High-profile chief takes over troubled Aurora Police Department: “I will always say what’s on my mind”

Gun Rights

Aurora’s new interim police Chief Art Acevedo was about to speak to the District 2 night shift officers at their roll call on his first day on the job when his phone lit up.

It was Shaquille O’Neal trying to Facetime him. They’re friends from Acevedo’s time in Los Angeles.

“I actually blushed,” Acevedo said. “I told them this wasn’t a setup.”

The Aurora Police Department’s new interim chief comes with a national profile, famous friends, cable television news appearances and more than a decade of experience as a leader of large departments in Houston and Miami. Acevedo is known for being outspoken and not shying from the limelight. He’s been called the “Tom Brady of police chiefs,” “the chameleon of police chiefs” and “the best politician in the state of Texas.”

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“I will always say what’s on my mind,” Acevedo said. “You will never have to try to guess what I think about an issue.”

In previous cities, Acevedo has criticized the National Rifle Association, judges, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and political candidates. He was fired after six months from his stint as Miami’s police chief because of conflict between him and city leadership, whom he is now suing.

Acevedo is the third person to lead the Aurora Police Department in three years. He’s tasked with taking on a department that’s struggling with rising crime, attempting to implement a consent decree, dealing with fallout from the controversial firing of the last permanent chief, and trying to rebuild community trust after a series of high-profile misconduct cases.

Acevedo said he’s up for the challenge. He plans to be in the community and in a police cruiser building relationships. He leads from the front, he said.

“You’re not going to change culture, you’re not going to build relationships behind that desk,” he said, motioning to the solid wood chief’s desk behind him.

The Aurora Police Department is significantly smaller than the two most recent departments he led. The agency is authorized to have up to 744 officers — but was down about 50 earlier this month — while Miami employed about 1,100 officers and Houston employs more than 5,000. The Houston Police Department’s $989 million budget is slightly less than the $1.1 billion budget for the entire city of Aurora.

Several Aurora city leaders are excited to have an outsider lead the department. Some expressed interest in Acevedo staying on permanently.

“When I first heard he was going to be interim chief I was stunned because I’ve known of him as a very high-level chief of police,” Councilman Dustin Zvonek said.

“An organizational pause”

Acevedo spent his first week as chief shaking hands and meeting the officers he now leads. He worked 6 a.m. to midnight his first day in the job.

He’s gotten in trouble with the staff tasked with showing him around for always being late.

“I have a hard time passing by somebody without saying hi,” he said.

His first priority as interim chief is to take an “operational pause” to create a list of every project going on in the department, figure out where each one stands and create a tracking process.

“So much has been thrown at this organization at one time… we are an organization that is talent-rich but resource-challenged in terms of people — and that’s our No. 1 asset,” he said. “We’re going to get organized and then we’re going to move forward.”

Acevedo will be paid $249,990 a year for his work along with a housing stipend, according to his contract. The contract does not state an end date.

He wants to hear from police department staff about what changes are needed in the agency. He also hopes to do better education on the attorney general’s consent decree that is mandating changes in the department. Many officers don’t seem to understand what the consent decree is and that it presents an opportunity, he said.

“I want our officers to understand that this is a tremendous opportunity,” he said. “By entering into this agreement, it’s the city saying, ‘We can do some things better.’ Now it’s going to force the city to put their money where their mouth is.”

In a May 10, 2017 photo, then Houston Police Department Chief Art Acevedo salutes fallen Harris County deputies during the Annual Harris County Sheriff's Office Peace Officers' Memorial Service, in Houston. (Yi-Chin Lee/Houston Chronicle via AP)
In a May 10, 2017 photo, then Houston Police Department Chief Art Acevedo salutes fallen Harris County deputies during the Annual Harris County Sheriff’s Office Peace Officers’ Memorial Service, in Houston. (Yi-Chin Lee/Houston Chronicle via AP)

Decades of policing

An immigrant from Cuba, Acevedo began his law enforcement career in 1986 as a patrol officer in Los Angeles with the California Highway Patrol.

He rose through the ranks in the agency and was considered a candidate to become the commissioner until he became mired in scandal when a woman whom he allegedly had an affair with sued him for allegedly showing other officers her nude photos. Acevedo denied the allegations and successfully sued the highway patrol, alleging he was being retaliated against.

