Many in Houston were left scratching their heads Monday when police chief Art Acevedo announced he was leaving his post to run the Miami Police Department. For starters, the Miami PD is much smaller than Houston’s—with about 1,400 officers to the 5,400 Acevedo currently oversees. The move seemed more appropriate for someone contemplating retirement rather than a high-profile political career, which the media-savvy Acevedo has clearly coveted since arriving in Houston from Austin in 2016.
And then there was the weird secrecy. Few in Houston—including Mayor Sylvester Turner—knew of Acevedo’s plans ahead of his public announcement. Neither did many politicos around Miami’s city hall, where Acevedo had never been publicly identified as a candidate for the job during the city’s six-month search. The process bore none of the transparency typical of police chief hiring cycles. Earlier this year, by contrast, Eddie Garcia underwent a public vetting before leaving the San Jose, California, department and moving to Dallas (where he immediately proclaimed his loyalty to the Cowboys).
We wanted to ask Acevedo whether he’s been a closeted Dolphins fan all these years, but he declined to be interviewed. He has stated that he initially rejected the Miami job offer and that his decision to ultimately accept it was “a journey of faith.” He said he leaves Houston with regrets and, as a parting shot on Tuesday, predicted the city’s homicide rate would rise this year under his replacement.
While the Miami move initially seemed bizarre, it is perfectly in line with Acevedo’s personality. He is a showman, first and foremost: “He loves the camera more than Sheila Jackson Lee,” cracked one statewide political leader, comparing the chief to the Houston congresswoman known for her passion for the media. Acevedo is also a cold-eyed pragmatist when it comes to his opportunities. Those, it seemed, had run their course here.
Houston insiders knew that the 56-year-old Acevedo had been considering a mayoral run once Sylvester Turner reached his term limit in 2024. But as Acevedo started prospecting for supporters, the response wasn’t good. Despite public grandstanding after George Floyd’s death—posing for photo ops with local protesters, changing his Twitter profile image to one of Floyd, granting countless TV interviews—his support in the Black community was thin, owing at least partly to ongoing animosity toward the HPD’s record on policing minority communities. Houston politicos also told me that the Mexican American community was lukewarm at best on the Cuban American police chief.
Even stranger, Acevedo’s support among non-Hispanic white Houstonians risked fracture. The police chief had made a gentleman’s agreement with John Whitmire, dean of the Texas Senate, not to run against him, should the Houston lawmaker seek the mayor’s office, as has been speculated. “Art and I are the best of friends, and he and I agreed months ago that we both wouldn’t be in the race,” said Whitmire, who conceded that, while he will run for reelection to the state Senate in 2022, he has been exploring a mayoral run.
Maybe all of these obstacles would have been surmountable if Acevedo’s rhetoric as a reformer had matched up with the reality. Throughout his tenure as police chief, Acevedo has touted his ability to instill best practices in the department he oversees. Last August, he told the New York Post that good policing is “a matter of doing everything you can to have the right people in place, the right leadership in place, the right policies in place and the right training in place and ultimately the right relationship with the community that you serve.” But in the early months of this year, policing incidents during Acevedo’s tenure began to garner unwanted attention for him.
In particular, the murder trial of former HPD narcotics officer Gerald Goines, accused of killing of two innocent Houstonians in their home during a botched 2019 drug raid, is upcoming, following several highly public probes into the incident. Goines’s former partner on the force, Steven Bryant, is facing federal and state charges of government record tampering. Four more officers have been indicted on related charges. That kind of record, publicized during a mayoral campaign, would damage even the most pristine candidate. “The s—’s gonna hit the fan when those cases start getting litigated,” said one former criminal defense attorney. “A lot of eyes were off the ball and the cops were going rogue.”
In a city that has shown itself ready to elect more progressive criminal justice reformers, Acevedo’s opposition to the 2019 bid for bail reform in Harris County—and specifically for reducing bail for low-level offenders—did not produce good optics, either. Neal Manne, managing partner of Susman Godfrey LLP, who represents plaintiffs without charge in ongoing Harris county bail litigation, noted that “only the for-profit bail bondsmen spread more falsehoods and scare stories about bail reform than Chief Acevedo.”
In similar fashion, Acevedo opposed the exoneration of Dewayne Brown, a Black man who spent twelve years in prison for the 2003 murder of a Houston police officer—until the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overturned his conviction in 2014. As Harris County district attorney Kim Ogg sought in 2019 to take the case back to court for a new judgment that Brown was “actually innocent,” Acevedo wrote a Houston Chronicle opinion piece opposing the move and saying Brown remained a murder suspect in the shootings. Brown, represented by Manne, eventually won a claim in the Texas Supreme Court, along with $2 million in compensation from the State of Texas.
For the historically troubled HPD now in search of a new leader, the time could be right for a real reformer. Walter Katz, vice president of criminal justice at the philanthropic research organization Arnold Ventures, said Houston needs a police chief who will question the status quo. He adds that the city must undertake a transparent hiring process. Miami, he noted, just hired a leader who didn’t formally apply for the job. “Process questions are important,” Katz said. “They set the tone for the openness and leadership of the department.” Let Mayor Turner take note.