Criminal Justice

As HPD Chief Departs For Miami, City Officials And Activists Push For More Police Oversight

As Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo prepares to take a job leading the Miami police force, city officials and activists are looking ahead to the future of police reform.

Lucio Vasquez / Houston Public Media
Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo speaks to protesters in Downtown Houston on Friday, May 29, 2020.

Outgoing Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo has been touted both locally and nationally as someone who has made efforts to improve relations between police and the community. Last year, he made national headlines when he marched alongside protestors at a demonstration in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police.

But his tenure was also met with criticism: at those protests, hundreds of demonstrators were arrested, their charges later dropped by the Harris County District Attorney’s Office. And his time in Houston is also marked by the deadly Harding Street raid, which has since led to charges against 12 officers.

Acevedo has positioned himself as a reformer, and at a sometimes-heated press conference Tuesday, touted the efforts he and his department made to push for community, or “relational” policing. He also bid farewell to the city, even as he addressed some of the more controversial moments as chief.

"I may be wrong, I may be misguided, but I challenge anyone to say I don't care,” Acevedo said. “Because I do.”

Now, as Acevedo prepares to take a job leading the Miami police force, city officials and activists are looking ahead to the future of police reform, while also raising questions about the progress made since last year’s civil rights protests.

Critics of Acevedo and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner say only minor changes have been made from listed recommendations by the city's Police Reform Task Force up to this point. A cite-and-release policy was enacted back in September, and there have been changes to use of force policies. No-knock warrants for nonviolent offenses have been banned as well.

Both Turner and Larry Payne, the task force's chairman and longtime consultant to Houston mayors, say reform is very much a priority for the city.

But extenuating circumstances, like the ongoing pandemic and February's arctic freeze, have delayed what the city has been capable of doing, Payne said.

“Timetables are timetables,” Payne said. “Things change, and things move and they shift. But I can say this: that progress is being made, that we're moving on to recommendations for implementation."

Payne said some of the larger issues will "take time," but revamping the city's Independent Police Oversight Board is at the forefront of what could be coming next.

“The Independent Police Oversight Board is being totally redone with new members, a new chairperson, that should be coming out fairly soon from the mayor's office,” Payne said.

But some local activists claim that simply changing members on the oversight board won’t be as effective as it may appear.

"If Mayor Turner really wanted to do something serious, he would go and lobby the legislature in the House and the Senate in Austin to change the law to make it so that municipalities could have more power and latitude with the type of investigatory powers that a police oversight board would have," said Ashton Woods, founder of Black Lives Matter Houston.

Woods called the current police oversight board "toothless" because it lacked subpoena power. And he said simply switching people out wouldn't create the necessary transparency needed to enact real change.

Given the choice, Woods said a functioning police oversight board would have the ability to subpoena, and have greater access to information on individual case complaints.

That’s something some Houston City Council members have also pushed for.

"I'm not going to support anything that doesn't have to do with subpoena power," said At-Large City Council member Letitia Plummer. "We have to have subpoena power. We may get an independent police oversight board, but the subpoena power part is definitely not something that is supported (by the mayor.)"

Plummer added that she hasn't heard anything recently regarding movement on any of the current reforms.

Other council members say a letter was sent to the mayor several months ago regarding the current Independent Police Oversight Board.

"We currently do not have any confidence in the way it is constructed, and our hope is that we can get new leadership, a new strategy put in place, on who would serve the training they would have, the responsibilities they would have, so that we could have much more accountability and transparency with the public on how those proceedings go," said District J City Council member Edward Pollard.

Ultimately, any police reform recommendations have to be brought forth by Mayor Turner to the city council. But it’s not clear that subpoena power would greatly improve the work of the oversight board.

Gerald Birnberg, an IPOB member and attorney with Williams, Birnberg & Anderson, said he didn’t think subpoena power was the problem — though he stressed that it was his personal opinion, not necessarily the view of the board.

“Obtaining information in police misconduct investigations is not the problem,” Birnberg said in an email, adding: “it has been my experience that Internal Affairs Investigations, to which IPOB has unfettered access, are usually remarkably thorough and comprehensive, and additional information is only rarely needed by IPOB (and then, customarily readily provided).”

While the board does sometimes disagree with the conclusions of the internal affairs division, Birnberg said he did not see transparency as one of the bigger issues facing the board. And as board of citizen volunteers, they’re tasked with oversight, not investigations — which he said they would be “ill-equipped” to conduct.

“In my opinion, far more important than subpoena power for the IPOB would be paid, professional, non-law-enforcement, independent staff to conduct independent investigations in appropriate cases and submit their findings to IPOB for review and recommendations,” he said. “Perhaps subpoena power would be useful to such paid professionals, but I do not think subpoenas could be put to significant beneficial use by IPOB itself.”

No matter what reforms may be put in place, it will be up to a new chief to enact them. Acevedo said he’ll be leaving in the coming weeks, and a replacement was likely to be announced by Mayor Turner on Thursday afteroon.

Durrel Douglas, the founder and executive director of the advocacy group Houston Justice, was critical of Acevedo’s tenure as chief. If change is going to come, he said, there needed to be a shift in thinking from police leadership.

"What we're looking for in the next police chief is someone who's going to be be transparent, someone who's going to be honest, and someone who's going to hold police accountable,” Douglas said. “To sum it up, someone different than Art Acevedo.”

Additional reporting by Jen Rice and Paul DeBenedetto.

Correction: Due to an editing error, this piece incorrectly characterized George Floyd’s death as a shooting. Floyd died after an arresting Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck for about nine minutes.

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