Austin’s Chief of Police serves the community with a sense of humor and a heart of gold.
By Chad Swiatecki, Photos by Cody Hamilton; Assisted by Jojo Marion; Makeup by Lauren Lumsden, Rae Cosmetics; Styling by Ashley Hargrove
Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo leans in to his sixth heartfelt and completely sincere example of the way police officers can make a difference by helping those less fortunate, the reality sets in that he could probably talk like this for days. With the slightest of pauses for breath, Acevedo talks passionately about the positive impact of raising funds for youth groups, of delivering toys to poor children at Christmastime and offering positive activities to preteens who might be tempted by drugs or crime.
Community involvement is a mindset and value system Acevedo has hammered home since taking Austin’s top police job five-and-a-half years ago. He’s proud of the way his officers and support staff have responded, offering their time and help when asked to pitch in for the laundry lis t of local charities and groups the chief stays involved in throughout the year. But it’s an offhand comment about the attitude of Austin officers that is perhaps most illustrative of how far they take the second part of the time-honored “To protect and serve” police motto.
“I’ve never seen a department where cops change more tires than here,” Acevedo says.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been driving down the road where I’ve seen officers, instead of watching while a couple or a little old lady struggles to change a tire, they’ll get down there and get dirty changing the tire for them,” Acevedo shares, beaming about the idea of sworn officers loosening lugnuts and working a jack on civilian vehicles. “I’ve got the letters to prove it.”
There’s something both uniquely Austin and uniquely Acevedo at play there. First, good luck getting a police cruiser to so much as offer cover from oncoming traffic for a flat tire in most major American cities. Second, if word got up the chain of command in those other cities that an on- duty officer took time out of their shift to do something other than dole out traffic tickets or actively fight crime, they’d hear about it fast and catch all kinds of fresh hell in the process.
Acevedo, though, sees those kinds of deeds as the important connective tissue that police departments should tend to, to improve quality of life and build strong bonds in their communities. The thinking, he says, is that officers in touch with and assisting in the areas they patrol — especially the APD’s 66 dedicated liaison officers in neighborhoods throughout the city — can keep bad situations from getting worse.
“I’ve seen this, where we’ll have a little old lady who’s up there in age and has an issue with plumbing or something in her home. Guys will come out on their own time to help that resident, or when an officer sees a homeless person who looks hungry, and they’ll get some food to go and feed that person.
“That’s truly not our job description,” Acevedo says, “but if you’re going to have the heart of a servant police officer, you should care about those things. From our police family standpoint, although our job is law enforcement, we are peacemakers, and part of keeping the peace is helping people that slip through the cracks, whether they’re young people, old people, addicted people…our job is to help them get to their feet to the best of their ability.”
That mindset, paired with an open and outgoing personality, has helped make Acevedo, 48, the most high-profile and publicly engaged police chief Austin has ever seen. Looking to remake the department’s image after the 2006 retirement of the comparatively old-school and withdrawn Chief Stan Knee, city leaders put out a job description emphasizing community involvement and transparency on top of time-honored crime-prevention skills.
Acevedo, who was a commander with the California Highway Patrol when he saw the posting, talks frequently about how the position seemed tailor-made for his experience and personality. Winning the job after wowing city councilors, police staff representatives and community members, he wasted no time in reaching out to community groups, business leaders, schools and nonprofit stakeholders, basically grabbing any ear he could get hold of to say things were going to be different and, on his watch, all voices would be heard.
The change was welcome, and his stewardship of the department’s $283 million budget and 1,700- plus sworn officers since becoming Austin’s eighth police chief helped make the city the third-safest major American hub. Mayor Lee Leffingwell, who was on the Austin City Council when Acevedo was hired, says he has been close to a perfect fit for the city and its people.
“I couldn’t be more pleased with the job he’s done, and he’s exceeded all of our expectations,” Leffingwell says. “The chief has done so much positive outreach to the community and done an excellent job at making himself accessible. He’s willing to get out there to meet and talk with anybody. The fact that he’s well-respected in all parts of the community makes a huge difference when he has to engage with different groups.”
A native of Cuba, Acevedo and his family fled to the United States in 1968 when he was just 4 years old, arriving in Miami as political refugees and soon settling in a poor community outside Los Angeles. Those desperate days of stitching together the bare necessities from his father’s income as a construction worker influenced Acevedo in a number of ways, including his desire to become a police officer.
“My father was a police officer many moons ago in Cuba, and he’d tell me stories of chasing bad guys and those foot pursuits, and those always appealed to me,” Acevedo says. “I was precocious as a kid and when we played cops and robbers, I was never the robber. I’d fight you before I’d be the robber because I was the good guy. Only in this place can you come here from another country, do the right things growing up, have the right values and end up as a police chief in one of the finest cities in this country, if not the world.”
