Acevedo on Dallas, Austin, and Ambition

Point Austin
On Monday, March 29, I spoke with Austin Police Department Chief Art Acevedo about the status of his job interviews with the city of Dallas, his tenure as Austin Police chief, and related matters. The following is an edited transcript of that conversation.

Austin Chronicle: Where do you think things stand right now?

Art Acevedo: Well, I'm one of six finalists, there will be a process by which Dallas will be able to evaluate whether I'm a good fit for them, and I'll be able to evaluate whether they're a good fit for me and my family, and after that, we'll see what happens. I think people are writing my obituary here, and I'm not gone.

AC: Austinites in general cannot believe that anyone would want to live anywhere but Austin.

AA: There's a lot of pride, and rightfully so. I think it's well placed. Austin is a crown jewel, but Dallas is a world-class city in its own way; there's things that Dallas has that we don't and things that we have that Dallas doesn't, and it's just a matter of balancing what you're looking for at whatever time in your life.

AC: I do know a little about the department up there, and it's been a polarized department. I know the Austin department has its tensions as well. What's your sense of what you might be getting into if you do decide to go there?

AA: I know Dallas is a very diverse city; it is, from what I can see from the census information, it's a majority-minority city, and it has a history of challenges in race relations. But I think that those challenges can be opportunities, and I think I'm the kind of person that has not only the skill set but the interest in trying to bring people together. And both internally and externally, I think it's important that communities and people work together as one. I like to say APD is a "department of one, and Austin's a city of one out of many" – and I think when we all get together and work as one and row in the same direction, we end up being much more successful. That appeals to me.

AC: You have said you're concerned here potentially about your job security; are you concerned about anyone looking over your shoulder?

AA: I think any police chief that doesn't have a contract knows you're only as good as your latest controversy. Your average police chief averages anywhere from three to five years in noncontract cities – so I'm not particularly feeling that I'm not in a good position; however, I realize that in these types of jobs, you're one controversy away from the unemployment line. So that does make you nervous. Quite frankly, I wasn't looking for any opportunities, but when the job came open in Dallas and the search firm ... called me several times and talked to me about their challenges and the opportunities there, it did appeal to me, and I put my hat in the ring to at least explore that opportunity.

AC: In the absence of a contract, do you think there's something that Austin could do to reassure you on the question of your security?

AA: Yeah, I think for any administrator or any leader in a position like the police chief's position, any challenging position in big city government – any time you would have a defined severance package, that does give you a little bit of security for your family, especially when you have a young family like I do, with a 2-year-old at home. My son's starting San Diego State next year, which is another $20,000 or $21,000 out of my salary this year. [Acevedo also has a grown daughter, now on her own.]

But I don't want to create the impression that I went after this job to create leverage for me. It was an opportunity that was presented to me, and when you think about it, it is a huge metropolitan area with a lot of moving parts, and it is something that does appeal to me. As someone said to me, being ambitious is not a bad thing; you don't take one of these positions without being ambitious. Look at our president – he was in the Senate, and shortly after his first year, he's the president and in the most powerful seat in the country. That's not to compare myself to him, but it's just human nature – people that want to make a difference, it starts with the ambition to position yourself to be able to be in a position to be a change agent, so that does appeal to me.

AC: Have you done most of the things you wanted to do in Austin?

AA: No, I don't think the work's ever done. In any organization, you have to see every day, every week, every month, every year as an opportunity to always be vigilant for process improvements, for system improvements. When you think that you're done, that's when you have nowhere to go but down. I don't think you're ever done, but I think the management team, the officers, and the city have really come together in the last nearly three years now to make some tremendous changes to position the department moving forward to make a success. I think we've seen here in this department the formula for organization success, 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.

That road map for continuing success is there; I think we've had some tremendous buy-in internally, we've had buy-in externally from the community – so are we there yet? No, but I don't think you're ever there as an organization – there's always work to be had. A police department is like a living organism; you're going to have things spring up that are detrimental to the organization, and you have to deal with those as they come up. You have to use preventative medicine as much as possible, and you have to exercise, build that muscle and burn the fat, if that makes any sense. It's an ongoing work in progress, and you can never rest.

AC: Do you have any particular disappointments that you would point to? Is there anything particularly that concerns you?

AA: No. Before I came to Austin, we tried to get license-plate readers – those were killed. We tried to get cameras around the city to fight crime – we're on the verge of getting those. If you have thought about it, the Austin Regional Intelligence Center that we're on the cusp of rolling out is really going to exist for one reason only – to fight crime, to connect the dots, to keep people safe, and bring criminals to justice. Those things I think five or six years ago, or even two-and-a-half years ago, would have been really difficult, a really hard sell. But because of that formula, accountability, transparency, and engagement, we've earned the trust of the community – collectively, all of us – of the people we serve. I think we've earned the trust of even our greatest critics, because although they know we're never going to agree 100 percent of the time, they know that 100 percent of the time we're trying to do the right thing, and I think that's important to people.

So we have moved in good directions, so I don't have any great disappointments. I'm enjoying this ride, and I'm a person of faith, so I know that I'm going to end up where I'm supposed to be. I'm not that worried.

AC: How would you characterize your relationship with the council and the city manager?

AA: I think it's excellent. I absolutely love working with Marc Ott. He's got a vision for Austin to have it be the best managed city in the country – and it's not just a vision, he's trying to get the resources to get it done. So I love working with Marc; I think we've got a great City Council, where the mayor and council all have their hearts in the right place, and they work hard to keep Austin one of the most vibrant and most exciting places to live in the country. If you look at any magazine, we always rate way up there in terms of places to live in the country. Livability, safety, and everything else. That doesn't happen by accident; it requires leadership from the city manager, leadership from the mayor and City Council level, and it requires leadership at the director's level. I think Austin is fortunate to be led by some great political leaders, some great administrative leaders, not just at the city manager's level but all throughout the departments – we're a really well-managed city.

AC: Sounds like a paradise you're getting ready to leave?

AA: You know, I'm not gone yet. I'm going through this process, and we'll see what happens.

AC: Do you think the potential departure and then this short-circuited negotiation has created any tension between you and Mr. Ott?

AA: No. Marc and I are really good friends – unless you're hearing something I'm not.

AC: Yet this question of job security came up through the media as well. Are you guys not talking?

AA: No, we talk to each other all the time. The bottom line is that this came out of the blue – 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 – and I'm living near Zilker Park, I get to walk to [the Austin City Limits Music Festival].

AC: You have made a big change in the department and in the culture of the city.

AA: But you know, the collective heart of the Austin Police Department is a pure heart. I think part of the criticism we've had historically, part of it was due to us as an organization failing to engage the community and the media and being up front on issues. We have nothing to hide. What I've said – most chiefs run from activists; I run to them. I mean I've spent time with Alex Jones on his show, twice. To the crowd that he caters to, the fact that I was willing to go on there means something to those folks. They still might not trust you – but at least [they realize] the guy was willing to talk to us and not completely write us off. I think that's important, because at the end of the day, even those people whose views may be way out there, they're still our constituency, and they're still people we police, and to the greatest extent possible, I think that's a win for us.

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