read this, Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo will have completed his two days (scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday) of interviews with Dallas officials who are considering him and five other finalists to replace retiring Dallas Police Chief David Kunkle. Three candidates are DPD assistant chiefs; the other two are currently chiefs in Louisville, Ky., and San Jose, Calif. Dallas City Manager Mary Suhm is expected to make her selection by late April.

For City Hall watchers, it's been entertaining to follow the official melodrama since Acevedo made public his candidacy earlier this month. The chief and City Manager Marc Ott are the principal actors, with supporting roles by other city officials and, of course, much offstage (and self-contradictory) kibitzing from the editors of the Austin American-Statesman.

Virtually everyone agrees that since he arrived in July 2007, Acevedo has been an effective chief. There have been minor differences in policy matters with the City Council, missteps in administration, minor beefs with the Austin Police Association, and a couple of high-profile incidents – most notoriously, the officer shooting of Nathaniel Sanders II – that have caused undeniable problems. But on the whole, especially in comparison to the remote and often embattled tenure of his predecessor, Stan Knee, Acevedo has been a great success, particularly in providing the sense that he and the department are actively engaged in the daily life and diverse culture of Austin and in embracing the broader public responsibilities of the job.

It's no surprise that other cities would want to hire him, although that he might consider moving on after less than three years is inevitably disappointing. Acevedo points out that he didn't seek out the Dallas opportunity but that it's an attractive job in a big and exciting city, and he needs to consider all his options and his family's future. Indeed, nothing may come of it – "I think people are writing my obituary here, and I'm not gone," he told me this week – but he notes that an average chief's tenure is "three to five years," he works without a contract at the pleasure of the city manager, and any chief, he says, is "one controversy away from the unemployment line."

The Chief and the Manager

Well, maybe. Knee, who was no dazzler (nor free from often heated controversy), lasted nine years, and Kunkle, whom Acevedo would replace, has been chief in Dallas since 2004, so Acevedo's calendar looks a little foreshortened – and nobody in Austin is calling for his head. But he has every right to explore his options, and most of us in his position would do the same. On the other hand, Ott might not feel quite so magnanimous; he offered a salary increase – unsuccessfully – to get Acevedo to drop out of the Dallas hunt. When I spoke to Ott this week, he sounded a wee bit testy that the chief hadn't passed on the Dallas opportunity. "I understand he's got a career arc to consider," Ott told me, "and it's not unlike mine, in coming from smaller cities or lesser positions to this one. I've had some inquiries, too, but I haven't pursued them, because I don't want to go anywhere else."

But Ott was quick to praise Acevedo for his job performance and said he has no reason to believe there's any problem influencing the chief to move on. Acevedo was even more effusive, describing his relationship with the city manager and the council as "excellent" and reiterating, "I absolutely love working with Marc Ott." Nevertheless, though the two men say they speak regularly, there have been no additional conversations about persuading Acevedo to stay.

At least not directly. Arguably, Ott mishandled the salary offer, insisting that Acevedo decide within 24 hours – yet since the chief had already said money was not an issue, he couldn't accept without contradicting himself. Ott's motives were certainly understandable; he hoped not only to keep Acevedo in Austin but to save the department, City Hall, and the public from weeks of fruitless speculation.

No such luck.

More recently, Acevedo told the Statesman and then other reporters that his "job security" is a consideration and that in theory a severance agreement (a payment to take effect only if he were dismissed) might ease that concern. It looks a lot like negotiation by media, and thus far (despite backseat driving from the Statesman), Ott isn't taking the bait.

Act III Opens

So that's where we are. The City Council cannot get directly involved in personnel matters, but Mayor Lee Leffingwell told me that he has assured Acevedo personally that he wants him to stay and that the council shares that sentiment. "I understand he's got a career ladder to consider," said Leffingwell, "but we want him to know that we'd like him to stay." The mayor added, "I believe he would like to stay." Leffingwell gives the chief particularly high marks for community outreach and for his ability to bring together disparate community factions to work together for common public safety goals.

Those are the same things Acevedo mentioned when I asked him about his Austin accomplishments. "I think we've seen here in this department the formula for organization success," he said, "which is basically three things: One, it's accountability; two, it's transparency; and three, it's community engagement and involvement and building those bridges." While it's clear Acevedo sees the metropolitan city of Dallas and its much larger police department as presenting considerable challenges he wouldn't mind taking on, he insists he's not desperate to leave Austin. "The bottom line is that this came out of the blue," he said. "I was not unhappy. I'm very happy being in Austin, and so whether or not I end up in Dallas is yet to be seen. But it won't be some major disappointment if I end up staying in Austin, one of the finest cities in the country ...."

Interrupting the river of praise, I asked him if he isn't preparing to exit paradise. "You know, I'm not gone yet," he answered. "I'm going through this process, and we'll see what happens."

So we will.

See excerpts from an interview with APD Chief Art Acevedo in "Acevedo on Dallas, Austin, and Ambition."

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Austin Police Department, Art Acevedo, Marc Ott, City Council, Lee Leffingwell

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