Art Acevedo’s return to Austin City government was over before it started. That’s literally true. Last Wednesday there were media reports that Acevedo was leaving his post as Interim Police Chief in Aurora, Colorado to return to Texas. Mysteriously there was no sentence following saying that he was returning to a particular job or a specific city.
Austin Interim City Manager Jesus Garza cleared up that mystery on Friday January 19 when he announced in a memo to the Mayor and Council that he had hired Acevedo to be an “Interim Assistant City Manager.” Garza explained that with the continuing challenges facing the Austin Police Department (APD) — like staffing, training and recruitment — he had determined it was critical to have “a City Management-level resource identified who is dedicated solely to APD.” Garza then sprung the news, “I am pleased to announce that former Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo, known to many here in the City as well as the community from his tenure as Police Chief for nearly 10 years, will be serving in this position.” Garza told media outlets that Acevedo would start by the end of January.
Garza was correct that Acevedo is “known to many here in the City,” but the Manager seriously miscalculated how a lot of key City Hall players who know Acevedo feel about him. The Manager’s timing was also very, very bad. Already scheduled for Tuesday January 23 was an official apology by the City of Austin for a scandal that exploded during Acevedo’s tenure (2007-November 2016). That was a backlog of around 4,000 untested rape kits in the APD lab dating back to the 1990s.
It didn’t take long for the anti-Acevedo furor to begin. Among the first to comment was activist Chris Harris — Policy Director for the Austin Justice Coalition and a leading figure in defunding the police and other related issues. Harris deserves notice for his amazing prescience — at least in this instance.
Back on August 24, 2023 Harris posted about Acevedo on X:
“Art Acevedo’s tenure in Austin produced endless scandal, as did his tenure in Houston & his ridiculously short tenure in Miami.
Given how completely unaware Austin’s Mayor & City Manager appear about the last 20 years of world events, I fully expect them to bring him back.”
Reasonable minds could disagree on whether Acevedo’s time in Austin produced “endless scandal” and also on the rest of what Harris posted. But, the literal bottom line of his tweet was, “I fully expect them to bring him [Acevedo] back.” That’s pretty good. It wasn’t Nostradamus level, but still impressive.
Shortly after Garza’s announcement on Friday afternoon Harris reposted that earlier tweet with the lead, “I truly take no pleasure in being right.”
It wasn’t long before Council Members started posting online too, sort of like a blitzing NFL defense in the playoffs (with apologies to those who don’t watch football). Among the first were Council Members Vanessa Fuentes and Jose Velasquez. Both posted Friday afternoon that they were “surprised” by the hire and Velasquez added, bafflingly, “I’ve spent the afternoon in conversation with colleagues & constituents, & I share my community’s concerns.”
Mayor Kirk Watson and Council Member Mackenzie Kelly both announced support for the hire, although Kelly later said she had problems with the “process.”
Shortly before 4 PM Friday Council Member Alison Alter fired a more damaging salvo: “I met with (rape) survivors and advocates today and this announcement is retraumatizing to many, especially as we mark the two-year anniversary of the class action lawsuits by those whose cases were mishandled under Acevedo’s watch.”
Also on Friday afternoon, Mayor Pro Tem Paige Ellis posted, “I am shocked by this decision.” Ellis also invoked the rape kits issue.
Council Member Ryan Alter also issued a strongly worded post opposing the hire.
Council Member Zo Qadri posted a series of tweets saying he could work with Acevedo and that he opposed the hire. Some folks called that contradictory and Qadri replied that one could oppose a hire, but still try to work with the person — which is true.
Chito Vela tweeted that he could not support the hire.
Interim Austin City Manager Jesus Garza
Those tweets were all on Friday afternoon. On Sunday Alison Alter really lowered the boom, tweeting:
“We are not going back! Thanks to the courage of survivors and the leadership of our council we are delivering healing & justice to sexual assault survivors. I will not let our city re-hire Art Acevedo, who as chief allowed so many women to suffer without response.”
