In what felt more like a coronation than the result of a transparent search, Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo has been announced as the City of Miami's next top cop. He's expected to start in May.
Acevedo never applied for the job and therefore wasn't interviewed by the selection panel, nor did he participate in the nearly six hours of public interviews that streamed on YouTube. Mayor Francis Suarez mentioned in his comments introducing the new chief that this happened partly “because of his intervention.” It appears that Acevedo had two conversations with Miami City Manager Art Noriega and then was quickly hired.
Nicknamed “Hollywood Acevedo” in Austin, Texas, where he served as police chief before taking the job in Houston, Acevedo is well known for attracting the bright lights of media cameras because of his bravado and off-the-cuff style. He'll fit right in with Miami’s colorful commissioners. Indeed, Acevedo's media profile has grown exponentially just in the past year.
He lambasted Donald Trump on CNN; he laid the blame of the attempted coup at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 squarely at the feet of Republican lawmakers such as Texas Sen. Ted Cruz; he marched with the body of George Floyd when he was laid to rest in his hometown of Houston; and he has outwardly been supportive of social justice protesters. There also is a highly publicized video of him showing anger toward his officers in the aftermath of the killing of an unarmed, nude teen.
On the other hand, reform groups have been critical of Acevedo for voicing support for bail reform but doing very little to implement it. In Houston, he had control of the jail as well as the police department, so he could have released more people in light of the pandemic, but didn't. He also came under fire for not releasing videos associated with six police shootings by his officers. And there are questions surrounding how his department in Austin handled sexual assault cases – he is being sued (along with other officials) for failing to investigate sexual assault claims, and promoting a culture of not believing victims.
What is incredibly disturbing about Acevedo’s hire in Miami is the secretive way in which he was plucked out of Texas by Noriega. While Acevedo may be the best pick – and only time will tell – the fact that Noriega tossed out the public hiring process is disrespectful to the community. That Acevedo was not subject to the same interview process shows favoritism and does not get him off to a good start. His history was not vetted by the hiring committee or the general public.
Qualified internal and external candidates for the job were marginalized, basically being told condescendingly that “once you see him here in Miami, you’ll realize he was the obvious choice.” The sole Black female candidate, Cherise Gause, who enjoyed the support of the community and is well respected within the department as an assistant chief, was passed over.
This will definitely discourage qualified internal candidates from wanting to go through a similar process in the future if they feel that they won’t really have a shot. It makes a mockery of the time and effort put in by the candidates as well as the interview panel. As the new chief, Acevedo is going to have a long road ahead of him here in Miami to build trust and rebuild bridges.
Despite the total disregard for process, however, there are several benefits of bringing in a police chief from the outside. First, they come with a blank slate. They do not have preconceived notions about the department, members of staff, communities or even its outspoken leaders. This allows a new chief to get to know people, create new relationships and use that feedback to change policy to benefit the community. They also won’t have to deal with the internal personality conflicts of “we were in the academy together, aren’t you going to give me a break?“ or having to choose between people that they have relationships with. This can play out from a disciplinary perspective – it breaks the bonds of “this is the way we’ve always done it.”
We’ve seen that with Delrish Moss. Formerly at the City of Miami, Moss was tapped to be the police chief in Ferguson, Missouri, in the wake of social unrest after the killing of Michael Brown. He is now back in Miami as captain of the Florida International University Police Department, but his work in Ferguson helped bring that community together, getting the city back on track despite its frayed and fraught history. Closer to home, Chief Dan Oates was brought in from Aurora, Colorado, to head the Miami Beach Police Department. He also came in at a critical time, after several high-profile police shooting cases culminating during Memorial Day weekend in 2011.
It certainly will not be an easy path ahead for Acevedo. With the renewed focus on social justice as a result of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many others, he will have to walk a fine line between addressing violent crime in an equitable manner that won’t further harm our communities. He will have to deal with the long shadow of former Fraternal Order of Police President Javier Ortiz , who is back on the job after a long suspension and is infamous for racist inflammatory comments, and guide the department on its post-Department of Justice agreement path after being under federal oversight from 2016 until just recently.
Acevedo will have the added responsibility of learning about this community and its rich history. The new chief will need to instill the importance of supervision and documenting bad acts in order to leave a paper trail. Accountability rests on evidence. If write-ups are not happening – due to favoritism or any other reason – there are no grounds to fight for the termination of a bad officer later on.
It is critical for the next chief to also take civilian complaints seriously. As we saw, Derek Chauvin had 18 complaints prior to killing George Floyd; Fort Lauderdale Police Officer Steven Pohorence who pushed an unarmed protestor last summer, had 79 previous reviews for excessive force. City of Homestead Officer Anthony Green, who most recently killed Edward Foster, has shot four people – killing three – yet remains on the force. There is a clear pattern of escalating violence when early disciplinary intervention does not occur.
In his comments at the press conference announcing his hire, Acevedo stated to Miami officers that “if you want to be one of the children of the corn and make us look bad, resign now. It only takes one Ferguson to set us back decades in community trust.”
He talks the talk, but will he walk the walk?
As voters, we must watch out the lack of transparency surrounding processes that affect our daily life. Frankly, all chiefs should be converted to elected positions – much like we will see with the upcoming sheriff's race in Miami-Dade for 2024. This has the benefit of forcing the area’s top cop to be accountable to voters. Until then, an external candidate may be what Miami needs right now. Hopefully, Acevedo will have the ability to clean house in a way that an internal candidate would have been unable to do.
Melba Pearson is an attorney, writer, speaker, wife and expert on criminal justice issues. She previously served as a homicide prosecutor in Miami, and is deputy director of the ACLU of Florida. Follow her on Twitter @ResLegalDiva.