In 2007, he became chief of police in Austin, Texas, and in 2016 he became top cop in Houston. As chief in Houston, he dealt with rising crime and controversy from a botched 2019 drug raid in which two innocent homeowners died.

Acevedo gained national attention when a video went viral of him speaking at a protest following the murder of George Floyd. After the protests, Houston’s mayor formed a task force to study policing in the city and suggest changes.

Larry Payne, chair of the Mayor’s Task Force on Policing Reform, said Acevedo gave the task force any information they needed and supported the effort. Acevedo was a warm and outgoing chief with a clear vision of what he wanted to accomplish, Payne said.

“He’s always looking at things from all angles,” Payne said. “I found him to be, in our conversations, very forthright and honest. He would say something and I would challenge him, and he would push back. But we were always able to come to a compromise.”

The task force released its findings in September 2020, though some activists questioned why Acevedo didn’t implement reforms sooner.

Acevedo left Houston to be chief of the Miami Police Department in April 2021. He held that job for six months before being fired in October 2021 by city management.

The city manager said in a letter that Acevedo lost the trust of the department’s officers, didn’t record vacation time, failed to promptly report damage to his vehicle, and used foul language while arguing with a demonstrator, among other issues. In January, Acevedo sued the city in federal court, alleging he was fired for speaking out about corruption.

Acevedo became a CNN commentator in December 2021, but gave up the contract when he took his position in Aurora.

The Aurora Police Department came onto Acevedo’s radar when he was president of the Major Cities Chiefs Association. He said he was impressed by a presentation given by then-Aurora police Chief Dan Oates about the department’s response to the 2012 theater shooting.

“It showed a department that was quick on its feet and that was not risk averse — we don’t want to be reckless, we want to be risk-appropriate,” he said.

Other cities bigger than Aurora called Acevedo to see if he’d be interested in leading their department, he said. But he was impressed by Aurora city leadership’s commitment to the department.

Mostly he just wanted to be a cop again.

“I missed it,” he said. “I love being a police officer.”

Aurora's interim police chief Art Acevedo, right, talks with a former commander and friend David Angelo, left, before his swearing-in ceremony in the City Council Chambers at the Aurora Municipal Center on Dec. 5, 2022, in Aurora. Angelo is the chief of police for the city of Firestone. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)
Aurora’s interim police chief Art Acevedo, right, talks with a former commander and friend David Angelo, left, before his swearing-in ceremony in the City Council Chambers at the Aurora Municipal Center on Dec. 5, 2022, in Aurora. Angelo is the chief of police for the city of Firestone. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

“Cautiously optimistic”

City leaders expressed optimism about Acevedo’s decision to take the interim role.

“If it’s successful then it’s a win-win for both sides,” Councilman Curtis Gardner said.

The city has struggled to recruit and hire a permanent chief to succeed Vanessa Wilson, who was fired in April. City management restarted the search in October after two of the three finalists rescinded their applications and the remaining candidate did not have the support from the City Council to be confirmed for the position.

Acevedo’s fluent Spanish will help him reach the city’s largest immigrant community, Councilman Juan Marcano said. Acevedo also understood that police are a reactionary force and only have limited ability to prevent crime, Marcano said.

One of the challenges Acevedo will face will be navigating a divided department and a divided City Council, Marcano said.

“Overall, I’m feeling a little cautiously optimistic,” Marcano said.

Interim Aurora police Chief Art Acevedo during an introductory press conference at the Aurora Municipal Building on Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2022. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)
Interim Aurora police Chief Art Acevedo during an introductory press conference at the Aurora Municipal Building on Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2022. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)

All councilmembers who spoke to The Denver Post said having an outsider come in to lead the department — even in the short term — is a good choice.

“I feel like we’re headed in the right direction. I feel like we’re ready for a fresh start,” Councilwoman Danielle Jurinsky said.

Acevedo’s penchant for speaking bluntly was welcomed by several council members.

“It’ll be refreshing,” Zvonek said.

Acevedo wouldn’t say if he’s interested in becoming the permanent chief, though city leaders expressed openness to him applying for the job. While Oates’ interim chief contract banned him for applying for the permanent position, Acevedo’s does not.

“I just want to do the job,” he said about the interim position. “I just want to come here and serve.”

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