New chief’s enthusiasm rises with every Houston policing issue, Even those voiced by officers ‘drinking from the rumor hose’

Tom Kennedy

Art Acevedo, HPD’s new chief, accentuates two personality traits and seems eager to convince the troops they represent an altogether fitting leadership approach.

In a recent visit by the Badge & Gun, the chief exhibited the enthusiasm of a head cheerleader and the authority of a star quarterback. He was up front about all the issues covered in the session.

Just throw out the ever-present “policing term” rumor. Pick a rumor, any rumor.

Rumor is you want to do away with the pro-active divisions, the CRT, the TACTs, the division gang units. How about it?

Acevedo’s face automatically displayed the firm been-there-done-that facial expression and readily answered, “That’s just cop talk. They should be working the streets instead of at the cooler drinking from the rumor hose.”

The chief didn’t stop there. He insinuated that he wanted his email address embossed in restroom walls throughout the department. “I want everyone to email me the rumor and I’ll nip the rumor in the bud.”

For emphasis, he had an analogy: “You don’t have to use a teletype to spread a rumor. You tell a cop!”

Acevedo seems to strain in order to frown when he wants to emphasize a serious thought or reflection on policing in general everywhere or specifically in Houston. Then his almost constant smile returns. It’s like hearing the quarterback inside him sputtering out a serious play behind a frown, then, smoothly without missing a beat, smiles the encouraging yell from the head cheerleader segment of an orderly brain.

He uses stories to stress a point. As a California highway patrolman, he once started a rumor on Monday in Los Angeles, betting that it would come back by way of Sacramento by Friday. He was wrong: “It was back by Wednesday!” Then he roared with laughter.

Rumors?

In no uncertain terms, Chief Acevedo shot some HPD rumors out of the Houston sky above 1200 Travis. Let’s discuss a few of them. :

“Off-duty extra jobs are not going to go away. I’m not changing a thing on that.” Then he applied a caveat: “The operation (HPD) has to come first if there is a need in patrol at all hands on deck.”

He wants to do all the budget allows to buy more patrol cars: “We need a more robust effort to modernize our fleet and meet the high standards set across the nation.”

While still relatively new to the job, Acevedo has absorbed the main three historical facts pertaining to the Houston Police Department: Undermanned. Underfunded. Under-equipped.

The chief will tell you he plans to be politically astute and not become a political football.

He believes the loss of an estimated 126 men and women through retirements before this coming July 1 will be manageable, once again expressing the optimism of the head cheerleader but the practicality of the ace quarterback.

Mayor Sylvester Turner has expressed hope for filling at least five cadet classes in 2017. Acevedo used the number seven. He also stressed that he will find the most effective overtime program.

“We’re going to take that salary savings (from the retirements) and put together an overtime program,” he said, pointing out that HPOU had voiced concerns that many officers willing to work overtime were concerned that they could be working faraway assignments such as Kingwood and be required to travel to the inner city or the south side for overtime opportunities.

It won’t work that way, the chief said. “I want overtime coordinators at every station to make it easier for officers to work in their own districts,” he said, saying this was in response to the points raised by the Union in a recent meeting with him. “I want overtime programs in all parts of the city not just those that require an officer to drive to a centralized location.”

Throughout the conversation it was evident that Acevedo knows where the bread is buttered.

“We all work for a mayor and council,” he said. “We have to be very strategic in budgetary matters. Pension reform is a bitter pill to swallow. You have to take the bitter pill to cure the patient. It (the pension) is not sustainable as it is now. If you want to keep defined benefit it’s not sustainable.”

The major step toward getting the bitter pill in the healing process is only the first one. Acevedo, as Mayor Turner, believes every effort must be made to life the tax cap instituted in the administration of former Mayor Bill White. “The artificial cap has prevented the city from utilizing revenues that would have allowed us to hire more officers. We need pension reform and need to have the cap lifted.”
Meanwhile, the cheerleader wants every HPD officer “to realize we’re all recruiters. It’s not just the responsibility of a recruiting team. This is a joint effort. Everybody is hiring. It’s a perfect storm for us. We’re competing with a number of agencies.

“But I’d rather do more with less as a police department than to lower our standards or hire people simply because that’s the best we can get. I want to make sure we’re hiring the right people.”

Then the underfunded historical tradition cropped up. “We do not have a competitive salary structure,” Acevedo said, seeming to look for cops in choir robes for this sermon segment. “We have to build the case to improve the salary structure.”

More rumors? Here’s one: the new chief wants to do away with the pro-active divisions, such as CRT, the TACTs and division gang units.

“Are you kidding me?” he said, resuming the quarterback persona. “Pro-active units are extremely important to combating crimes. Fighting violent crime has to be our number one priority. Pro-active units are not going away!”

Chief Acevedo tells everyone he meets – whether they wear the blue uniform or not – that he loves cops and loves being a cop. He’s also not defensive about his ever-present smile and stands sturdy and staunch when he gets a major point across:

One of us longtime friends, an officer, was murdered on Good Friday 2012. “He was a guy out there who always had a smile on his face. A smile is a sign of strength, a sign of confidence, a sign of warmth, acceptance and inclusion. It’s not something we do often enough. A smile is a sign of confidence.”

Acevedo shows that confidence frequently, like when he discussed his leadership role in Houston’s ongoing community-oriented policing philosophy. The new chief has compiled a schedule that often extends to a 16- to 18-hour day, most of the later hours spent at dinners or civic meetings.

His appearances are meant to deemphasize the us-versus-them attitude. Some of the points he stresses:

“You need to be politically astute to navigate the mine fields,” he said, “and support them (officers) regardless of which way the winds are blowing. I’m not going to check my integrity for any special interests. Some cops are going to love me and sometimes hate me. They should know that the decisions will not be based on which way the political winds are blowing.

“We can never have an us-versus-them mentality. We are them. The court of public opinion matters and has an impact on how we’re treated by a grand jury, a criminal jury, the Legislature, the council. It affects our organization and benefits and it starts with treating people right and how you are conducting yourself.”

A faulty decision, on the other hand, can form a major detraction for sometimes 30 years, he said.

Suddenly the ace quarterback (for ACEvedo) shifted to the cheerleader mode, for he was very excited about indulging in his real “favorite job” – driving the streets on patrol. On the day of the interview he was three days away from his first night on a Houston beat – the evening shift at Northeast.

Over his nine years as Austin’s police chief, Acevedo was credited with making 100 arrests, a feat unheard of for a chief in a major city.

Acevedo smiled as if to say he wanted to one day break his Austin arrest record while he’s Houston’s chief.

Who knows? He might be on the beat long enough to hear some rumors.

Oh, and by the way – in case he doesn’t hear one you’ve heard – his email address is Art.Acevedo@houstonpolice.org.