Trying To Fix the World

After nearly five years, APD Chief Art Acevedo and Austin have made a productive fit

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The Charm Offensive

In the middle of the stress generated by his whistleblower action, Acevedo found the APD job posting. He was scrolling through the job board for the International Association of Chiefs of Police when he came across the notice that Austin was in search of a new chief – it's a story he's told numerous times, including at his swearing in at City Hall on July 19, 2007. "I'm sitting there reading, and all of a sudden I see this opening, and when I read what they were looking for, I felt like they were talking to me," he recalled recently. "I looked over at my wife and said: 'Holy shit! This was written for me – they're describing me to a T.'" The posting described a person who believed in community policing, media relations, and department transparency. "If you looked at the job bulletin and what they were looking for ... it really spoke to me."

Acevedo certainly impressed city officials and community members when he landed in Austin as one of the finalists for the chief position, vacated by the 2006 resignation of Chief Stan Knee. Knee was a buttoned-down old-schooler who had an inability – or reluctance – to communicate effectively either within the APD's rank-and-file or more broadly to members of the media and the community at large. Acevedo cut a strikingly different figure. He was young, outgoing, and ready to give his personal mobile phone number to anyone who asked for it. He was the only finalist to sit for questions with the board of the Austin Police Association (the city's largest cop union), and he personally organized a Q&A at Threadgill's with local activists and advocates. He had done his homework; he read everything he could about the department before he got here, compiling information in a several-inches-thick binder he called his APD briefing book; he was ready for any question thrown at him. "I knew more about the department than the department knew about itself, I think," he says.

When the activists asked him pointed questions about the 2002 officer-involved shooting death of Sophia King, a woman with mental disabilities who had been shot dead by Officer John Coffey as she advanced on a city housing authority employee with a knife – an incident controversial with many department critics and civil libertarians – he did not stumble. "What I told them was, 'Look, I don't have a stake in this fight ... but from the outside looking in, from everything I see, that was probably one of the cleanest use-of-force incidents I had seen.'" It was not the answer they were likely hoping for, but nonetheless Acevedo won points with those who were encouraged by his willingness to interact with everyone in the community – department boosters and critics alike. "He raised the charm level of the police department," acknowledges Jim Harrington, executive director of the Texas Civil Rights Project, who early on was among the advocates who saw Acevedo as having the potential to transform the previously unresponsive APD.

Acevedo has certainly charmed department friends and foes, but he's done far more than that, say many city officials and police officers, including his direct supervisor, Assistant City Manager Mike McDonald, who is himself a retired APD assistant chief. "Early on, when we interviewed him, I could just tell he was going to be a success," he says. Acevedo has demonstrated that he is a "very balanced chief," adds McDonald – one able to forge and maintain a personal connection to the community, but who also demonstrates that he knows "what he needs to do tactically, to fight crime."

Acevedo's supporters say he's done that. Shortly after joining APD, he announced the end of so-called "80% staffing," an across-the-city method of staffing patrol operations that did not rely on actual need – and that consumed millions in overtime pay, at times nearly doubling some officers' salaries. It didn't make fiscal sense, and it didn't keep the city safer – but abolishing it took some political finesse, since officers were both accustomed to it and rewarded by it.

Acevedo was sworn in as APD's eighth chief in July 2007.
Acevedo was sworn in as APD's eighth chief in July 2007. (Photo by Jana Birchum)

In its place, Acevedo implemented "need based" staffing that relies on intelligence gathering, notably through the introduction of CompStat, a data collection system that can help police recognize crime trends and hotspots. Combined with the Real Time Crime Center that monitors information from cameras placed around the city – for example, at longtime crime hotspot Rundberg Lane and I-35 – the department has moved toward more proactive policing. "What I'd like to see is [police being able] to disrupt and prevent crime," says Acevedo. "Once a crime is committed, I think we've failed everyone. The most effective way to prevent and disrupt crime is to have a highly visible, proactive police department."

