One of the first times I met Art Acevedo was in April 2017, in southwest Houston. The police chief was speaking on a panel about immigration, and I was in the crowd, half-heartedly live-tweeting coverage for the Houston Chronicle.
Midway through an uneventful evening, Acevedo spotted my online snark and started tweeting back at me, discreetly typing responses under the table while still onstage. It seemed like an awfully millennial way to handle the media, but it was also an on-brand move for the 55-year-old, who is far more digitally savvy than most of his peers and always eager to livestream a press conference.
Acevedo was new to Houston at the time. In November 2016, he’d stepped down as police chief in Austin, where he’d served for nine years after stints in California, to head HPD. During his tenure in Houston, the celebrity top cop has amassed more than 70,000 Twitter followers and built his department to nearly 5,400 officers, the biggest it’s been in years.
At the same time, he has struggled with typical Texas police chief troubles—high-profile slayings, union sparring, natural disasters, and daily mayhem on the roadways. When I interviewed him in December, we had to abandon our first conversation, in his downtown office, because an off-duty officer had just been killed in a traffic accident, and Acevedo needed to go notify the family.
We resumed the interview the following day, at 7 a.m., in a Tex-Mex restaurant he frequents in Montrose. I got coffee, and he got huevos rancheros, and we both managed to stay off Twitter long enough to dive into some of the biggest controversies he’s dealt with over the past three years, including a botched drug raid in January 2019 that led to criminal charges against two of his officers and the public battles he’s waged against the National Rifle Association and lawmakers who support it.
Texas Monthly: Why did you go into policing?
Art Acevedo: I’m a Cuban refugee, a political refugee. Got here on December 12, 1968. My mom and dad raised us with a strong belief that we needed to give back to the country that gave us the greatest gift of all, which is freedom.
My dad was a police officer before the Communists took over in Cuba. And I love people. I love public service. It’s just what’s in my heart. I quit law school to be a cop, and I’ve never looked back.
TM: You talk about public service, but why policing in particular?
AA: Like I tell my cops all the time, we rely heavily on the consent of the people we police. In order to continue to earn that consent, we have to build trust. I think for an institution, it’s really critical to the health and vibrancy of our nation. So I felt that by going into policing, I could make a difference.
TM: One of the big things that has consumed Houston news in 2019 is obviously the Harding Street raid,¹ which was supposed to be a drug bust but turned into a shoot-out. It ended with five officers injured and the two homeowners—Rhogena Nicholas and Dennis Tuttle—dead. And then it turned out that one of the cops at the center of it, case agent Gerald Goines, may have made up an informant and lied on the search warrant. I keep hearing this whole thing framed as the department’s biggest scandal in decades. Is it?
AA: Yeah, it’s opened up a huge scar within the department. But what would have been more tragic for this community, and for this department, than the incident itself is for the department to have failed to investigate it to the extent that we did, and not taken the steps that led to the uncovering of [Goines’s] misdeeds and the filing of criminal charges. In the minds of the other officers, they were going to go help execute a lawfully obtained search warrant. It would have been a tragedy for Rhogena and the Tuttles if we had not uncovered [Goines’s alleged misconduct]. That would be an even greater tragedy and injustice.
TM: Why did you let Goines retire instead of firing him?
AA: Unfortunately, in the world of civil service, you have to follow a certain process. And the process requires me to have a hearing. And [Goines] came in to retire the day he was supposed to do his internal affairs interview. My recollection is, he came in and retired. Even if we had been able to fire him, it would have no effect on his actual retirement because he was vested. Though the community would probably feel better about it.
TM: You’ve said that your department is doing all the right things in handling this and that it was just the result of a couple of bad apples. But a recent Houston Chronicle investigation found a number of other instances of officers filing false affidavits and misrepresenting the use of informants. How many bad apples are there?
