Trying To Fix the World

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

Chief Art Acevedo is a familiar face behind the wheel of an APD squad car.
Chief Art Acevedo is a familiar face behind the wheel of an APD squad car. (Photo by Jana Birchum)

On the April morning of the funeral for slain Austin Police Department Officer Jaime Padron, Chief Art Acevedo stopped at Starbucks with his general support officer and right-hand man, Officer Dennis Farris, to grab a cup of coffee and collect his thoughts in advance of the speech he was to deliver to the nearly 5,000 people – including thousands of cops from Austin and around the state – attending the service at Shoreline Church. Acevedo jotted some notes, Farris recalled, but, as usual, did not write out a speech. A few hours later, standing before the collected mourners, Acevedo breathed deeply before launching into a detailed and layered remembrance of Padron – a "servant," and a "hero," who was gunned down by a shoplifter inside a North Austin Walmart on Good Friday. The speech lasted nearly 30 minutes, during which Acevedo barely glanced at his notes. At the close of an emotional speech that at times sounded more like a sermon, Acevedo choked up. "I always tell you I'm proud of you guys," he said, addressing the members of APD. "But I'm more proud than ever today for being your chief. We will get through it; this is just the beginning. And I want to say thank you for letting me lead you. You matter; we'll always be there for you, and we'll get through it together."

"He really missed his calling as a preacher," says Bruce Mills, former APD assistant chief, onetime candidate for APD chief, and former head of the city's Public Safety and Emergency Management Department, which was home to the airport and park police before police consolidation in 2009. Mills hired Padron for the airport force; in 1978, Mills was the partner of Ralph Ablanedo, the last APD officer gunned down in the line of duty. Mills is among many – including city officials, APD officers, and department critics – who give Acevedo high marks for his ability to connect with people and to talk "from the heart," as Mayor Lee Leffingwell puts it. "I've never seen him use a note; he just gets out there and says what he feels," Leffingwell says. "It's always impressed me that he will speak to anyone at any time."

Indeed, in the nearly five years since Acevedo signed on as the city's top cop, he has changed the face of the department – turning it from an organization that appeared reluctant at best to engage with the media and the community into a department that is now defined by the energy and charisma of its 47-year-old leader. Since being sworn in as the city's eighth police chief in July 2007, Chief "Ace" has confronted a number of challenges. He's led the department through a handful of officer-involved shootings and a federal Department of Justice review prompted by allegations that Austin police have used force disproportionately against minorities; he's fired 21 cops and handed out 187 lesser suspensions; he's butted heads with the police union boss and the city's police monitor; he's restructured major department operations – including how it patrols the city, how it handles officer discipline and how it investigates its own. And, so far at least, he's weathered every storm with his reputation as an affable straight-shooter largely intact.

Acevedo is not without his critics, sometimes quite harsh ones, particularly those who say that he's too quick to justify officers' use of force. Others say that the chief's outgoing manner and reputation only serve to disguise institutionalized practices in a department that either resists change or endures it only grudgingly, after years of public pressure. But even longtime department critics, including Nelson Linder of the Austin NAACP, offer some praise for a chief who they say has helped to turn the department into a more community-friendly force. "The biggest thing is visibility," Linder says. "He talks to people and makes himself visible to every segment of the population. I think that is his strength."

Young Officer Rising

In December 1968, Acevedo, a native of Cuba, arrived with his family in Miami, where he spent two weeks at the House of Liberty, a World War II barracks site at the Miami airport, while the family was processed as political refugees. He was 4½ years old. On New Year's Eve, the family flew to Los Angeles, settling near relatives in the small, working-class city of El Monte, east of downtown L.A.

His family was tight-knit, and Acevedo had a particularly close relationship with his now-deceased father, whom Acevedo says instilled in him a sense of civic duty that eventually led him to police work. "I was raised with a real sense of patriotism," Acevedo says of his dad, who moved the family to California in part to help them to assimilate outside the dominant Cuban culture of South Florida. "My dad would tell us that there was no better place on Earth than in the United States and that this country gave us the greatest gift of all, and that's freedom." His father was a one-man construction company, and the family lived modestly in the city, a rough edged place where Acevedo was first exposed to the gang culture that would become a major focus early in his policing career. "He comes from a pretty poor area in El Monte. He knows local gang members; he'll play basketball with them, but he's not going to take any crap," says Paul Golonski, a friend and former colleague of Acevedo's in the California Highway Patrol.

