Forceful talk

In secretly taped meeting, Austin top cop Art Acevedo vents over high-profile minority policing failures

Chief blasts some commanders, mid-managers for shortcomings in response to shooting of naked teen David Joseph, violent arrest of teacher Breaion King

After two of the most controversial police use-of-force encounters in his tenure, Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo stood before an assembly of high-ranking officers tasked with carrying out his vision for the department, using raw and emotional language to express his frustration in a private meeting.

In each instance — the shooting of an unarmed teen and the violent arrest of a teacher — Acevedo, one of the nation’s most tenured major city chiefs, had swiftly and publicly condemned the actions of officers, a decision that led some inside the department to question how much Acevedo supports his troops.

In a profanity-laden tirade behind closed doors with his top brass, Acevedo questioned how anyone, much less one of his 18 commanders, could have disagreed with his assessment and desire to hold the officers responsible. He acknowledged the department had “taken a step back” and called upon them to push changes down to the rank-and-file — or to rethink their careers.

“We have got to raise our game,” Acevedo said in the August 10 meeting. “You are commanders. If you don’t like it, you can move on, or you can demote. I’m not going to hold that against anybody if it’s not for you, but we have got to step up.”

His comments, which were secretly recorded and then provided to the American-Statesman by one of the commanders, provide a rare window into the tension between Acevedo and some of the department’s leadership at a critical juncture for law enforcement in Austin and across the nation.

From his first day in July 2007, Acevedo has worked to carry out a mandate from the community, the mayor and other city leaders by creating a department that sharply scrutinizes how officers employ force and focuses on equal treatment of minorities. Central to this effort, Acevedo has tried to empower supervisors to monitor officers who violate his standards and hold them accountable.

Yet the recording raises questions about how well each member of Acevedo’s management team has embraced and pushed those standards to the rank and file, an issue some community leaders have cited as critical for the department’s success.

“I have given nine years of my life to the Austin Police Department,” Acevedo told his commanders. “Nine years aren’t going to go down the drain because we have people in this room that don’t want to do the hard lifting, that don’t want to be the bad guys. Sorry, we have to be the bad guys sometimes.”

Acevedo inspects police cadets prior to the commencement ceremony at the Austin Police Training Academy in July.(MARK MATSON \/ AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

Acevedo inspects police cadets prior to the commencement ceremony at the Austin Police Training Academy in July.

For their part, several current and former commanders told the American-Statesman that they have worked to embrace Acevedo but have at times experienced a breakdown in cohesiveness that they say has left them reluctant to follow his lead. They complain he has previously rejected their opinions and suggestions on other matters, such as staffing, and in some instances, contend he has retaliated for such disagreements, including one commander who currently has a pending lawsuit against Acevedo.

The police union president said Acevedo’s private remarks, in which the chief also said, “I don’t care about commander morale” — did not serve to unify the department’s leadership.

In his remarks, Acevedo repeatedly said that he thinks most of the commanders are meeting his expectations, but that “some people in this room have my attention, and you’ll soon find out who you are.”

In an interview with the Statesman, Acevedo said he is disappointed that the person who recorded the meeting “didn’t have the fortitude to have a face-to-face conversation when I have had an open-door policy my entire career.” He added that “my message delivered in a private setting was consistent with my message to the public and community.”

Such conflicts aside, national policing experts say a strong relationship between Acevedo and commanders — the highest rank under assistant chief — is crucial to an effective policing organization that mirrors the perspectives of its leader.

“One of the toughest jobs as a police chief is to sell your program to the troops,” said Michael W. Quinn, a former police officer and national law enforcement instructor and author. “It takes time, and the police culture has a certain mindset on what is acceptable and what isn’t, and it can be very difficult to change.”

Nelson Linder, president of the Austin chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said that shift is essential for Acevedo to preserve what has been years of almost-entirely positive support from the minority community.

“I think there is a problem with them all not being on the same page,” Linder said. “I think it’s Acevedo’s fault. You have to make sure they are on the same page as you, and I don’t think he does that. There is more that needs to be done to make this department better.”

'Still trying to justify'

What many consider a disconnect in philosophies between Acevedo and some higher-ranking officers began publicly emerging this spring after the shooting death of David Joseph, a 17-year-old who was naked and unarmed when Officer Geoffrey Freeman shot him. The teen is shown on patrol car videos running toward the officer, who has said he feared for his life when he fired.

Within days of the shooting, Acevedo held a news conference with community members, including those from the group Black Lives Matter, to promise a speedy and thorough investigation. He said he had serious questions about Freeman’s actions. His decision led some officers to question his level of support.

Then in a controversial move, Acevedo fired Freeman, saying he used excessive force, but the police union has vigorously defended him, saying that he reasonably thought Joseph was about to tackle him and possibly try to take his weapon. An appeals hearing in which Freeman is seeking reinstatement is set in December.

Although no commanders openly or publicly defended Freeman, Acevedo said in the secretly recorded talk with commanders that he realized that probably not all of them supported his decision to terminate the officer. He said he wanted to make his position clear.

