Houston’s Police Chief on How to Stop ‘Lawful but Awful’ Policing
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because he's finding inventive ways to get rid of the bushels of bad apples.
By Joshua Eferighe
Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo sat down with OZY’s co-founder and CEO on The Carlos Watson Show to talk about his forceful support of the George Floyd protests and how a native of Cuba became one of the most prominent law enforcement officers in America. Here are some of the best bites from their hourlong conversation, which can be found on The Carlos Watson Show podcast feed.
‘Freedom’ in the US
Carlos Watson: Chief, so tell me a little bit about how you grew up. Born in Cuba, right?
Art Acevedo: Yep. Yep. Born in Cuba. At 4 and a half, on 12/12 of ’68, we received political asylum. And we were able to come here as Cuban refugees. And my dad used to tell us — I’m the baby of four — my dad used to tell us, “Hey, kids, from here to the moon, there’s no better place on earth than the United States of America.” And then [he] raised us to understand that the United States had given us the greatest gift of all, which is freedom, man. I mean the freedom to pursue your dreams, the freedom to say what you want to say. And he always used to say, “Don’t forget that the worst day with the freedom the United States gives us is better than the best day under communist rule.”
So that taught us to be the half-glass-full mindset, instead of the glass half empty. And he said, “Life ain’t fair. So get over it. And when you get knocked down, pick yourself up and get to work.”
On Being an Officer
Watson: And what do you love about it? Because it’s interesting. When I hear you describe that love, I’m reminded, years ago, I met a woman named Ruth Zukerman, who trained to do a whole series of things. But not until she started teaching Pilates classes, and later helped start SoulCycle and Flywheel, she said then she really was happy. And when you started to talk about becoming a cop, you reminded me of her face when she started talking about training people in cycling. So what is it about being a cop that you enjoyed so much?
Acevedo: Because you can really make a difference. I mean, that sounds canned. It sounds corny. But if you do the job, like most police officers do, you touch lives. And you touch lives for the right reason. I was one of those corny guys, that I would arrest people in East LA, and I talked to them about things. And some of the guys that were gang members, they’d get angry. “Why are you being so nice, homes?” I’d say, “Because this isn’t personal, man, and you’re a person. And there’s more to life than getting yourself arrested” for whatever they happen to be arrested for. And so I just really believe that as the profession of being a professional peace officer, you really have an impact on society. And then I really feel, like, the empathy. My mom used to feed the entire neighborhood, and my dad, I mean, they were the most generous people that I’ve ever met.
And so policing is about people. It’s about relationships. It’s about connecting. It’s about helping people when they’re at their worst. And I think that it’s a profession that uniquely positions officers to do those kind of things. And so I can tell you that there’s nothing that makes you feel better than somebody that you may be see in court, like eight months later … I remember as an officer, some guy comes up to me and says, “Hey” — this guy was actually a drunk driver — and he says, “Hey, I want to …” A drunk driver that fought me, by the way. He really put up a good fight. And he comes up, I barely recognized him. It was like eight months later, in court. He says, “Hey, I’m so-and-so. I’m the guy you arrested.” “Well, hey, sir, how are you?” He goes, “I want to thank you, because you changed my life. My life was spiraling. And because of the arrest you made, it really was eye-opening. And I’ve been doing A, B, C and D.”
‘Bushels of bad apples’
Watson: I had a conversation recently with someone, and as much as I don’t want to say this, it feels like we have not just one or two bad apples in our police forces, but we’ve got enough of a problem that if you were in any other industry, you would say, “Guys, we have a major problem.” It doesn’t mean that everyone’s bad, but it also means it’s not just one or two. Like there’s no way to look at this and not say that there isn’t kind of a systemic set of issues, including what feels like not one or two bad apples but a lot of bad apples. You agree with that? You disagree with that?
Acevedo: Here’s the truth of the matter. I think we have to provide context to what’s going on with police. No. 1, let’s realize how big policing is. It’s 800,000 police officers, representing about 18,000 police departments. I used to always say the few bad apples, and I just had a conversation about 30 minutes ago with some of my chiefs about, some of the guys are mad because you’re saying we don’t just have a few bad apples, that we have bushels of apples. And I said, “Well, it’s the truth.” If we’ve had a run out in our department, close to 170 people now in four years, how can we say that’s a few bad apples? It’s bushels of apples.
So having said that, we have to acknowledge that we do have some issues, that we do have problems, but we also have to put things in the context, in that we have bushels of bad apples, but then we have fields upon fields of good apples. And the problem with policing truly is, it really is the chiefs. I always say it’s a leadership problem. Because when you look at … The community knows bad policing, when they see it. And I think what happens is no one likes to see people fail. And you’ve heard this term, that the use of deadly force was lawful but awful. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard that term. But when it’s lawful but awful, why aren’t we holding people accountable for awful? It should be lawful but necessary. Lawful but could not have been avoided, not lawful but awful.
Watson: How worried are you about whether white supremacists have infiltrated police departments in meaningful enough numbers that that’s also part of the issue? That you don’t just have bad apples or bushels of [bad] apples, but you have determined people who have focused agendas who are joining with a purpose, and they’re joining. How worried are you about that? Is that a major issue, Chief? And if so, should there be a greater federal focus on systemically rooting out white supremacists in various police departments?
Acevedo: I think we need to do what we can to weed out hate and hatred in society, period. We had a cadet not too long ago that actually told another cadet, “Hey, I’m a member of the Aryan Brotherhood.” I mean, we were just shocked, because as much as we do in terms of looking at social media and investigating people, we know it exists, we know that people will try to infiltrate, whether it’s an outlaw motorcycle gang, a Hispanic gang, a Black gang, criminal elements and people that are racist, are white supremacist, will try to infiltrate police departments.
It is a challenge, and it’s something we have to be vigilant and on the lookout for.… I’m so proud of the cadet that reported it right away and we got rid of [the other cadet]. And the thing we did, we went back and were trying to say, “What is it that we could’ve done from a background standpoint that we should’ve done that we didn’t do? Or what is it that we’re not doing that we need to do?” And we cast a wide net on social media, on Facebook, on Instagram, to see what people were thinking.
But that one got, thank God, that he opened his big mouth and self-identified. But it is a challenge, it is something I would like to think that it’s not widespread, but how do you really know what’s in somebody’s heart? It’s hard. How do you assess it? So we have to be vigilant, and [it’s] something we should all be concerned with.