Another personality trait that was shaped by Acevedo’s childhood both in and out of Cuba is his understanding of how important it is to give the poor a ray of hope and a way to improve their lives. Memories of Christmas mornings when it appeared Santa all but forgot to visit his house drive him in his work with Austin’s Operation Blue Santa and his involvement in local youth activities and charities.
“When you remember being a little kid and not having milk and your mother giving you sugar and water as a nutrient, and you remember your mom not being able to eat because there wasn’t enough food for everyone, you’re raised with a different perspective,” he says. “Even in a city as vibrant as Austin, I quickly discovered there’s still lots of challenges and people falling through the cracks. There’s still a significant dropout rate, especially amongst African-American and Hispanic boys, and one of my frustrations is I believe the path to a criminal life begins with two things: dropping out of school and drugs. One of those two things happen, and people’s lives get turned upside down.”
Acevedo’s commitment to making a difference regularly puts him on local television news, You- Tube and Facebook for participating in fundraising events such as Dancing with the Stars Austin (“Have you ever tried dancing in a police uniform?” he asks. “It’s hard!”) to benefit Travis County’s Center For Child Protection, or being front and center at the annual Chuy’s Children Giving to Children Parade. There are also plenty of lower profile efforts he thinks could be even more important at making Austin both safer and more prosperous in the future. One of those has been the creation of the Waterloo District of Boy Scouts, which targets poor and at-risk youth, mostly in East Austin, and has enrolled more than 1,500 scouts since its creation in 2010.
“There was no police Explorer program when I got here, so we put that together in the Police Activities League, or in the summer we provide a week-long camp for hundreds of kids, and other opportunities. That wasn’t here before either,” he says. “We’re planting seeds of hope and cooperation that can be a recipe for success. We say, ‘Here are the values you follow as a young person if you want to get to where you want to be.’ Prior to 2007, we didn’t have that. We have 1,500 to 1,600 kids now in the Boy Scouts to engage them, because if kids are in scouting for five years or more, their graduation rate jumps to 92 percent. That’s huge. Some of these kids have parents in prison, are being raised by grandparents or are in single-parent homes.”
Art Mata, commissioner for the Waterloo scout district, says it is Acevedo’s belief in the end result of all his hard work that drives him to stay involved in so many community activities and organizations outside of his duties at the APD headquarters on Eighth Street near I-35.
“He had the idea for this district targeting at-risk kids and the economically disadvantaged about two years ago, and he just went after it because it is a passion of his and he knew it could make a difference,” Mata says. “Any time you go to a banquet or any other event where he speaks, he’s talking about getting kids off of the street, how important that is and what people can do to make that happen.”
So much talk about Acevedo’s extracurricular efforts makes it easy to overlook the fact that he is, above all else, a police chief responsible for the safety of the 13th-largest city in America. His use of “force multiplier” methods, such as surveillance cameras to monitor high-crime areas, has allowed him to keep the department’s budget tight while not sacrificing police presence. Managing budgets and tactics takes a delicate step even in a favorable situation like Austin, which made it through the 2008-2010 recession without having to dramatically tighten its belt. Acevedo says he’s committed to keeping staffing at the current national standard of two officers per 1,000 residents.
“The No. 1 priority is maintaining our staffing,” he says. “You don’t experiment with a proven philosophy with safety. We’re able to be very successful with very limited resources and I don’t want to experiment much more with a formula that causes people and businesses to move here, because it is a safe city. [City Manager] Marc Ott understands that philosophy, and the mayor ran on public safety and has kept his word.”
Acevedo has encountered some bureaucratic bumps since taking over the department, most of them relating to charges of excessive force and the handling of officers involved in shootings. A Department of Justice review of the department that began in 2007 before Acevedo was sworn in resulted in more than 160 recommendations to improve tactics and accountability, and he has moved to implement them. Criticism bothers Acevedo most when detractors overlook the root cause of confrontations, such as youth crime and poverty.
“What irritates me is some of the critics don’ t do a thing to change that outcome that ends with a violent encounter with the police,” he says.
Operation Blue Santa was an Austin tradition before Police Chief Art Acevedo came to town in 2007, but the effort quickly became one of the bigger pieces of an aggressive community-and-volunteering effort expanded by the chief. It’s easy to understand this when Acevedo, a native of Cuba who immigrated to the United States with his family when he was 4, talks about the despair he and his siblings faced waking up with next to nothing under the tree some Christmas mornings.
