Trying To Fix the World

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

(Page 3 of 3)

Agreeing To Disagree

Of course, there are accompanying risks to Acevedo's proactive, public style. To TCRP's Harrington, the chief's public posture has at times hurt the APD. Specifically, he points to a press conference Acevedo convened in May 2011 to announce that the investigation into the department by the U.S. Department of Justice would be closed and the department "vindicated." Harrington and NAACP's Linder had originally filed a complaint with the DOJ in 2004, asking it to look at the department and in particular at officers' use of force against minorities; in 2007, the DOJ announced that it would begin an investigation.

Acevedo as he patrols the streets of Austin.
Acevedo as he patrols the streets of Austin. (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Acevedo says he is proud of the way the department handled the inquiry – an investigation he inherited. "[R]ather than fighting it, rather than condemning it, we embraced it, just like we embrace a majority of our critics," he said recently. "We ... saw it as an opportunity to make a good organization better." And, he says, he believes that's what has happened. The DOJ made more than 160 recommendations for improvements, including evaluating how the APD tracks use of force complaints and suggesting that the city's police monitor – currently former Travis County Sheriff Margo Frasier – provide "objective, public reports on the conduct of APD's internal affairs" and partner with APD to monitor its internal controls.

Although Harrington had been fairly complimentary about the APD's response to the DOJ recommendations, after the 2011 press conference, he says he felt that Acevedo walked away from the progress. "He holds this press conference with all these cops who have killed people. And particularly, I was really pissed off about this cop [John Coffey] who killed Sophia King. You know, pounding on their chests like, you know, we're vindicated," he says. "It was, to me, dishonest and disingenuous. And I called him on it – and it was the last time he talked to me." (Acevedo says that's because Harrington "never called me back.") Harrington now feels that the goodwill Acevedo established with critics such as himself when he first came on the Austin scene has been diminished; frankly, Harrington says, he is pessimistic about any long-term change coming to APD.

Linder and Harrington also question whether some of the reforms suggested by the DOJ have actually been implemented – among those an effective early warning system on potential misconduct by officers, a strict standard banning use of force against individuals fleeing from the police (except in narrow circumstances), and recommendations that the department work better with Frasier's office. To Harrington, the relationship between the monitor and APD appears more strained now than it was when the DOJ issued its recommendations.

While Frasier does say that her relationship with Acevedo has, at times, been a bit prickly – in particular, after she issued a memo suggesting that several members of the APD's SWAT team who'd been partying while on call should receive harsher punishment than Acevedo meted out – she calls it a good one overall. "We have a good relationship. We butt heads sometimes, but we're supposed to butt heads," she says. Although she says she was surprised by Acevedo's reaction to recommendations she made after the SWAT incident, suggestions to which he seemed to take personal offense, she says the two have since "had some heart to hearts. Now we disagree much better. I like Art Acevedo as a person, but I don't think it would be appropriate for the police chief and the police monitor to be chummy."

Frasier says she is concerned by aspects of the APD's new openness, particularly regarding officer-involved shootings. "The thing that this chief well knows, the thing I often express concern about, is walking that line between giving some information to the public, so the public understands [what's going on and what's happened], and looking like you're coming to a quick conclusion" about whether a use of force was warranted. "I think that's something that he struggles with," she says. "It is incredibly damaging every time you go out and say something that is not accurate. And the scene is so chaotic at first. I think the public wants to know you're there; it's important that you're there and that you're willing to face the public and answer questions."

Indeed, Acevedo has occasionally released misinformation. In October 2010, Officer Derrick Bowman shot and killed 16-year-old Devin Contreras during a botched break-in at a South Austin Big Lots. Shortly after the early morning incident, Acevedo told reporters that Bowman shot Contreras after the teen fired two rounds at him; Bowman had seen the muzzle flash, Acevedo had said, based on Bowman's first statements. It turns out that was not true; Contreras did point a gun at Bowman, but he never fired.

Acevedo says that he corrected the mistake quickly and argues that his handling of the incident in fact reflects APD's credibility and openness. Had the department wanted to cover the mistake and sustain the initial story, it would've been easy enough to take the .38 Contreras carried to the lab and fire a couple shots. The initial mistake, he says, reflects "the spirit of transparency and the spirit of giving people as much information as possible."

That is certainly the persistent theme of the Acevedo administration: Putting a public face on public safety and connecting people to the department. It is also a work in progress. While Linder believes that Acevedo has, on balance, done a good job, he's still deeply concerned about officer-involved shootings, which almost invariably involve the death of a minority person, and almost always someone from Austin's Eastside. Lethal police encounters are relatively rare in Austin, and that may be one reason that each captures so much attention. Linder says that the issue is a larger one of how police interact with communities of color, and in particular how they interact with young men of color, who account for the majority of individuals killed by police.

City officials say they also believe there is more to be done in this area. "I guess what I would say is that an area of strength and one where we need work on is the [department's] relationship with [different] segments of the community. There are relationships within certain areas of the community that we have to continue to work on," says McDonald. "That's just a product, too, of history. Go all the way back to the Sixties and early Seventies, when police were used as tools of injustice. People remember that; certainly parts of the black and Hispanic communities do."

Striving for Perfection

Acevedo acknowledges there's more work to be done with minority communities. The key, he says, is connecting with the city's youth – especially on the Eastside. To work toward that goal, he's brought back the Police Explorer program and the Police Activities League, law enforcement training and sports programs respectively, through which youth interact closely with police. And he's behind the creation of the successful Waterloo District of the Boy Scouts, part of the Urban Youth Initiative that he chairs. The Waterloo District has so far been wildly successful; 1,500 Eastside kids – 85% Hispanic, 14% African-American – are now members of the Boy Scouts through the Capital Area Council. Acevedo is passionate about the endeavor, which he launched in 2010. The Waterloo District even includes a troop inside the Gardner-Betts Juvenile Justice Center, nationally the only one of its kind.

Acevedo considers scouting a proven way to empower youth. He's fond of relating a particular set of facts: more than 50% of local minority males drop out of high school, while 91% of boys with five or more years of scouting experience graduate – and many go on to college. His passion for the program is clear: "Anything I need, I call him," says Art Mata, the Waterloo District commissioner. "He always says yes; he makes things happen." To create additional opportunities for Eastside kids to interact with police and other public safety personnel, he charged Mata with putting together a Local Heroes celebration – a day for parents and kids to come to an expolike festival with all sorts of public safety personnel; there are firemen and trucks, bomb techs and explosives demonstrations – and there are both kids and parents, lots of them. In 2011, the fest pulled in about 500 attendees; this year, nearly 2,000 attended. For next year, Mata says Acevedo has challenged him to bring in 4,000 kids and parents.

In minority communities, "there has always been a fear of police officers. Kids see police coming, and they run away," says Mata. "Acevedo wanted us to change that." The chief says that he intends to focus even more energy engaging with youth and communities of color. "The history of American policing is an ugly history; let's be honest, we've got to face it," he says. "I can tell you that the relationship of a police department, in a democracy, with the public it serves – across socioeconomic, racial, ethnic, and gender [lines] – it's never going to be perfect. It's just not," he continues. "As police officers, we're stuck with the failings of society. When we have 50 to 55 percent of African-American boys dropping out – when they drop out, that's the beginning of people ending up in prison, people ending up on drugs, people ending up in gangs, and people ending up in a fight or conflict with police – and, ultimately, in a deadly force encounter. I can tell you, I'm not going to fix the world – we're not going to fix the world – but I'm going to keep trying."

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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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