“The union got all pissed off because I fired Freeman,” he told the group. “Some of you might have gotten pissed off. I’m going to tell you right now, if we have another Freeman tomorrow, that is what’s going to happen. I didn’t lose a minute of sleep. If you can’t handle a kid in broad daylight, naked, and your first instinct is to come out with your gun, and your next instinct is to shoot the kid dead, you don’t need to be a cop. I don’t give a shit how nice you are.”

Yet the issue between Acevedo and his staff became more apparent three months ago when the Statesman revealed the circumstances of the arrest of African-American teacher Breaion King, who was shown on a police video being thrown to the ground twice by a white officer after she was stopped for speeding in 2015.

Acevedo learned about the incident from the Statesman — not his command staff — and was livid that they had not alerted him to the case.

In the encounter with Officer Bryan Richter, a patrol car video shows the traffic stop escalated rapidly in the 7 seconds from when Richter first commands the 26-year-old King to close her door and to place her feet inside her car to when he forcibly removes her from the driver’s seat, pulls her across a vacant parking space and hurls her to the asphalt.

“That was a horrific video, and if you don’t look at that video and aren’t horrified by what you saw, shame on you,” Acevedo said in the recorded meeting. “Because I guarantee you, if that was my wife, we’d have some problems.”

Richter’s supervisors issued a reprimand, the most minor discipline, and Acevedo was forced to answer questions about how the department had previously reviewed the encounter and how supervisors could have concluded his actions didn’t merit more scrutiny or harsher punishment.

“I am sickened that somehow people are still trying to justify Richter,” Acevedo said on the recording. “Nobody wearing stripes, or bars or stars should even think about justifying a woman — that the reason that woman got pulled out of that car is because she had the audacity to tell him to hurry up."

Acevedo told the commanders that Richter then overreacted when King questioned him.

“She wasn’t going with the program,” he said. “You know what? Millennials ask questions, so get over it. If you are going to order somebody to do something, you better have a damn good reason if you are going to take them to jail.

“That was such an easy stop to de-escalate.”

Richter’s supporters have pointed out that according to his account and written reports, King did not comply with his commands, which escalated the situation.

“Who cares what he wrote?” Acevedo said. “Because I think we have this attitude, of I’ll just cover it in the report and I’ll be good to go … Anybody can do creative writing. Does that make sense to you guys?”

Acevedo concluded, “It’s been nine years, guys. Does anybody in this room have any doubt how I would have reacted to that tape had it been brought to my attention?”

'Hard to follow'

Cpl. Ken Casaday, president of the Austin Police Association, said for at least the past couple of years, some commanders have complained they do not have a voice with Acevedo, who they say is resistant to their ideas. In exchange, when he enlists their support to help influence the troops, they are less likely to follow his lead in helping shape the department.

Casaday cited a 2014 memo written by then-Cmdr. Phil Crochet, who said he was writing on behalf of the group, that challenged an organizational staffing plan by Acevedo about commander assignments. They complained it could hinder their ability to properly manage “all of their responsibilities” and suggested that when Acevedo doesn’t listen to their advice, he courts disaster.

“The commanders share the belief that at some point one of those slips will be a major issue that will bring embarrassment or some type of action upon the Department,” Crochet wrote.

Acevedo did not change course after the memo.

Casaday described the overall relationship between Acevedo and the commanders as one of distrust.

“They want to work with the chief, but there have been so many issues,” Casaday said. “You can see the way they were treated on the audio recording. It would be very hard to follow a leader like that, that accepts no feedback and says your morale doesn’t mean anything to me. If I treated my employees like that, I wouldn’t have any employees.”

Fatima Mann of Austin Justice Coalition speaks during a Black Women Matter protest at Austin City Hall on Aug. 4, after the Breaion King arrest videos came to light. (RODOLFO GONZALEZ \/ AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

Fatima Mann of Austin Justice Coalition speaks during a Black Women Matter protest at Austin City Hall on Aug. 4, after the Breaion King arrest videos came to light. (RODOLFO GONZALEZ / AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

The issue of police culture has been on the national forefront in the past two years after several high-profile and controversial police shootings that have galvanized many citizens to call for reforms in law enforcement.

Police leadership experts say a tight relationship between Acevedo and his closest leaders is key to Acevedo’s future and in establishing a department that mirrors his views and standards set by the community.

“It is incredibly important that people be listened to,” said Lauren C. Anderson, a former FBI executive and law enforcement consultant. “You aren’t always going to get the outcome you want, but it is important that you were listened to, and that has to go in every direction. If it doesn’t, it’s going to fail.”

Acevedo has publicly said he is working to ferret out commanders who are blocking his path to progress. In the past two years, the department’s internal affairs division has opened 11 investigations involving commanders, and several have retired. Details of those cases were not available; six ended with reprimands.

Even with chiefs and commanders moving in step with each other, experts say changing the culture of an organization can be challenging.

Anderson said agencies must still battle against a culture in which officers are often inclined to protect each other even when one has possibly erred.

“But you can’t force it,” she said. “You have to get buy in, and to get buy in, you have to have an open and honest conversation behind closed doors about why it’s important. I have found that as a leader, you can’t just command change to occur.”

(In title photo: Acevedo joined local activists Feb. 11 to talk about the death of 17-year-old David Joseph for the first time since the teenager was shot and killed by an officer in Northeast Austin.)