Op-Ed: Police Department Chief Art Acevedo is Leaving Houston. Good Riddance.

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Houston Police Department Chief Art Acevedo has taken a job as chief of the Miami Police Department. The move is a surprise to many Houstonians; given Acevedo’s active PR presence and high-profile appearances on national television, rumors had swirled that he might run for mayor. Instead, he has moved on.

Acevedo’s tenure will likely be judged as more just than it was by mainstream media, largely because of the police department’s torrential PR machine. It is unclear what the department’s PR budget is, but whenever wrongdoing from HPD broke, a blitz was sure to follow, with Acevedo as the frontman. In turn, he has managed to pad his departure with a golden PR parachute, escaping the many issues that threatened to close in as his tenure in Houston continued:

The Harding Street Raid

When a couple, Rhogena Nicholas and Dennis Tuttle, and their dog were murdered in cold blood based on the actions of dirty police behavior in January of 2019, HPD and the City of Houston immediately lionized five wounded officers following the raid. As it turns out, the wounded officers had wounded each other, as the claim that Nicholas and Tuttle were armed heroin dealers quickly unraveled. The raid had been orchestrated by city cop Gerald Goines, one of more than 150 incidents Goines had concocted. Just this week, in the most recent development on the case, a woman who made the 911 call that catalyzed the deadly raid pled guilty to falsifying the call

From the jump, Acevedo treated the murders somewhat like the boogeyman. After addressing it in the first few days, he treated the issue with radio silence, careful not to mention the specifics of Harding Street by name. Later, he picked around the edges of the issue by calling for reform but refusing to specifically address the shooting after the first dust clouds had cleared. The City of Houston and HPD continuously refused to release records on the case, prompting Nicholas’ brother John to pen a Houston Chronicle editorial titled, What about Harding Street raid? Acevedo, Turner give soundbites on police brutality but stay silent about my sister’s death.” 

As it turns out, Mr. Nicholas will not receive an answer from the chief, who will be long gone by the time the case shakes out.

Brutality

Nicholas’ editorial came around the same time as the largest march for civil rights in the history of Houston, a push for justice in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. Floyd’s murder triggered a series of national protests across the entire country, including widespread destruction of property and backlash against elected city institutions and law enforcement. The public, tired of brutality and rightfully enraged at the callous nature of the officers standing on Mr. Floyd’s neck until he was asphyxiated, definitively signaled it had had enough.

In Houston, 60,000 protesters took to the streets of downtown in a single day. At City Hall, protesters gathered to hear speeches. A still shot of that scene alone would have told the tale of a timid event focused on overcoming challenges and moving forward as a city from the pain of the death of a man who had spent significant time here. Acevedo made sure to stay out in front, spinning answers for livestreams

That night, however, something else unfolded. Some vandalism took place downtown, but in an isolated and separate instance, protesters were isolated, kettled, and arrested without warning. Presumably, police escalation was premised on people blocking the street. Never mind that cars didn’t much use the streets that day because of the march and the fact that COVID had shut down a lot of the businesses in the area. Videos surfaced of police shoving people around with nightsticks, using sonic weaponry to stun them, gassing them, and finally arresting them and taking them to sit in a COVID-soaked jail for 30 hours. A woman was run down by a police horse.

No apology was forthcoming, but Acevedo made sure to spin reality against the protesters, demonizing them as troublemaking “outside agitators.”

As Michael Hardy of Texas Monthly described it:

“’This is no longer a peaceful protest,’ I heard officers repeatedly announce via bullhorn, in direct contradiction to what I could see and what video of the event would later confirm. ‘Those who refuse to disperse are subject to arrest.’ A block from Minute Maid Park, I saw mounted police nearly trample a line of kneeling protesters who refused to get out of the road. Later, I had to flee with other protesters through Discovery Green after several hundred cops in riot gear donned their gas masks and rumors spread of imminent tear gas. (HPD says it did not end up deploying the gas.) The night ended without “significant property damage or injuries,” as an official HPD tweet put it, yet police arrested more than two hundred people.”

Though brutality at protests is galling in that it violates basic, enshrined Constitutional rights, the brutality is hardly limited to protests. Age of Change posted videos of unhoused Houstonians testifying to HPD’s callous disregard for their possessions and wellbeing in January of this year, stating that blankets and clothing were thrown away while they went to take showers during a particularly cold stretch of winter weather. The warning notice they were given looks straight out of a dystopian nightmare. Food Not Bombs has testified to similar past behavior.

Officer-Involved Shootings

Officer-involved shootings spiked during Acevedo’s tenure. In what is not surprising but is certainly sad, the heavy majority of shootings were of Black and Hispanic men. As Houston NAACP President James Douglass put it: “This whole thing turns on race, and if we don’t admit that’s a problem and try to deal with that problem, it is going to continue to be a problem.” 

Chief Acevedo dismissed the claim that race had anything to do with the shootings, deflecting to “behavior.”