Don't Leave Us

Under Acevedo, the APD has certainly developed its public face, which was one of the things the city had hoped the new chief would accomplish. Acevedo set a standard of public interaction for a department that desperately needed to forge a deeper public connection. "He tries to bond with the people he's talking to," says Council Member Bill Spelman, whose research and practice at the LBJ School of Public Affairs focuses in part on police training and better crime prevention. "I think he's a very emotional guy, and I think he tries to feel an emotional connection with everyone he's talking with," Spelman continues. "I feel an emotional connection whenever I'm talking to Art, in a way that I hardly ever feel with police chiefs. Police chiefs, as a general rule, are not emotional people."

Acevedo's emotional nature was certainly on display in the aftermath of the Padron shooting – he wept publicly several times – and it has also been evident during other critical incidents when officers have shot and killed a member of the public. Regardless whether he's felt that the use of force was justified, he has tried to reach out to the family of the slain person to acknowledge that they are in mourning for a lost child. "I don't care if the person is Jeffrey Dahmer," Acevedo told reporters at a press conference after the April officer-involved shooting death of Ahmede Jabbar Bradley, who was killed after fleeing on foot from Officer Eric Copeland during a routine traffic stop. "The pain of a mother and father is real." Acevedo's personal relationship with the community "is unprecedented," says McDonald. "And that works its way down" to the rest of the department. Leffingwell agrees. "There's been a basic reinvigoration within the esprit de corps of the department. Officers look up to him, and his leadership is very important," he says. "More important may be what he's done with the community."

As a consequence, the community as a whole appears much more personally invested in the department and its leadership than it has been in the past. One striking example was the public reaction to Acevedo's 2010 announcement that he was a finalist to become the Dallas PD chief. The outrage was visceral, recalls Spelman. There was a general feeling from the community of, "How could you do this to us?" Spelman says – "What did we do to piss you off?" that Acevedo would consider leaving so soon. "That's very much good and reflects especially well on Art, but I think it trickles down to the rest of the police department. I think people are willing to work with the department in a way they were previously not willing ... because they see [that] Art, and by extension the entire department, is a lot more approachable than it used to be. And that's very good."

Acevedo describes the community reaction as humbling. "It made me feel good, actually," he says, and it prompted him to withdraw himself from consideration for the Dallas job. "I was surprised that anyone cared that much. One of the reasons I decided to stay was that it touched my heart."

To Acevedo, his push to make the APD a more transparent and responsive operation – especially in the wake of police shootings – is at the heart of the community's feelings toward him and the department he leads. "What I saw, from the outside looking in, was that the traditional [APD] culture was one where maybe transparency was not valued, whether with the media or the public," says Acevedo. "I am a true believer that transparency breeds trust, trust breeds cooperation, and cooperation breeds public safety and officer safety." Now, after a shooting he's among the first people on the scene – often before case detectives have even arrived. "I don't just sit back when there's a critical incident," he says. "We walk through the scene, we look at the evidence ... and I even go so far as to ask questions of the officer, because I don't want to rely on a report from someone else." Once he's gathered that information, he says he can quickly assess what the issues and challenges will be, and then he likes to make information available to the public. And when it appears to him that the use of force was justified, he's going to say so.

"I don't think it's in the best interest of this community to have a police chief" who doesn't say what he sees – "and I never say it is absolutely lawful; I say it appears to be, based on what we know so far." Failing to address the public, he says, feeds conspiracy thinking, and "sets people up and establishes false expectations."

Sgt. Wayne Vincent, president of the APA, says Acevedo's approach has been beneficial. "I think the biggest change is how we communicate with the public. [Acevedo's] been a lot more forthcoming and a lot more quick to put out facts on high profile incidents, which is very helpful," he says. "I think it's been helpful in that the perception that the department is withholding facts has been, maybe not eliminated altogether, but I think certainly has been reduced. When the chief comes out within 24 hours and gives the general details, that hasn't been done before, and it helps to quell some of the speculation and rumors."

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Austin Police Department, Art Acevedo, Jaime Padron, Nelson Linder, Jim Harrington, Stan Knee, Wayne Vincent, Austin Police Association, Texas Civil Rights Project, Devin Contreras, Art Mata

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