Acevedo knew early in life that he wanted to serve his country, and he considered three ways to do so: go to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, become a cop, or become a deputy district attorney. It wasn't until he was nearly finished with his first year in law school that he decided instead to become a cop. "California had like 150,000 attorneys, and I asked myself, 'Do they really need another attorney? Or do they need good police officers who want to go out and serve people?'" he recalls. "And when you really ask yourself that, I think the answer is that we need good police officers." Acevedo applied to the L.A. Police Department, the L.A. County Sheriff's Department, and the California Highway Patrol. He was accepted by all three; he joined the CHP in part because of its "world-class reputation," he says, and in part because the CHP academy started a month before the other two.

Fresh out of the academy in 1986, Acevedo took a job patrolling in East L.A., a densely populated area dominated in those days by gang culture and violence. It was his first choice of assignment. "Because if you want to be the best, you've got to expose yourself to the most challenging environment possible, and East Los Angeles had a reputation of being one of the most challenging police environments in the United States," he says. It was on those streets that he impressed Golonski, then a sergeant with the CHP. By the time Golonski was assigned to East L.A. in 1991, Acevedo had already begun his rise to the top of the CHP, scoring a "plum job" in recruiting; still, the young and ambitious Acevedo would make a point of getting out to work the streets in order to keep his skills sharp, Golonski recalls. "He was very much a crime buster but also very community-oriented," he says. When the pair would meet for coffee, it seemed that Acevedo knew everyone, Golonski said. "He knew the dishwasher, he knew the mayor, and he knew everyone's first name."

Acevedo and other APD officers subdue a suspect after a fight on May 19.
Acevedo and other APD officers subdue a suspect after a fight on May 19. (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Golonski recalls a time when the pair was patrolling a particularly rough neighborhood and were approached by a gang member. "What are y'all doing down here?" Golonski recalls the man asking; "I thought you were afraid to patrol here," he told them. Golonski and Acevedo "looked at each other. 'I guess we know what area we're going to be flooding with cops over the next few weeks!' We went back one month later, and that same guy came up to us – 'Oh! Oh! That's enough! The homies are coming down on me!' We kind of laughed about it."

Acevedo rose quickly through the CHP ranks, while developing a reputation as a supervisor who was not afraid to get out and work the streets. (As APD chief, Acevedo still works the streets – he calls it his "therapy" – and has made more than 60 arrests.)Friends were also impressed by his fearlessness in standing up to superiors when he felt that a bad cop under his supervision was being protected by the brass, and they saw him as someone who would push through the "glass ceiling [for Hispanics] at the CHP," says friend and former L.A. Sheriff's Deputy Hank Aguilar.

By late 2003, Acevedo was poised for consideration to be the next CHP commissioner – he'd been encouraged to apply for the position by a state lawmaker who told him that, under incoming California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the current commissioner might not be reappointed. In early 2004, Acevedo applied, apparently annoying the commissioner, according to a report by the California State Personnel Board. Acevedo was subsequently made the target of a smear campaign (an anonymous letter showed up at CHP – as had happened in the past with other employees who were, for whatever reason, in disfavor – accusing him of sexual harassment) and, ultimately, retaliation by the CHP's top brass, Acevedo charged. "My life was fucking turned upside down," he recalls. "Look, when you're a line officer, what impacts you is right in front of you – your calls for service and reports. You don't have a clue sometimes to the politics that are going on, and the higher up you go in an organization, the more you start realizing that not everything is working the way it's supposed to be working."

Acevedo filed a whistleblower suit against the department, and in December 2007, the CSPB filed a lengthy report excoriating the actions of the former commissioner and his staff and agreeing that Acevedo had been retaliated against. Eventually, after Acevedo had already arrived in Austin, the CHP settled the suit for nearly $1 million.

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."

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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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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