HOUSTON (AP) - The radio crackled with reports of a New Year’s holiday shooting in south Houston.
Art Acevedo rushed to the scene to find a patrol officer picking up shell casings for evidence.
‘What are you doing?” he asked.
The patrolman looked up, confused. His new boss was standing over him.
“Chief, detectives don’t come to these scenes unless somebody’s dead or on the verge of death,” the surprised officer told him.
“The only entity really working 24/7 was patrol,” he recalled, “and violent crime was happening at all hours of the night.”
It was a telling moment for how Acevedo would lead one of the nation’s largest police departments: Hands-on, decisive, outspoken, a bit unorthodox and likely to show up in unexpected places.
In the six months since taking charge, the fast-talking former Austin police chief has set a furious pace overhauling a frayed department struggling with slowing response times, aging equipment, a dwindling corps of officers and growing pressure nationwide over law enforcement’s use of force.
Acevedo, the first Latino tapped to lead the Houston department, quickly began meeting with civil rights groups and civilians, promising transparency and accountability, while assuring officers - and their union - he’s got their back. He has publicly opposed the state’s political leaders over the controversial “sanctuary cities” legislation and backed new funding for the city, all in the name of public safety.
Internally, he created a new unit to investigate officer-involved shootings, prioritized investigations of gun crimes, revamped the department’s command structure and altered uniform policies to accommodate the Houston heat and officer tattoos. And after the troubled roll-out of body cameras under his predecessors, he is working to equip officers with cameras that turn on automatically to avoid the perception they have something to hide.
Acevedo acknowledges some decisions aren’t popular.
“People don’t like change, cops especially don’t like change; it’s human nature,” he said. “We’re an organization on the move, and there are very few things we can’t change.”
At police headquarters at 1200 Travis, mementos clutter Acevedo’s office: an array of “challenge coins” from departments across the country, two British constables’ helmets and a slew of Star Wars memorabilia, from lightsabers to Darth Vader statues.
“I knew from day one, scary as that character was… somewhere in that helmet there was good in there,” he said.
Portraits of his three children line his desk, along with photos from important moments in his career.
Under the glass that covers his desk, he keeps a worn, folded piece of paper, a reminder of one of his worst days. The young daughter of an Austin police officer gave him the drawing of an angry bird after her father was shot and killed in a Walmart parking lot in 2012.
Neon green letters scrawl across one side in a child’s shaky writing. Years later, he still keeps in touch.
“I keep this as a reminder of what matters - our friends and family,” said Acevedo, choking up as he unfolded the worn green paper. “If you stop caring, it’s time to leave.”
On a wall nearby hangs another prized possession, a postcard his father sent him after his graduation from the California Highway Patrol training academy in 1986.
“He who perseveres, triumphs,” the note reads, in Spanish.
An affable 52-year-old, Acevedo is the youngest of four, born in Cuba to parents who fled the Castro regime and settled in California. Acevedo considered serving in the military or working as a prosecutor, but ultimately decided to be a police officer - like his father had been in Havana - and joined the highway patrol. He rose swiftly through the ranks before assuming command of the Austin Police Department in 2007, where he overhauled an agency under Department of Justice review.
At his core, Acevedo champions “relational policing,” arguing that officers should view every interaction with residents as an opportunity to create rapport.
“The more we do to forge relationships of trust and respect, the better result for everyone,” Acevedo said.
Everywhere he goes, Acevedo works the room. He stays late after community meetings to shake hands and take selfies with residents. He freely dispenses his cellphone number - even reading it aloud in crowded meeting rooms - and interacts on social media, posting photos of himself playing soccer with schoolchildren.
In a recent four-day stretch, the chief spoke at an immigration forum, pedaled into the office on the city’s “Bike to Work” day, paid his respects at a memorial for HPD officers who died in the line of duty, had breakfast with the League of United Latin American Citizens and attended a youth police advisory meeting, then capped off a Sunday afternoon by tossing out a “slow ball special” at Minute Maid Park.