AA: This is the last I want to talk about it; we need to move on to something else. But let me just say this: one of the incidents that was reported on by the Chronicle,² I think when it is all said and done, it’s not going to be the smoking gun that it was portrayed as early on. But I’ll wait until those facts come out. And they will come out.
When you look at our department and you look at the kind of work they’ve done, I think that on balance, there’s been a lot worse out there. We have to do better. We’re putting more and more measures in place to ensure that systems and processes are robust, to minimize the potential for someone to act inappropriately or unlawfully or not act within the confines of the requirements of the Constitution. But I don’t think there’s a policy or a process that can guarantee 100 percent that something like this would not happen. If anyone in leadership ever says that they have a 100 percent system, they’re delusional. That’s not going to happen.
TM: You’ve attracted a lot of attention for publicly sparring with some people and organizations, most recently by calling out the Republican senators³ who you said were too afraid of the NRA to close the so-called boyfriend loophole in federal law⁴ that lets domestic abusers own guns. What do you hope to accomplish with statements like that?
AA: You know what? I have a philosophy. And this is why I love [Houston mayor Sylvester] Turner. I’m not sure I’d hire myself, because I’m well-known for speaking my mind. But one thing I know about Texans, and one thing I know about Americans: They value straight talk. They value people who are willing to put themselves at risk for others. And I believe that we can do better in terms of limiting access to firearms to law-abiding Americans of sound mind.
What I was illustrating was that we have not passed the [Violence Against Women Act]. And one of the number one objections to VAWA is the NRA’s objection to closing the boyfriend loophole. The reason I said, “And who killed our sergeant? A boyfriend abusing his girlfriend” was to illustrate how dangerous these people are.⁵
Men who commit violence against a dating partner, or any woman, or commit violence against anybody, no one should have access to firearms when they’re violent like that. I’m very hopeful that Senator Cornyn—who is a friend, believe it or not—will help close this loophole and get VAWA out sometime this year.
TM: But do you think by calling out these senators you’re going to change, say, Ted Cruz’s stance on gun control?
AA: No. And I wish we’d stop calling it gun control. It’s access control. It’s not about the guns; it’s about how freely we give access to the people with no business having firearms. I ask some of my critics, “Would you ever sell a firearm to a stranger without knowing anything about them, their background, their criminal history? If you wouldn’t do it, why should anyone else be allowed to do it?”
I started talking about these issues in 2007, when I got to Texas. I’m a Texan now. I’ve been here for almost thirteen years. Early on in my career here, it used to be about 98 percent of the reaction that I got was absolute spite and hate over my position to keep firearms in the hands of law-abiding Americans of sound mind, and 2 percent of the responses were thank-yous.
In the last two to three years, that has flipped. People come up to me and tell me, “Hey, I’m a native Texan. I’m a hunter. I’m a gun owner. I’m an NRA member. And I don’t disagree with anything you said.” I get that a lot from friends and strangers.
When you elevate the discussion, it goes across the nation, and it resonates with people. People start putting pressure on their elected officials. We’re already starting to see movement at state legislatures across the nation. I think in the next year or so we’ll see some movement in the U.S. Senate.
TM: At this point, you’re probably one of the most political police chiefs in the country. How do your officers respond to that?
AA: In the elevator this morning, an officer looks at me, and it’s just me and him, and he says, “Hey, Chief, can I tell you something?” And I said, “Sure. Go right ahead.” What’s coming, right? It’s either a complaint or a suggestion. And his exact words were “Don’t leave.” And I go, “What do you mean?” And he goes, “I was just talking to my wife. You’re the best thing that’s happened to our department.”
So most officers, I think, if they remove the emotion, will get it. We [police] can’t have it both ways. We can’t say enough is enough about officers getting gunned down, and then when we’re trying to put pressure on elected officials to enact common-sense gun reform, scream and yell that the chief is out of touch [on gun control].⁶
Here’s what people have to remember, whether they’re the [police] union or anyone else: We have to police everybody. We have to respect everybody. Because we rely on the consent of the people that we serve and protect, we need to understand their values.
