Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo on Sanctuary Cities, Police Unions and Tommy Guns

Houston's police chief rose to the top of Texas' largest police force while inserting himself in thorny political debates.

Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo in his office in Houston.
Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo in his office in Houston. Michael Stravato

As I enter Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo’s downtown office, he’s just wrapped up a TV interview, and the moment we finish talking, he’ll rush downstairs for a press conference. The media-friendly 53-year-old has been a fiery opponent of anti-immigrant and anti-LGBT legislation, and during the chaos of Hurricane Harvey, he maintained a constant Twitter stream of his personal rescue efforts.

Born in Cuba, where his father was also a police officer, Acevedo came to Los Angeles as a political refugee at 4 years old. At the Austin Police Department, which was then under federal investigation for use of force against minorities, Acevedo ratcheted up discipline against officers, drawing the praise of many reformers. In November 2016, he took the top job at the Houston Police Department. Acevedo spoke with the Observer about government mistrust, police transparency and the “sanctuary cities” ban.

Q: What did your father tell you about his days as a police officer in Cuba?

My dad used to tell some stories that were funny as heck, though not constitutional around here. He’d say, “In Cuba, when we had somebody run from us and we were chasing in a police car, you just stuck your head out the window with a tommy gun and started shooting at the car.” I said, “Dad, they used to do that here, but probably about 50 years ago, before we started trying to be more professional.”

The move away from tommy guns was for the better?

Yeah, I get a little frustrated because we’re living in a time where there’s so much conflict in society. And I feel so badly for this generation of police officers because sometimes they’re being painted unfairly as out of control, when if you pay attention, this generation of police officers is in fact the best trained, best equipped, best educated and most professional of any generation of police officers, yet they’re maligned all the time as if they’re a bunch of Neanderthals.

Having said that, it’s imperfect, and we still have a percentage like any organization that are the knuckle-draggers, Children of the Corn types, and our job as leaders, when we identify them, we need to cut them from the herd before that cancer spreads into an organization. So the thing for me in policing today is we don’t have any issue with policing; we have an issue with leaders that aren’t willing to hold people accountable.

The Houston Chronicle this summer described you as tasked with overhauling a “frayed department” with slow response times and growing pressure around officers’ use of force. Do you agree?

There were great people here, but I’m not sure we were as progressive as we needed to be in terms of our crime-fighting strategies. If you got shot in the city of Houston we didn’t have detectives rolling at night — everyone was working Monday through Friday. My very first meeting with my command staff, I said, “Hey, I’m brand new here, but it seems to me we got a lot of people working banker’s hours, and if you want to work banker’s hours, Bank of America, Chase, Wells Fargo, they’re all hiring, but we’re the Houston Police Department.”

How has your relationship been so far with the police union? I remember you clashed with the union in Austin, in particular over the shooting of [the unarmed 17-year-old] David Joseph.

I think the union leadership here is a little bit more sophisticated than the one I found myself dealing with in Austin. That’s why they’re much more successful, and that’s why they have much more sway politically. You cannot have a mindset that cops can do no wrong; I don’t know of any firing in Austin where the union said, “OK, that was appropriate.” But so far here in Houston, it’s going really well.

With HPD’s union contract, your firings can be overturned by arbitrators, and in recent years, some officers were reinstated without the chief’s say-so.

I can’t speak to the past, but I think I’ve only had to fire one person here, and the rest have all resigned. I don’t remember how many, but everyone else that was facing termination, after they had a hearing with me, they’ve all resigned with dishonorable discharges from the police department, and that’s a win for the people of Houston, that’s a win for the men and women of the Houston Police Department, because arbitration can be just that: arbitrary.

From 2010 to 2014, HPD killed more people than LAPD with half as many officers. Did you inherit a use-of-force problem?

We’re almost four years past that now. We’ve been trending significantly downward; the department has worked diligently to train folks on de-escalation and on tactics. But it’s not a matter of numbers. It’s a matter of when you do have a use of force, having a robust process of reviewing it and ensuring it was objectively reasonable based on all the facts known to the police department. I’ve created a special investigations unit for all officer-involved shootings, so by having men and women that are selected and trained to focus on that type of activity, you end up having better results from your investigations.

What’s your philosophy on police transparency?

We are operating, in the last 10 years, at a point in our history where the mistrust of government is at a fever pitch. People just don’t trust government, and the most visible cog is the police department. I’ve never understood law enforcement agencies that don’t understand that transparency is a good thing; it breeds trust, cooperation and better results for everybody. So in Austin and here, my philosophy is very different than the last administration’s philosophy on transparency. I believe that information belongs to the public. When I got to Austin, they used to call the office of public information the office of no information. [But] what I told them there and here, our mindset is: Information belongs to the public.

Is that what motivates you to interact with the media?

I want the community I serve to be familiar with their police chief, to have a relationship that’s one of trust with the police chief, because you know what that means? My cops are gonna be better supported by the taxpayers when they go to the polls, or when they’re being judged by a grand jury for their actions. One of the things I’m very proud of, and it’s happened here and used to happen in Austin all the time, when someone in the public I’ve never met before [yells] “Hey, Art!” Damn it, it makes me happy. They feel like they know me — that’s why I use the media.

You were vocal in opposing the “sanctuary cities” ban, and in April you announced a 43 percent reduction in sexual assault reporting among Houston’s Hispanics. What have you seen since then?

It’s fear. My cops are out on the street; they tell me people are afraid. It is not a win for the people of Houston or Texas when we create an environment through this very ugly, mean-spirited rhetoric, where potentially 11 to 15 million witnesses of crime, or victims of crime, don’t come forward. Here’s the deal: Your kid, somebody you love, is at the bus stop waiting to get picked up, and here comes this pedophile in a van that grabs them and takes off, and the only witness to that crime is that nanny or gardener or whatever undocumented immigrant, but now they might be in fear because the cops might be just as interested in their status as they are in solving that crime, and that person doesn’t come forward. How have we made society safer?

Have you felt a backlash due to your politics?

My dad used to tell me, “If you’re not afraid to lose, you can’t.” So I’m always gonna do my job in a manner that’s consistent with what I believe, and if that means I have to lose my job because I have to stand up to corruption or speak out about bad public policy or policy failures that relate to public safety — immigration policy impacts public safety, gun policy impacts public safety, trying to make us the “potty police” with the “bathroom bill” impacts public safety — I’m gonna speak out. I’m always very vocal about what I think; sometimes I’m described as a guy that’s hard to control, but the truth of the matter is, I’m here because this is where I’m supposed to be.

Gus Bova reports on immigration, the U.S.-Mexico border and grassroots movements for the Observer. He formerly worked at a shelter for asylum-seekers and refugees. You can contact him at [email protected]

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Published at 9:51 am CST