At a press conference on March 23, 2018, Art Acevedo, the Houston police chief, announced an aggravated assault charge against Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Michael Bennett. Acevedo alleged that the Eagles star had pushed an elderly paraplegic security guard at Houston’s NRG Stadium as he rushed to celebrate on the field with his brother Martellus, whose New England Patriots had just won the 2017 Super Bowl. At the half-hour press conference, held more than a year after the game—Acevedo explained the HPD had prioritized “serious crimes”—the police chief was in his element, bantering with reporters and issuing soundbite-worthy quips. He worked himself into a righteous lather over someone “putting hands on a little old lady” in a motorized wheelchair and called Bennett “pathetic” and “morally bankrupt.”
But, as Acevedo admitted, there was no video of the alleged assault. Given the number of people trying to access the field after the Patriots’ Super Bowl victory, it was unclear how the elderly security guard, and the police officer who allegedly witnessed the incident, could clearly identify Bennett, who strenuously denied the charge. One year after the press conference, in April 2019, the Harris County District Attorney’s Office dropped the case after determining that “a crime could not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.” Acevedo said he stood by the assessment that an assault had occurred, but agreed there wasn’t enough evidence to proceed with the case.
This kind of grandstanding and moralistic posturing from Acevedo has drawn heat from local activists. Since taking over as police chief in 2016, Acevedo, who did not immediately respond to requests for an interview, has excelled at self-promotion. This week, he is trying to sell himself to the nation as a pro-reform police chief. He’s changed his Twitter profile picture to an image of George Floyd, the longtime Houston resident who was choked to death by police in Minneapolis, sparking nationwide protests. Acevedo has appeared on the Today show and penned an op-ed for the Washington Post calling for more police accountability. A video of him standing with protesters, speaking of his anger over Floyd’s killing, has gone viral. But Acevedo’s record is one of a police chief reluctant to make fundamental reforms.
Consider the issue of bail reform. Acevedo has called for reform of the cash bail system, saying the decision to release suspects accused of a crime before trial “should be based on [their] public safety risk rather than how rich [they] are.” Yet he, along with many in the criminal justice establishment, opposed Harris County’s historic 2019 settlement of a lawsuit about how it sets bail, which eliminated cash bail for most misdemeanor defendants. He regularly takes to Twitter to slam judges for granting bail to defendants he thinks belong in jail.
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Not even the coronavirus has softened his opposition. In March, when Sheriff Ed Gonzalez proposed waiving bail for a significant percentage of the eight thousand inmates in Harris County jail to reduce the risk of an outbreak, Acevedo pushed back. He argued that anyone considered for release should be subjected to an individualized risk assessment—a time-consuming process. Between Acevedo’s intransigence and a series of court orders blocking the sheriff’s plan, only about three hundred inmates have been let out, and by mid-May, more than one thousand inmates and jail staff had contracted the virus. “There are those of us that are trapped here in what could be Houston’s largest death camp, just for being accused, just for being an addict,” inmate James Walter Gandy told the Houston Chronicle.
This week, Acevedo has tried to position himself as a friend to both protesters and police officers. During Tuesday’s massive afternoon demonstration in downtown Houston, he stood with a group of protesters to answer their increasingly pointed complaints about police brutality. The protest that day was peaceful. The only property damage I witnessed was a single act of graffiti-spraying. Nonetheless, as it began getting dark, the HPD, backed up by state Department of Public Safety troopers—all of them wearing paramilitary-style tactical gear—started aggressively and systematically clearing protesters out of downtown, even though the city was not under curfew.
“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.
Acevedo’s condemnation of the killing of George Floyd is also complicated by the fact that his own officers have shot and killed six Houstonians over the past six weeks, at least one of whom was unarmed.
Despite his recent public calls for accountability, Acevedo has refused to release police video of any of the six shootings, citing concerns about privacy and about the videos’ potential to taint potential prosecution of the police officers. Five of the six Houstonians shot were people of color. Acevedo denies that race has anything to do with it. He told the Houston Chronicle that “it saddens me that people look at race,” adding, “What we need to look at is that behavior”—a reference to claims that several of the victims were threatening officers. Cellphone video appears to show one of the six slain men, Nicolas Chavez, kneeling when he was shot. (Acevedo has asked the FBI to investigate Chavez’s shooting.) No officers have been disciplined for any of the shootings.
Acevedo’s department has also conducted controversial no-knock raids, leading to one prominent scandal. In January 2019, undercover narcotics officers executed a no-knock warrant on the southeast Houston home of Rhogena Nicholas and Dennis Tuttle. A gunfight broke out during which Nicholas and Tuttle died and several HPD officers were injured. The narcotics officers believed the couple was dealing heroin, but found only small amounts of cocaine and marijuana.
The entire raid, it turned out, was based on an unlawful warrant written up by HPD officers Gerald Goines and Steven Bryant. Goines and Bryant retired after the incident. Goines was charged with murder, and Bryant was charged with tampering with a government document. The Harris County District Attorney’s Office anticipates it will dismiss more than 150 drug cases handled by Goines, and their review is ongoing. A Houston Chronicle investigation revealed that Goines spent much of his undercover time busting low-level street dealers. In 2004, he arrested George Floyd for allegedly selling him less than a gram of cocaine. Floyd pleaded guilty and was sentenced to ten months in state jail. In March 2019, the district attorney’s office sent Floyd a letter notifying him that Goines was under criminal investigation.
Acevedo’s handling of the case has followed a predictable arc, from defending his officers to the hilt in January of 2019, to issuing an apology for Goines’s and Bryant’s actions in November, to positioning himself as the hero of the whole affair by claiming credit for discovering the malfeasance. “It would have been a tragedy for Rhogena and the Tuttles if we had not uncovered [Goines’s alleged misconduct],” Acevedo told Texas Monthly in February. “That would be an even greater tragedy and injustice.” In February, Acevedo announced a series of reforms including more scrutiny of “no-knock” raids and tighter supervision of narcotics operations.
The families of the married couple killed in the raid remain unsatisfied. On Wednesday, Rhogena Nicholas’s brother John wrote an op-ed for the Houston Chronicle calling on Acevedo to release the forensic and ballistics reports from the scene of the raid; fully investigate the entire narcotics division; and be transparent about the state of the case against Goines and Bryant. “As [Houston mayor Sylvester] Turner and Acevedo plan for their next news conferences to comment on public safety in some faraway place or even in Houston, we ask them to take a moment and remember that our family is still awaiting their answers to our questions,” Nicholas writes.
Like Nicholas, many Houstonians say they are tired of their police chief saying the right thing in public but allowing the same problems he speaks against to fester behind closed doors. It’s time, they say, for Acevedo’s actions to be as bold as his words.