“He has more energy than any individual I’ve ever met,” said one commander, who, like a dozen other officers interviewed by the Chronicle, did not want to be identified.
“What’s going on here? Everyone ok?” he asked the drivers, before waving them on to clear the scene. “Ok, let’s go. Let’s go!”
Acevedo also rushes to the scenes of more serious incidents, including one in southwest Houston where a gang member shot two officers investigating burglaries. The chief gathered information and personally briefed reporters.
“Most police people like to say, ‘Sorry, it’s under investigation, no comment,’” said former police chief and city councilman C.O. Bradford. “What he’s doing is simply trying to relay to the general public, ‘This is transparency - this is what I can give you at this point.’”
The chief began making inroads as soon as he started Dec. 1. He moved to town immediately, living in a gleaming RV on the city’s south side while he buys a house. His wife and youngest son will join him this summer.
He said he found a department “that wasn’t running on all cylinders” in the way it deployed resources, its mission of protecting Houstonians complicated by the shortage of officers, hardware and money.
And then there is the revenue cap, which limits the city’s ability to raise taxes. Mayor Sylvester Turner is pushing to get the cap lifted.
“The community has no idea how starved this department is,” Acevedo said.
Like a veteran politician, he brings up the revenue cap at virtually every meeting, reminding everyone that Houston has just 400,000 fewer residents than Chicago but 7,000 fewer officers.
“The revenue cap is killing this city,” he told a group of seniors in west Houston. “Know how many cities in Texas have a revenue cap? One. We have got to start resourcing the police department … When you call 911, when do you want a police response? Immediately.”
Despite the fiscal challenges, Acevedo is pushing ahead with internal changes. The unit investigating officer-involved shootings began working in April with 16 officers, four sergeants and two lieutenants.
Two other specialized units - one to tackle non-lethal gun crimes and another for what he termed “the worst of the worst” criminals across the city - are also in the works, along with a new division to police north Houston.
Body cameras are a top priority. The devices don’t begin recording until they are turned on by officers, as evidenced by the fatal police shooting of Alva Braziel in south Houston last year: The city released video amid community pressure but the cameras did not capture details of the shooting.
Acevedo wants cameras that turn on automatically when officers step out of their cruisers.
Besides the structural changes in the department - which include consolidation of the command structure and a sea of promotions - Acevedo said he’s taking steps to improve morale.
He greets virtually every HPD employee - officer or otherwise - as he passes them in the halls or on the street. He’s become a frequent presence on the streets and in stations across the city, and drops in at union events.
“I can’t lead them if I don’t have a sense of what they’re facing,” he said.
He changed department policy to allow officers to wear uniforms better-suited to Houston’s summers - no more wool in August - and cut paperwork so officers can spend more time on patrol or investigations.
“We have the lowest starting pay of any big city in the state of Texas,” he said. “I’m trying to improve their overall quality of life… giving them less reasons to leave.”
Acevedo’s approach, however, has alienated some officers, who say he “shoots from the hip” without thinking through his decisions and leaves staff scrambling to fulfill his mandates.
When he proposed changing the department’s iconic badge, for example, Acevedo got pushback from the rank-and-file, and ultimately backed off.
“I feel like we’re jumping from one lily-pad to another,” one commander said. “We’re making moves so fast, I’m having to try to calm officers down and justify what we’re doing. when I don’t even have a whole lot of certitude about what we’re doing.”
Some members of the department’s higher echelons were unwilling to discuss their new chief’s track record publicly, but complain privately that his laid-back leadership style and some decisions make the department appear less professional. Allowing officers to display tattoos for the first time drew criticism from some older officers. And one frustrated high-ranking commander recalled Acevedo attending a meeting with his executive staff wearing a sweat suit and flip-flops.
“That professional image that you have - that’s all been … stripped away,” the commander said.
Others, however, say the chief’s approach, while unconventional, is badly needed after years of institutional thinking.