“I remember one year, the best toy I got was some little Kung Fu doll with a little lever and thought, ‘God, Santa Claus, what did I do wrong that this is all I got?’ ” Acevedo says. “What better way to try to plant seeds of hope than on Christmas Day? To have police officers work to raise funds for toys and deliver them to families. … I remember acting as Santa for a group I was a part of and kids and their families lined up for blocks to get a $5 or $10 toy. I had my older kids with me and they said, ‘Dad, they’re really excited but those toys are not the greatest.’ I said, ‘You know what? I want you to see how lucky you are.’”
Established in 1972, Blue Santa is an APD-organized nonprofit that will serve more than 3,500 poor families this Christmas, offering a full holiday meal for each family and wrapped gifts to children younger than 14. Doing so requires hundreds of volunteers and donors, many of whom Acevedo has rallied to the cause in his five years with the department.
“When we do the delivery day, it’s a big day because it’s not just us,” he says. “I see my officers show up with their entire families with the food and the box of presents. That joy that first time, they go, ‘Man, I never realized how addictive this is.’ What law enforcement needs to attract is people who have a need to serve others.”
Joe Munoz, supervisor of APD’s Office of Community Liaisons, says the Blue Santa effort has flourished during Acevedo’s time in the department because of his enthusiasm for fundraising (the program has a $120,000 annual budget) and enlisting volunteers from his ranks.
“When you have the head of the organization extending himself to help, it makes the success of the program so much easier,” Munoz says. “It’s twofold because along with helping with funding and volunteers, he’s raising the visibility so that people who need this help can get it. Because he came from that kind of low-income background himself, this kind of thing means a lot to him and it lets the public know more about the good side of law enforcement they don’t normally see.”
What’s different now, though, is that Acevedo’s outreach has softened the APD’s image in many minority communities that for generations felt overlooked and marginalized by the department. Asked about the chief ’s presence and profile, Rev. G.V. Clark, pastor of Mt. Zion Baptist Church in East Austin, says Acevedo quickly set himself apart by visiting his congregation and volunteering to fix a traffic concern at the church that other chiefs had ignored, despite years of requests.
“He came out on his own, saw what we were dealing with and volunteered to help us without even having to be asked,” says Clark, who has lived in Austin his whole life. “Anything I’ve needed or concerns we’ve had, it’s been a matter of making a phone call. He’s the only police chief who has shown any real caring for this part of Austin, and it’s refreshing to stand before my congregation and believe it when I say the chief is doing the very best job that he can.”
A father of three (Melissa, 24; Matthew, 20; and Jake, 4) and married to his second wife, Tanya, Acevedo earns his well-known reputation as a jokester, breaking up his interview for this story with a dissection of his favorite Will Ferrell movies and engaging in a Nerf toy-gun fight with another officer in the midst of his office, which is appointed with scores of Star Wars and Star Trek collectibles, among other knick knacks and toys.
Of course, those moments of relief are sometimes needed to lessen the sorrow that can come with police work, such as when, in April, Acevedo had to lead the department through the tragedy of the shooting death of Senior Officer Jaime Padron in North Austin. Acevedo is uncharacteristically silent and somber when a staff member points out the photo and plaque from Padron’s memorial service, and his eyes start to well up, but later he’s reflective on how he and others in law enforcement manage to deal with the pressures of the job.
“Police officers have to use humor as a coping mechanism,” he says. “We can make jokes about anything because if you don’t laugh, some of this stuff… will eat you up. In this career, you don’t forget the stuff you see. If you don’t develop a sense of humor and a thick hide, you’re never going to make it.”
While he’s come a long way from his days on the beat in gang-ridden parts of greater Los Angeles, Acevedo hasn’t bid complete farewell to the streets, as he still fits in a few patr ol shifts a month to help him stay on the same level as everyday officers.
“If I have a five- or six-hour opening in my schedule, I’ll grab a black-and-white and grab my ticket book and baton and get out on patrol,” he says. “I don’t like writing tickets because I like being a nice guy, but I’ve made 60 arrests since I got here. It reminds me what the job is all about because if I’m to judge these officers, I need to know the path they walk and, too often, leaders, as they go up the chain, they become more and more removed from the everyday work. The backbone of policing is patrol, so I don’t want to be so removed from what they do every day that when it comes time for me to judge their actions, I have no clue. My guys know I still go on patrol, I make arrests, I write tickets and I’ve even been in two or three pursuits since I’ve been here. The day I can’t do that, I’m done policing.”
If a black-and-white pulls up and Austin’s top cop steps out, a well-timed joke might get you out of a ticket, or maybe Acevedo will be feeling kindhearted. Either way, he’s out there every day sporting his signature wry smile, all the while wearing his servant’s heart on his sleeve.