However, a bird’s eye view of the issue tells a different tale. In June of 2020, BLM Houston Founder Ashton P. Woods wrote in a Houston Chronicle editorial that, “HPD reports that there have been 41 people killed by HPD officers and 61 people wounded by HPD shootings since 2015. Every single one of these incidents was declared “justified” on official records, including when a Houston police officer shot and killed a double amputee in a wheelchair.”

What facilitated such questionable outcomes? The Houston Police Officers Union contract, a dreadful document that grants officers 48 hours to prep before any questioning of their behavior in the wake of a shooting, and subjects them to judgment from a panel stacked so heavily in their favor that they could never be found culpable of any wrongdoing.

When the Houston Police Officer Union contract came up last year to adjust some of the articles that might hold officers accountable for some of these shootings rather than granting them the same insulation and protection they had historically enjoyed, Houston City Council made no reforms. They gave HPD officers a raise and moved on. 

Acevedo, not one to normally stay quiet, said almost nothing. 

Bail Reform

Acevedo’s rhetoric on bail reform has generally beaten a popular political drum that people should not be locked up based on whether or not they have money. And indeed, if his rhetoric matched his record on the issue, he would be a reformist police chief.

Yet it does not, and he is not. Acevedo was one of the most vocal high-profile opponents of Harris County’s bail reform settlement. As described expressly by Harris County Criminal Court Judge Franklin Bynum, ”opponents of reform use the same playbook every time, trying to look at a single case when the numbers overwhelmingly support that people do appear for court, that public safety is improved dramatically when we scale back the old coercive plea mill you fed.”

Consistent with that philosophy, in February of this year, Chief Acevedo was “happy to report that the jail is open. We’re going to be searching your cars and persons & making arrests for misdemeanors.”

Per the commentary of BLM HTX organizer and local activist Jaison Oliver, “What he’s not saying aloud: if Black people happen to suffer as a result, oh well.” 

Surveillance

Prior to his tenure in Houston, Acevedo was Chief of Police in Austin where he infamously joined extremist conspiracy theorist Alex Jones for a sit down on the issues of the day. On his watch, Austin Police Department officers infiltrated Occupy Austin and set up activists to take the fall for felonies over actions of peaceful civil disobedience.

In Houston, the massive police presence each Tuesday at the protest in front of John Cornyn’s office speaks volumes about the misguided nature of the force’s insistence on surveilling law-abiding Houstonians based on nothing more than their political ideology. Last year, after more than four years without incident, the force decided that 15 regular protesters suddenly required a paddy wagon. This somehow didn’t seem to align with their explanation that the police presence was “for the safety of the activists.” 

At this action and plenty more, officers regularly outnumber protesters. I can attest that the less protesters kiss officers’ asses or answer their questions, the heavier the presence goes. A few weeks ago, peaceful protesters gathered outside the house of Ted Cruz to shame him for fleeing to Cancun while his constituents froze during a historic ice storm. The police presence roughly doubled attendees.

Yet in reality, one of the only people in Houston who has actually planned and attempted any form of violence against the government in recent years not only worked for HPD but worked directly for the unit that handles protests within the department. Officer Tam Dinh Pham, who literally walked the site of some of Houston’s largest and most historic marches prior to actions, participated in the January 6th insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. While protesters against violence and state overreach have been harassed and overpoliced to the tune of millions of dollars during the Trump Era and its immediate aftermath, an HPD officer tasked with surveilling them and serving as a liaison to the public essentially committed treason.

Acevedo’s statement on the matter called for reviewing the officer’s bodycam footage, but it misses the point. What about his specific placement as an officer overseeing protest matters? Imagine the danger and damage he could have caused with such little oversight and carelessness that led to him filling that position in the first place.

Unsolved Murders

The shine started to come off Acevedo a little ] late last year when a startling trend set in that even the slick-talking chief couldn’t spin his way out of: the department’s rate for solving murders dropped precipitously, and experts on the issue specifically pointed to department management as the problem. 

Large cross-sections of the public may not always stand up for protesters or care as much as they should about police shootings, but the inability to solve murders resonates with people and may have impacted public sentiment.

So Art has hit the road.

Acevedo leaves Houston and its policing strategy much as it was when he took the job. The police continue to enjoy senseless and aggressive budget increases and a positive status with the public. Acevedo will likely be replaced by a successor with a similar philosophy, such as HPD Executive Assistant Troy Finner (who made similar statements to Acevedo at actions in the wake of the George Floyd protests) or an outsider not yet known to the public. Regardless, change will remain a difficult target to hit in our city.

As for Miami, especially its criminal justice advocates fighting for change, they have a real challenge on hand. The Mayor of Miami has already likened their new chief to “Tom Brady or Michael Jordan”, inflating his image before his plane touches down. I wish them all the luck in holding accountable one of the slickest cops in the history of the United States. 

They’re going to need it.

Photo: Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

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