If I said, “Hey, nobody should have firearms in this country,” that would be a problem. Because that goes against the Second Amendment and the Constitution and the values of a lot of Americans, if not most Americans. But if I say, “Hey, we need to do better, close the boyfriend loophole, have universal background checks,” things of that nature, it doesn’t impact anyone other than people who are prohibited from purchasing or possessing firearms. I think most people get that.
Believe me, if I didn’t care about my officers and this community, I would be getting the same pay, staying under the radar, without the added stress of having to deal with the wrath of both ends of the political spectrum. They hate each other. And they don’t understand that they have one great commonality. And you know what that is? They’re extreme. For different reasons, but they’re extremes.
Americans are pragmatic. Americans are about give-and-take. And I think because the extremes rule the day in this nation, that’s why there’s so much frustration across this state and country.
TM: Do you identify with a political party?
AA: I don’t really talk about this much, but I was a registered Republican when I was in California. Because as a Cuban, we’re still fighting the Cold War, right? Wake up every morning—is Raúl Castro still alive? Yes. Oh, Lord. And is it still communist rule? Yes. Oh, Lord.
So national defense was always important to me. Public safety was always important. As a young man, that was something I identified more with the GOP. But having said that, I’ve been a RINO [Republican in Name Only] all my life. I’ve never looked at a person’s affiliation. I’ve actually worked with both sides of the aisle. Because, historically, both sides have done a much better job of working together than they’re doing today. And it’s just sad.
I think you’re surprised about that. Huh? Are you surprised?
TM: Yes, I am. That one did surprise me.
AA: It’s fine with me. Always a RINO. But now I’m just “You know what? Screw it.” I think that the two-party system and the gerrymandering that both parties have done, where they all have safe districts, has led to the loss of pragmatism, the loss of common sense.
You know what elected officials too often are focusing on? Their bases, instead of their constituencies. Because their bases on either end of the spectrum are out of touch with most of the people.
That’s why I told the people in Occupy—remember the Occupy movement? I remember asking folks, “What are you trying to accomplish?” Not one of them really articulated [an agenda]. And I told them, “If I was king for a day, what I would hope for is ending gerrymandering, make every single seat competitive across the country, at all levels of government. And you would see better results.” I really believe that.
TM: When you’re not busy fighting with the NRA or Ted Cruz, what do you do for fun?
AA: I love RVing, you know? When I get behind the wheel of my RV, I just do a lot of thinking, a lot of reflection. I do a lot of assessment, self-assessment, of my organization and where I’m at as a leader. My team knows that when you want to hit me up for something, always hit me up right when I come back from an RV trip, because I’m on cloud nine.
The other thing that I love to do is go to a movie, all right? Because I get my boy, get a little popcorn, a soda, and for two and a half hours, you just get to escape and be in another world, another planet, another country.
TM: I saw some Star Wars memorabilia in your office—specifically, I noticed you had some Darth Vader busts. Why Darth Vader?
AA: My sister, Sandra, who’s thirteen years older than me, took me to see Star Wars, when it came out in ’77. I don’t think I had turned thirteen yet. And as scary as that Darth Vader was, I knew deep in my heart that there’s good somewhere under there. I think that Darth Vader, to me, even as a little boy growing up, is symbolic of not giving up on an individual—that as dark as somebody may appear, if we don’t give up on them, eventually, the goodness will come out.
TM: The concept of progressive prosecutors⁷ has gotten a lot of attention in the past couple of years, and you’ve talked about being in step with Mayor Turner on some liberal issues. Are you trying to be a progressive police chief?
AA: I want to be a twenty-first-century police chief. I think most police chiefs today, what they want to do is change from the “Hey, let’s be tough on crime” mind-set to a mind-set of “Let’s be appropriate on crime. Let’s be strategic on crime. Let’s make decisions based on the threat a person truly poses.” To me, being progressive means that when it comes to people who aren’t hurting others, we need to focus on the restorative approach, to help them get their lives on track.
