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Houston's police chief wins national praise — but faces local anger over shootings and transparency

Chief Art Acevedo has been lauded for marching with protesters. But on Tuesday, some of them confronted him over his record on police violence.
Image: Art Acevedo
Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo responds to angry protesters at a march in downtown Houston on Tuesday.Mike Hixenbaugh / NBC News

HOUSTON — As protesters clash with riot squads in cities across the country, Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo has drawn national praise for his willingness to march with activists and call for officers to be held accountable when they kill without justification.

Days after George Floyd’s death last week under the knee of Minneapolis Officer Derek Chauvin, Acevedo was among the first big city police chiefs to speak out, telling The Washington Post that “actions have to have consequences.”

When President Donald Trump called on governors to “dominate” protesters in the streets, Acevedo responded on national television with a message of his own: “Keep your mouth shut.”

And on Sunday, in a video that drew more than 10 million views, Acevedo — a Cuban-born immigrant who became Houston’s first Latino police chief in 2016 — choked up as he told marchers in Houston that he was angry, just like them.

“We will march as a department with everybody in this community. I will march until I can’t stand no more,” he said in the viral clip, as protesters cheered.

Image: Art Acevedo
Acevedo greets a protester before Tuesday's march in honor of George Floyd in Houston.Sergio Flores / Getty Images

But a much different scene unfolded Tuesday night in the hours after a large protest march through downtown Houston, Floyd’s hometown. As the sun began to set, after most of the estimated 60,000 marchers had gone home, a smaller group of activists surrounded Acevedo in the middle of a street and started demanding answers.

Full coverage of George Floyd’s death and protests around the country

They wanted to know why his department had refused to release body camera footage from six recent deadly police shootings in Houston. Some in the crowd shouted insults, calling Acevedo a “f------ liar” and a “hypocrite.” As Acevedo turned away from the agitated crowd, someone doused him with a bottle of water. A man yelled for him to resign.

“You walk with Minnesota,” one protester shouted. “Will you walk for what happens in Houston?”

The tense moment highlighted a growing frustration simmering among activists in Houston who have accused Acevedo of striking a conciliatory tone during national media interviews, but then failing to back up his words with reforms in his own department. And the confrontation underscores a broader concern shared among those leading marches across the country following Floyd’s death: The fear that widespread social unrest will lead to heartwarming photos of police officers hugging protesters, but won’t be followed by substantive policy changes to prevent future deaths.

“They say one thing, and they do another,” said Ashton Woods, the lead organizer of Black Lives Matter Houston, who has called on Acevedo to be more transparent and to hold his own officers accountable after fatal police shootings. “I think he’s as smooth as a snake, and at this point, I don’t trust that he’s going to do what he says.”

Woods and other activists aren’t the only ones pushing for increased police transparency in Houston. In an op-ed Friday, the Houston Chronicle editorial board called on Acevedo to release police body cam footage from the six fatal shootings by his officers over a recent six-week period. Five of those killed were black or Latino. According to Acevedo, so were most of the officers — all of whom remain on staff pending investigations.

In one case in April, cellphone footage appears to show 27-year-old Nicolas Chavez on his knees when police opened fire. The Houston Police Department has asked the FBI to investigate.

The string of shooting deaths comes a little more than a year after a Houston narcotics squad killed two people during a botched drug raid, drawing national scrutiny. An investigation found that the officer at the center of the case, Gerald Goines, had falisfied evidence to justify the deadly raid, prompting murder chargers against him and leading prosecutors to review hundreds of his prior cases.

Among those who were notified that their convictions may have been tainted: George Floyd. A little more than a year before his killing sparked nationwide protests, Floyd received a letter on March 8, 2019, alerting him that Goines may have been involved in Floyd’s arrest on drug possession charges 15 years earlier, before he left Houston for Minneapolis.

In public remarks about the deadly raid, Acevedo has said that Goines “dishonored” the department, but said the other officers involved in the raid “acted in good faith.” He said the charges against Goines demonstrated that his agency could police itself.

During an interview on the NBC’s “TODAY” show on Wednesday, when pressed about whether he would release body cam footage from the recent string of shootings, Acevedo was noncommittal, saying that his department would do so in at least one of the cases.

He said he didn’t want to release footage in a couple of the others, though, because they could result in criminal charges, and he didn’t want publicity of the footage to interfere with future legal cases. In another, he said the victim’s family didn’t want it released. He told “TODAY” that there needs to be “a national standard” for how and when police agencies release body cam footage.

Despite the criticisms, some marchers on Tuesday praised Acevedo for his willingness to talk with protesters. One man who had been shouting at Acevedo gave him a hug afterward and thanked him for listening; Acevedo gave the man his phone number and suggested they continue their conversation once things calmed down.

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After the heated confrontation with protesters, Acevedo grabbed a bullhorn and responded to those who had been yelling at him. He blamed much of the unrest that evening on white protesters who he said came in from Austin to cause trouble. And he urged them to listen to what he’s been saying in recent weeks, including when he criticized Trump.

He said he was proud of the way Houston had responded.

“We may fight. We may get angry with each other,” Acevedo said. “But we know when all these f------- people have come out here from the outside trying to tear this s--- up, while the rest of the country is burning. ... Nothing’s burning in Houston.”

Image: Art Acevedo
Acevedo jots down his phone number for one of the protesters who confronted him.Mike Hixenbaugh

There hasn’t been widespread property damage or violence in Houston, but in the hours after Acevedo’s remarks Tuesday, his department arrested about 200 protesters for failing to leave downtown when ordered. In a tweet, Houston police said some of the protesters had begun throwing rocks and water bottles at officers.

In a brief interview Tuesday, as he posed for photos with two young women who had seen him on the news, Acevedo said he wasn’t too worried about those attacking his leadership.

“Not everybody’s here for the same reason,” Acevedo said. “Some people want to be reasonable and actually want to be constructive. Some people just want to yell. And yelling isn’t going to fix anything.”