Miami's New Police Chief Praised as Progressive but Has History of Controversies

Miami's new police chief, Art Acevedo, speaks to the media alongside Mayor Francis Suarez during his introduction at City Hall.
Miami's new police chief, Art Acevedo, speaks to the media alongside Mayor Francis Suarez during his introduction at City Hall. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty
Art Acevedo, a Cuba-born police chief who has led police departments in Houston and Austin, will be the next chief of the Miami Police Department, city officials announced at a press conference yesterday. The decision to tap Acevedo, who was not part of a months-long interview process the city conducted to replace retiring Chief Jorge Colina, was a surprise to many in Miami. 

With a Twitter following of nearly 100,000, Acevedo is known for his outspoken nature on social media and his somewhat progressive leanings, despite being a registered Republican.

Last June, the chief made national headlines after hugging and marching alongside protesters demonstrating against police brutality. In a viral video, Acevedo spoke about the death of George Floyd and expressed incredulity at the actions of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who suffocated Floyd with his knee.

"How do you keep a knee on a man's neck when he is calling out for his mama?" Acevedo said.

After then-President Donald Trump threatened to deploy the military to cities that did not stamp out the racial-justice protests, Acevedo told Trump to "keep your mouth shut." He also publicly criticized his state's own U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz after the January 6 attack on the Capitol.

But while Acevedo in many ways positions himself as a friendly, pro-reform police chief who supports transparency in law enforcement, his support of protesters and police reform has not always matched up with his actions as head of the Houston Police Department (HPD).

Ashton P. Woods, a lead organizer for Black Lives Matter in Houston, tells New Times that although Acevedo marched with demonstrators, when the cameras were off, the friendly atmosphere went away.

"The people he was shown hugging were arrested hours after those videos were taken. I believe that's hypocritical because if you think people have the right to demonstrate, you shouldn't be arresting them," Woods says.

The Appeal, a newsroom that focuses on criminal justice, reported that while Acevedo was appearing in TV interviews supporting the protesters' cause, the demonstrators were in some cases trampled by mounted officers, violently handcuffed, and arrested by HPD officers using a tactic called "kettling."

"The reality is that his words and gestures don't match his actions," Woods says. "If you're going to be a police chief, you've gotta be aware of how your police officers are acting in terms of protesters or day-to-day arrests."

Acevedo tells New Times the arrests his department made during protests were appropriate, saying the HPD cracked down on protesters only when they became unruly and destructive.

"There's a big difference between lawful protests and violating the law," Acevedo says. "We will march with people and let them be heard, but if you act in a way that puts people and property at risk, we're gonna enforce the law."

Acevedo has also pushed back on oft-cited goals for criminal-justice reformers, including efforts to eliminate cash bail and to reduce police budgets.

In November, Acevedo blamed bail reform for a wave of violent crime in Houston's Harris County, despite a federal report saying the county's bail practices did not contribute to violent offenses. He also argued for an increase of the HPD's multibillion-dollar budget.

Other controversies at Acevedo's previous posts cast a further shadow over his public veneer.

One of the more high-profile marks on Acevedo's tenure at the Houston Police Department (HPD) is the 2019 Harding Street raid, in which Houston police officers killed two people on false pretenses. On January 28, 2019, two undercover narcotics officers executed a no-knock warrant to enter the home of Rhogena Nicholas and Dennis Tuttle, purportedly on suspicion that they were dealing heroin. The raid turned into a shootout that led to the deaths of Nicholas, Tuttle, and their dog.

Police found no heroin in the home.

Following the botched raid, Acevedo defended one of the officers in charge of the operation, calling Gerald Goines a "big teddy bear with tremendous heart and courage."

Acevedo backed down from that defense after Goines was charged with felony murder and, alongside Officer Steven Bryant, accused of making false statements in order to obtain the warrant. But the chief still defended the other cops who assisted, calling them "heroes" who were "taken for a ride" by the two lead officers.

Earlier this year, Nicholas' family sued Acevedo and the HPD in civil court, alleging widespread corruption under the chief's watch that ultimately led to the raid. The lawsuit also faults Acevedo for failing to release ballistic evidence to support the HPD's assertion that police fired from inside the home only after they were shot at by Nicholas and Tuttle.

Acevedo responds to the criticism over the raid by saying it was under his leadership that the HPD investigated Goines' and Bryant's malfeasance. He says the public tries to "have it both ways" by criticizing the chief for bad officers after he investigates them.

"They want you to find these bad cops, and then when we find the guy, they want to beat me up for finding him. I'd rather do my job by finding the malfeasance than bury my head in the sand," Acevedo says.

Acevedo says he has been slow to release the ballistics reports from the shooting because he does not want to jeopardize any court proceedings involving the officers by releasing info to the public and potentially influencing a jury.

Prior to his time in Houston, Acevedo found himself at the center of another controversy involving investigations of sexual assault, stemming from his time as chief of the Austin Police Department from 2007 to 2016.

Acevedo is named in an ongoing lawsuit brought by four victims of sexual assault who allege that police and prosecutors mishandled and refused to investigate rape cases while Acevedo was in charge. Under his watch, the victims assert there was a general culture of disbelieving women's claims of rape and sexual assault.

The lawsuit also claims that on a wall in the sexual assault unit, the Austin Police Department hung photos of victims whose stories were allegedly debunked. In the suit, Acevedo is personally accused of dismissing sexual-assault allegations by female officers against their male coworkers as "bad sex."

Acevedo's attorneys and the City of Austin have asked the judge to dismiss the case, saying the plaintiffs "failed to plead an underlying constitutional violation" and that Acevedo is protected by qualified immunity, a legal doctrine that gives broad leeway to police and other civil servants.

Acevedo says he cannot speak about the Austin case in detail because the litigation is ongoing, but he asserts that the Austin Police Department took sexual assault seriously and that the claims are unfounded.

"People can sue you, but that doesn't mean their claims are legitimate," Acevedo says.

Acevedo has faced allegations of sex-related misconduct going back to his time working for the California Highway Patrol (CHP) from 1986 to 2007. In 2004, Acevedo and the CHP were sued by an officer who claimed that when she and Acevedo had an affair in 1995, he took sexually explicit Polaroid photos of her and later shared them with his supervisors after the affair ended, according to the Los Angeles Times.

A judge eventually threw out the case against the CHP, and Acevedo settled with the officer out of court, according to the Houston TV station KHOU.

In Miami, Acevedo will lead a department with a much smaller budget and workforce than his previous post in Houston. CBS Miami reporter Jim DeFede reports that Acevedo will be paid a salary of $315,000 — an increase from his current salary of approximately $295,000.

He starts in approximately six weeks, according to the Miami Herald.

This story has been updated to include quotes from Chief Art Acevedo.
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Joshua Ceballos is staff writer for Miami New Times. He is a Florida International University alum and a born-and-bred Miami boy.
Contact: Joshua Ceballos