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Chief marks one year on the job

By Tony Plohetski
The Austin American-Statesman

AUSTIN - On the day of this year's Juneteenth parade, 10-year-old Keayatti Evans got a surprise from Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo.
The two had met at a community event months earlier, and Acevedo promised Evans that he would one day take him on a trip in a new Hummer the Austin Police Department had seized in an investigation and outfitted with a siren and police lights.
Just before the parade, Acevedo showed up at Evans' house and invited him to ride along the route.
"He just couldn't believe it," said Evans' father, Carl. "Just the fact that the chief had kept his word and that it was a sincere promise. He hasn't stopped talking about it."
A year after taking over as Austin's police chief, such outreach has come to signify how Acevedo approaches his job. On any given day, he is speaking to community groups, visiting schools or meeting with civic leaders, building relationships that he said are essential to helping police officers do their jobs.
His work has earned the praise of community leaders such as Nelson Linder, president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and traditionally a vocal police critic.
"He engages people," Linder said. "He talks to people, and I think the community respects that. There is a difference in how people are perceiving police."
Acevedo, who came to Austin from the California Highway Patrol, also continues to receive overall accolades among police union representatives, City Council members and his boss, City Manager Marc Ott.
Officials with the Austin Police Association have, however, expressed concern with some of Acevedo's disciplinary decisions, including the firings of several officers. This week, to mark his anniversary, they printed and sold T-shirts for $15 that say, "We are on the move. We are transparent. You're fired." The profits will go to the union's political action committee.
Others expressed criticism or concerns when asked but said Acevedo has increased the department's openness and raised accountability among officers who break the law or police policy.
"His overall leadership style has just been something that was sorely needed at the Police Department," City Council Member Mike Martinez said. "He has come in and exerted that leadership in a manner that has won over community members, many community groups and many of the rank and file."
The police union particularly balked at Acevedo's decision this year to fire a respected commander after Acevedo said he failed to report possible discrimination by another commander.
Acevedo has said that he fired Cmdr. Larry Oliver after Oliver refused to accept a 30-day suspension. Oliver has appealed the termination, and a decision is pending.
Acevedo acknowledges that some observers have raised doubts about his commitment to Austin and how long he will stay. The chief's wife - who gave birth to a son in April - and children continue living in his native Los Angeles. He said he and his wife are together most weekends, sometimes in Austin, sometimes in California.
Acevedo said his wife told her employer before he took the job that she would finish a long-term project before moving to Austin. The couple recently bought a house near downtown.
Crime also rose in 2007, five months of which included Acevedo's term. Violent crime went up 5.8 percent, while property crime jumped 9.3 percent from the previous year.
Overall, Acevedo said he would describe his first year on the job as a "roller coaster ride."
"It's had its ups, it's had its downs, and it's been kind of exciting and exhilarating," he said.
The year, however, has not been marked with controversies that previous chiefs have faced, including high-profile police shootings or labor disputes with the police union.
Acevedo took the job July 19, soon after the U.S. Department of Justice announced that it would investigate how Austin officers use force, particularly against minorities, and after the shooting of Kevin Alexander Brown by Sgt. Michael Olsen.
The Justice Department review came after years of friction between police and some minorities, who said they thought police disproportionately use force against them. Several high-profile police shootings of minorities heightened those concerns, as did text messages exchanged by several officers during a 2005 nightclub fire that said, "Burn baby, burn."
The club had a mostly African American clientele.
Acevedo later fired Olsen for shooting Brown, a decision that the city's civil service commission upheld. Acevedo has said that Olsen used poor tactics leading up to the shooting, including not waiting for backup officers, and that a second shot into Brown's back was unnecessary. Olsen had said he fired after Brown, who was fleeing, reached toward his waist, as if drawing a weapon. Olsen had been investigating a report that Brown had a gun at a nightclub.
Acevedo said he thinks his biggest success so far has been raising the opinion of the department in the community. He sees himself as a department ambassador.
He said he also is pleased with other reforms, such as a new policy in how uses of force among officers are reviewed and a new disciplinary process that sets out specific penalties for certain policy violations.
"I think there is a feeling in the organization of progress," he said.
Wuthipong "Tank" Tantaksinanukij, vice president of the Austin Police Association, said that some officers, however, thought that Acevedo moved too swiftly on certain changes, introducing ideas to the public before they had been fully developed internally.
"Grass is not growing under our feet," Tantaksinanukij said. "This is a department in transition right now. We are not standing in one spot."
Acevedo said firing or suspending officers has been the most difficult part of his job. He has terminated six officers for reasons ranging from insubordination to excessive force.
By comparison, former Chief Stan Knee fired seven officers in 2002, five in 2003 and two in 2004 and in 2005.
In his next year, Acevedo said he wants to become more aggressive on crime. This month, he and other department officials unveiled a new program that's been used in New York and Los Angeles that will make patrol commanders more accountable for combating crime in their areas.
He said he also is eager to learn the results of the Justice Department investigation.
Despite questions about how long he will stay in the job, Acevedo said he plans to remain indefinitely.
"There is nothing I would rather be doing," Acevedo said. "It is a privilege to serve this community, and it is a privilege to lead the men and women of this department."

Wire Service
 
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