May 10, 2021
What does Art Acevedo’s history in Texas say about his future as Miami police chief?
 
 
By Charles Rabin and Joey Flechas
 

Despite national accolades and widely publicized pictures of Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo hugging and kneeling with social justice protesters last year, Miami’s Black leaders are taking a wait-and-see approach when it comes to celebrating the arrival of the city’s new and heralded police chief.

Most know him from afar. They’ve watched his interviews on cable news shows and seen pictures of Acevedo marching after the death of George Floyd. Acevedo may have even popped up in their Twitter feeds lashing out against the Texas governor, or bashing the former president. He often touts his record for successfully firing rogue police officers.

But by now, they may have also heard this: Some Black Lives Matter leaders in the Houston area say Acevedo acted much differently when the cameras weren’t rolling, supporting his troops and the numerous arrests they made during the late spring and early summer’s heated protests. Like many other major cities, Houston’s protests grew sometimes violent during the first week after Floyd’s death and police officers made more than 600 arrests.

They’re also aware of a botched no-knock warrant raid two years ago under his watch in Houston, in which an officer obtained the document under false pretenses and put dozens of prosecutions — even one involving George Floyd — in jeopardy. Two suspects were killed in the ensuing shootout and four officers injured.

“Despite my concerns over the process, I’m cautiously optimistic,” said Melba Pearson, a Miami criminal rights and civil law attorney and former deputy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida. “I like to give people grace and the ability to grow.”

HE’D ‘SHAKE HANDS, THEN HE’D DISAPPEAR’

Last summer in a piece by NBC News, Houston Black Lives Matter lead organizer Ashton P. Woods said he didn’t trust Acevedo’s intentions and transparency after a spate of police shootings, despite his cozying up to the protesters. He referred to the Houston chief as “smooth as a snake.”

Almost a year later, Woods’ opinion hasn’t changed. He told the Miami Herald that some people arrested during the Houston protests were taken to facilities away from the local jail and not provided the proper personal protective equipment to keep them safe from COVID-19. Woods also said Acevedo stopped quarterly meetings between police brass and activists.

“He is very charismatic and don’t get me wrong, he’s a nice guy,” Woods said. “But he bull----s people. Let’s not show that the same protesters he was hugging were arrested behind the scenes. He’d come up and talk and shake hands, then he’d disappear. Then, here comes the tear gas.”

In all, about 2,000 people were arrested in Houston during last year’s protests. As of six weeks ago, the vast majority of the 100 police reforms recommended by a mayor’s task force, like a revised body-camera policy, hadn’t been adopted. The city did add a cite-and-release policy for low-level offenses and created a “safe harbor” court to help residents avoid escalating civil fines.

In response to the deadly 2019 raid, Acevedo instituted a stringent policy that required a judge to sign off on warrants allowing no-knock stings.

After a 45-minute, tear-filled press conference Tuesday afternoon back in Houston, Acevedo spent the remainder of the day doing interviews. He told the Miami Herald that due to the number of protesters taken into custody last summer, many had to be processed at a gym at a police building. And he said some regularly scheduled meetings with local Black leaders were canceled because of the pandemic.

Acevedo also said that he was out on the streets during many of last summer’s protests making sure marchers and police were acting properly. And he took issue with Woods’ claim that he acted differently once the cameras were turned off.

“That’s his opinion and he has a right to it. But the vast majority of Houstonians are proud the police department facilitated First Amendment rights to the community. There is a difference between the First Amendment and criminal activity,” Acevedo said.

Looking forward, Miami’s new chief acknowledged that his recruitment was so last minute that he has not had time to look into all of the department’s issues. But he said he wouldn’t stand for rogue officers with poor records who have managed to hang on to their jobs because of special privileges awarded police through collective bargaining or arbitration. And he said his top initial priority would be building trust with the community.

Acevedo’s backers are numerous. Doug Griffith, the police officer who presides over Houston’s Fraternal Order of Police, said they had their differences and Acevedo did “turn off” some troops after being seen kneeling with the protesters. But Griffith said Acevedo’s tenure had more to celebrate than criticize, and it won’t take long for the community to take a position on the new chief.

“Y’all are going to quickly find that Art Acevedo is one of these people that can work a room. He remembers everything and he’s going to be out there with the police,” Griffith said. “He worked hard to make sure our city didn’t burn down. Don’t get me wrong, we bashed heads a lot. But he helped much more than he hurt. He can march with protesters and still see agitators go to jail.”

‘ACEVEDO CAME OUT OF NOWHERE’

The choice of Acevedo as Miami’s next police chief was a surprise. After a brief recruitment process, City Manager Art Noriega decided to bypass the remaining contenders for the post — all of whom had interviewed privately and publicly for months — and chose the Houston chief mainly because of his high profile.

He will earn a princely sum: a salary starting at $315,000 a year with five percent annual increases and a $700 monthly allowance to oversee the city’s 1,400 sworn police officers. The city also agreed to paying Acevedo $50,000 to relocate to South Florida.

By comparison, Miami-Dade Police Director Alfredo “Freddy” Ramirez, who has more than 3,000 sworn officers, had a base salary of $217,000 in 2020.

Miami Mayor Francis Suarez said Acevedo was not brought in to solve any particular problem, like shoring up relations between police and the minority communities or to make certain rogue police officers are dealt with properly, though the mayor said he expects Acevedo to address those issues. Suarez said once he determined Acevedo might be available, the hire was a no-brainer — even if it meant sidestepping so many highly qualified senior staffers who had spent months lobbying and interviewing for the job.

“He’s the best police chief in America,” said Suarez. “You have a great opportunity to get a great chief.”

Some are wary of Acevedo, if only because they have had no time to press him on the issues. Justin Pinn, who led a police advisory board while the Miami Police Department was under federal oversight, said he would have liked the chance to scrutinize Acevedo before the hire.

“The selection of Art Acevedo came out of nowhere,” said Pinn, adding that some of Acevedo’s past controversies gave him pause. “So when we talk about transparency, we might have missed the mark there.”

During his opening remarks Monday at City Hall, Acevedo said his top priority was to heal divisions between police and the community. Alternating easily between English and Spanish, the new chief, who will take the helm in about six weeks, said he had no patience for “mediocre” cops.

Yet reforming the city’s 125-year-old police department will be a tall task. Others have tried. The results have been questionable. U.S. Department of Justice oversight has come and gone, with some changes made along the way. But Miami has proven to be a circular affair where old habits die hard. The scars from the deaths of Arthur McDuffie and Lloyd Clement at the hands of police remain decades after riots erupted and smoke filled the city’s sky.

Francois Alexandre, a local leader in the Black Lives Matter movement who runs an organization seeking social justice, said the truth is most residents where he lives in Little Haiti don’t know who Acevedo is or what he’s done. Alexandre — who sued Miami police after he said police beat him up and broke his eye socket in 2013 after the Miami Heat clinched the NBA championship — said what’s most important is for the city’s new police chief to work on reforming the criminal justice system and to hold rogue cops accountable for their actions.

“We’re disgusted by a lack of accountability,” he said. “My optimism comes because he walked with protesters.”