“He’s very down to earth; he’s very sociable with his executive staff,” another commander said. “He’s coming in and making some changes to things that probably needed to be changed.”
Notably, Acevedo has avoided any serious confrontations so far with the bane of many other police chiefs: the officers’ union.
“We just haven’t had many issues with him we would need to battle him on - and he’s a big proponent of getting buy-in from everyone,” said Joseph Gamaldi, vice president of the Houston Police Officers Union, acknowledging that Acevedo is still benefiting from a “honeymoon” phase.
“While we may not agree with every decision he makes, on most issues we’re able to reach compromise,” he said.
One of Acevedo’s first tests with the community involves the passage of a new state “sanctuary cities” law, which punishes police departments that prohibit employees from asking residents about their immigration status.
Tensions ran high at a recent forum, where local activists accused Acevedo and the mayor of not doing enough to fight the law. Acevedo, however, penned opinion columns that appeared in the Chronicle and across the state opposing the legislation, and he testified in Austin that the law would make the city less safe.
That didn’t satisfy some local activists, who have pushed for the city to challenge the law in court.
“It’s kind of a mixed message to see him say he understands that the community is afraid, but at the same time to reiterate there is enough being done right now,” said Oscar Hernandez of the Houston chapter of United We Dream. “It’s really hard for me to say there’s been any drastic change within the police department, if I’m honest with you.”
Other civil rights activists - who have often found themselves at odds with the department over use of force - have praised Acevedo’s visibility during high-profile situations.
“If you talk to anyone in the community, they’ll tell you that he’s not standoffish and he believes the police ought to be part of the community,” said James Douglas, president of the Houston branch of the NAACP, which has worked with police on issues from civil rights to gang violence.
Quanell X, a local civil rights activist who frequently butts heads with police, said Acevedo is “a breath of fresh air.”
“The man truly believes in two things,” he said. “He believes in accountability for his officers, and he supports and is a big fan of community-police relationships.”
Vincent Dickson, spokesman for the People’s New Black Panther Party, another frequent critic, knows personally about Acevedo’s hands-on approach. After Dickson got into a car crash in April, a police car pulled up.
Acevedo stepped out.
“How often does that happen?” Dickson asked. “It was kind of cool to have the head guy in charge show up when you had a traffic accident.”
“Police departments tend to be command-and-control, top-down military-style organizations,” said Mustafa Tameez, a local political consultant who conducts media training for Houston police cadets. “It’s very difficult to change the culture in large organizations … and in a very short amount of time, I think he’s had a significant impact.”
On a rare break one morning from his many meetings, Acevedo sat at the long table in his office, mulling the future.
After months of political wrangling, the city had reached agreement over a major financial challenge endangering public safety, resolving concerns over pensions.
He’d asked his command staff to free up overtime money for foot and bike patrols, to get officers back into local communities. One of his captains was getting a new Northbelt Field Division up and running. The citywide tactical unit and the “Lucky 13” - a team that would be investigating nighttime shootings - were just about to get started.
The mayor had charged Acevedo with making the city safer and building better relationships with the community.
“Public safety permeates through everything,” Turner said. “You can’t become so narrow in scope.that you become ineffective in your ability to function. … Chief Acevedo understands that, and he’s in an excellent position to speak to all of those issues, to all of the issues that impact a police officer’s ability to perform in the community and to keep people safe as well as keep themselves safe.”
Still, battles loom. Hundreds of patrol cars need to be replaced. The repercussions from the sanctuary cities law is still playing out. The revenue cap remains a stumbling block to better resources, and recent budget cuts could mean one less cadet class and a hiring freeze for civilian support staff.
Acevedo shifted in his chair.
“We’re got so many projects going,” he said. “So many moving targets. So many balls in the air.”
The day’s schedule beckoned. Moments later, he headed out the door.
Information from: Houston Chronicle, https://www.houstonchronicle.com
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