The transients who have either addiction or mental illness, the driver behind their behavior is the illness or the addiction or a combination of both, right? You don’t really do much to improve public safety by constantly taking the same person to jail for trespassing. What you need to do is get that person help. We need to get them treatment. We need to get them wraparound services. We need to do our very best to get them on a path to wellness.
I would argue that you don’t accomplish anything by cycling them in and out of the jail, in one door and out the other, for these low-level misdemeanors. If you focus on trying to get them on the path to a healthy mind and on a path away from addiction, before their behavior spirals into violence, you’ve done a great service to them and to the victim that you were able to save from the victimization.
But being progressive on public safety does not mean coddling dangerous people. I spend a lot of time in communities of color—I am a person of color—and communities of color that have economic challenges, socioeconomic challenges. And what prosecutors need to know is these communities don’t want to be victimized, and they don’t want to lose their lives, their limbs, at the hands of people who should have been in prison already.
Just this week, we had police officers that came under fire by an individual who’s a convicted felon, who we arrested and had to tase the month before. The same guy, with a firearm. It was stolen. We’ve got to hold people accountable who pose a risk to others. So I’m all about progressive policing—but it’s about being smart, it’s about being appropriate, it’s about being balanced, and it’s about having a focus on keeping people safe and restoring lives, and balancing those two.
TM: You’re talking, on the one hand, about not wanting to throw people who commit misdemeanors in jail and, on the other hand, about wanting to hold violent criminals accountable. But there’s an area in the middle made up of other nonviolent drug offenses. And when the Chronicle looked at your narcotic squad’s arrest patterns, it found that you’re overwhelmingly focusing on street-level drug charges—things like pot or less than a gram of hard drugs. Is that something you’re looking to change?
AA: I’ve told my people I’d rather go after the big narcotics organizations rather than the street-level stuff. But the truth is that in these neighborhoods where the street-level stuff’s going on, it is a huge quality of life issue, and we get a lot of complaints from the community, from the neighbors. People just beg us, “Please shut down that house. Do something.” So if we can build a case and stop the behavior, that’s our job, right? It’s going to be the job of the criminal justice system to figure out how we entice this person to change their life so these neighbors can actually go out and live a quiet life.
Here’s the other piece that people don’t realize: Do I get excited about marijuana arrests? No. But here’s the problem: a lot of the violence that we see on our streets in a lot of our cities is a result of people who are killing each other over the market, over the distribution.
If it were up to me on that personal use stuff, I don’t have a problem with decriminalizing. An example: My first week here, my first ride-along, New Year’s Eve of 2016, I’m riding with a young officer, and I had Senator John Whitmire with me. We stopped an African American male, probably early thirties, he’s got his work uniform on. We know he’s got a job, right?
And when he gets out of the car, what do you think he chucked? A rock [of crack]. Now, possession of that rock, it’s a felony, right? The officer’s really proud. He’s going to make the arrest.
And here’s the problem I have: I go into the car, I’m going to inventory it for the tow slip, and I see a little boy’s picture right there where the odometer and speedometer are at. Turns out that here’s a guy who’s a dad, has a job, and is a functional drug user, right? He’s not out homeless on the streets and not out stealing.
And I looked at John, and I said, “Senator, what have we accomplished by taking this guy to jail? Taking his car?” And what about the unintended consequences? It’s New Year’s Eve; he can’t post bond right away. So he loses his job because he couldn’t go to work, and two days later he’s still in jail. What did we accomplish by taking that guy to jail for a rock that was for personal use, taking his car, potentially having him lose his job? I just think that at the end of the day, if those worst-case scenarios occurred, we’ve made the community less safe, not more so, by the action we took that night. I don’t know if that makes me progressive or crazy or what.
