Editorial: The big HPD history question still being asked: Can a chief from the outside become a success?

Tom Kennedy

Time to count ‘em and do some numbers. Chiefs of the Houston Police Department have been appointed since 1901. Over that 115-year period 34 individuals have served as the so-called “top cop,” not included four who served in acting capacities as mayoral administrations changed.

Mayor Sylvester Turner’s appointment of Art Acevedo marks only the fourth time in HPD history that an individual from outside the department drew the nod. Acevedo’s three outside predecessors each faced difficulties because of the lack of bonding on the beat. When they first hit town, it’s safe to say that none of the four knew Fifth Ward from Acres Homes or realized the defining line between River Oaks and Memorial.

Those outsiders, in chronological order, were Ray Ashworth (1941), Lee P. Brown (1982), Harold Hurtt (2004) and Acevedo (2016).

History shows Ashworth didn’t last and Hurtt never made a whole lot of friends. He, like Brown, put countless hours into working with communities in what Brown initiated as community-oriented policing, which has become the stalwart policing philosophy throughout the United States. Brown got the cold shoulder from his inherited Command Staff the first day he took office at 61 Riesner. He served seven years – second-longest tenure in history to Herman’s Short’s nine years – and finally saw acceptance of his community-oriented policing. Then when he returned to serve three terms as mayor of Houston he saw to it that HPD officers receive better pay and benefits. He was the outsider that became the archetypical insider.

The pioneering outsider, Chief Ashworth, had served as police chief of San Antonio before a new mayor, Neal Pickett, appointed him to increase hiring standards, improve traffic flow and put the quietus to the city’s widespread gambling operations. Oh, and while he was at it, Ashworth was instructed to take politics out of the department after in-again-out-again mayor named Oscar Holcombe made police firings and hirings the general political rule around City Hall. Ashworth no sooner got his new badge than he issued a code of ethics that prevented officers from participating in political campaigns. Then he took on gambling, declaring that no one, even in the city’s high society, was exempt from being jailed if they broke the law. He resisted two bribes, including one from one of his officers, in connection with gambling operations.

This first outsider didn’t last long. He was hardly in office a year before he got what one might call an Army deferment as World War II began for the United States. His call to duty entailed the evacuation of Japanese residents from the West Coast. And what a contrast Ashworth’s acting successor presented. Percy Heard, who actually served as HPD chief in both the Depression and World War II, was the ultimate insider, a cop’s cop widely respected by the police on the beat. Heard not only captained the HPD pistol team, he also was probably the department’s sharpest marksman. One day on his way back to the station after lunching at home, the chief noticed a store on South Main was being robbed at gunpoint. He calmly pulled his car to the curb, went inside the store and shot the robber right between the eyes.

No doubt the men in the department at that time smiled and said, “Yes, and he’s one of us.” Still many of today’s HPD officers, male and female, could say the same thing about now-retired Chief Charles “Chuck” McClelland, a widely respected street cop whose story of shooting it out with and killing a suspect has brought tears to the eyes of many listeners.

Enter Chief Acevedo, who reportedly has taken being a street cop to the chief’s office. As Austin’s chief, he still covered the beat on a regular basis and might have been the only big-city chief in America still making his own arrests. He says he loves cops and practices transparency in an era when many police critics cry out for it. Like Brown, Hurtt and, yes, even McClelland, Acevedo was picked by a headhunting agency hired by the mayor.

The Acevedo era will begin with the same question asked when the three previous outsiders took office – will he stay an outsider like Ashworth and Hurtt or become a widely respected insider like Lee Brown, the man who was the chief who became mayor? As we always say in situations like this one: Time will tell.