TM: But historically, and even in recent years, your department has arrested people and ended up having them go to prison or state jail for offenses like that. Are you going to start doing something differently?
AA: Our priority is not going to go and find that guy with that rock. That’s just not our priority. Having said that, it’s still a damn felony. So when the issue of how do we deal with a case like that comes up for legislative consideration, I will be there and say, “We should not be putting people in prison if, worst-case scenario, the only person they’re hurting is themselves.” Now, as long as they’re not driving high, right? That’s a different story. But let’s just say it’s possession and they’re not high, not DWI. We really need to look in a different direction.
The last thing I’m going to tell you is something that’s really near and dear to my heart. I’m convinced that there’s a correlation between the introduction of police forces into the school environment and the dropout rate. We didn’t used to have police officers in the school. We’ve criminalized adolescent behavior in our country to a great extent. Police officers should not take the place of administrators, counselors, or teachers.
And then there’s the war on drugs—how we separate addicts from those who are trying to seduce young people. You’ve got to be smart, you’ve got to be appropriate. If the Legislature was to ask me, “What do you think you should do with these people when you catch them with small amounts of drugs for personal use?” If [legislators] don’t want to legalize it, then give them a ticket, say, “Go take a class somewhere,” and take the dope, and let’s move on with our day.
TM: If you’re not running for anything—and, by the way, it almost always sounds as if you are running for something—then what are your aspirations for what’s next?
AA: I want to stay in policing. I absolutely love the Houston Police Department. I love this community. I’ve really fallen in love with it. It’s a great city. It’s such a melting pot. My mind, my heart, and my efforts are in policing.
1 On January 28, 2019, a Houston police narcotics squad executed a no-knock raid at 7815 Harding Street, looking for two suspected heroin dealers. When officers burst through the door and shot a dog they say lunged at them, a man inside allegedly returned fire, and the raid turned into a gun battle. The homeowners were killed, and police say one of them shot and wounded four officers. Afterward, an internal investigation of the incident revealed that case agent Gerald Goines, with the help of his partner Steven Bryant, may have fabricated the justification for the raid, allegedly making up an informant they claimed had purchased drugs there. Both officers retired and are now facing criminal charges.
2 The Houston Chronicle reported on a number of other incidents of alleged misconduct by narcotics officers, including one case, in 2013, in which an officer told a court he’d used another cop as his confidential source. The Harris County district attorney in December vowed to review the case.
3 On December 7, 2019, Houston Police Department sergeant Christopher Brewster was shot to death while responding to a domestic violence call. Two days later, at a press conference, Acevedo called out Texas senators Ted Cruz and John Cornyn for stalling the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. “I don’t want to see their little smug faces about how much they care about law enforcement when I’m burying a sergeant because they don’t want to piss off the NRA,” Acevedo said.
4 Federal laws ban domestic abusers from owning guns if their victim was a spouse, a co-parent, or someone they live with. Boyfriends are not covered, but a proposed addition to the Violence Against Women Act would close that loophole. The measure has been held up in the Senate after passing the Democratic-controlled House.
5 At his December press conference, Acevedo accused Cornyn and Cruz of refusing to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act “because the NRA doesn’t like the fact that we want to take firearms out of the hands of boyfriends that abuse their girlfriends. And who killed our sergeant? A boyfriend abusing his girlfriend.”
6 Acevedo was referring to comments made by the head of the HPD police union, who said Acevedo’s criticism of the NRA and the Texas senators was “offensive and inappropriate.”
7 In recent years there has been a proliferation of prosecutors espousing ideas like ending cash bail, relying less on capital punishment, and halting marijuana prosecutions.
Houston journalist Keri Blakinger was a reporter for the Houston Chronicle and now works as an investigative reporter for the Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization that covers the U.S. criminal justice system. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
This article originally appeared in the February 2020 issue of Texas Monthly. Subscribe today.