Council Member Alison Alter
Congressman, and former Council Member, Greg Casar reposted Alison Alter’s tweet and said he agreed.
Former Council Member and newly announced mayoral candidate Kathie Tovo also issued a statement, calling the hire “Yet another controversial decision re. policing coming from the Watson-Garza administration.” The next day, Saturday, she reposted Alter’s statement and specifically condemned the hire.
Michael Bullock, the new head of the Austin Police Association (APA), joined in with a slightly different approach. He told KVUE that this could be an “opportunity” for Acevedo to show that he “recognizes some of the issues that went on when he was here previously.” Bullock added, “But most importantly is that in whatever this new role actually is, is that he is here to listen and to support Chief Henderson; not that he is coming in to take over the Department.”
Weighing in from the Courthouse was District Attorney Jose Garza, with a statement, reading in part, “On his (Acevedo’s) watch, a backlog of untested rape kits grew, and a culture of disrespect for survivors of sexual assault festered.”
Jose Garza’s statement made the Acevedo hire in part a family disagreement. That’s because Interim City Manager Jesus Garza is District Attorney Jose Garza’s uncle. The DA added, “Art Acevedo’s return is a step backward for survivors of sexual assault. His appointment represents a stunning disregard for their pain and our community’s values.” To repeat, it was Garza’s uncle who made that appointment. The nephew then went on to tout his office’s action on sexual assault.
That’s pretty rough, but let’s congratulate these two men on not letting their family ties interfere with their professional opinions, or interfere with expressing them. (It’s probably a good thing for the Garzas though that this all happened right after the holidays instead of right before.)
The social media missiles kept flying in. Then, shortly before the rape kit apology ceremony began, Acevedo announced on social media, that he was no longer going to take the job.
A Short Review of Acevedo’s Time as Austin Police Chief
So, was Art Acevedo really that bad on the rape kit issue? We don’t have time or space to do a full review here. Clearly the way rape victims were treated by APD and the City was unacceptable and further traumatizing, and that after one of the most devastating violations a person can endure.
To be as fair as possible to Acevedo, it was not an issue that was confined to Austin. As a 2017 Austin Monitor timeline of the crisis reported, “Austin isn’t the only city to endure a high-profile failure of its DNA lab. Cities including Houston, Boston and New York have had similar scandals. Even the FBI lab based in Washington, D.C. had its own scandal in 2015, pointing to nationwide flaws with the system of monitoring forensics labs.”
Also, in a 2017 article detailing how she successfully passed a bill that “established a statewide tracking system for rape kits,” Austin State Representative Donna Howard wrote, “I was familiar with the rage-inducing backlog of untested evidence kits throughout Texas.”
Additionally, the class action suit filed by, and on behalf of, rape victims named not just Acevedo as the defendant, but also, as reported by KXAN at the time, “City of Austin, Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore, former Travis County DA Rosemary Lehmberg, Austin Police Chief Brian Manley, former APD Chief Art Acevedo, Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez and the county itself.”
It was the lab in the Department run by Acevedo, however, where the backlog built up. It should also be noted though that not all the kits were from Acevedo’s tenure, with multiple media reports saying some kits dated back to the 1990s. Acevedo also successfully sought funds to try and address the backlog.
Nonetheless, Acevedo was a reform Police Chief whose Department failed on this critical issue. Shortly after he left, as the Austin Monitor describes it, “APD conceded that it had lost faith in the DNA lab’s employees and permanently closed the lab in December of 2016.”
In other aspects of his tenure Acevedo was able to negotiate strengthened police oversight, he was not hesitant to discipline officers, and he was a very accessible Chief — with a sense of humor — who interacted widely with the citizenry. There was at least one added danger in Austin, however, during Acevedo’s tenure; getting caught between the Police Chief and a TV camera.
Was There More To It?
While the view here is that the activists and Council Members were sincere in their defense of rape victims there might also be another reason for some of their animosity toward Acevedo. He was a very vocal, and very public, critic of the 2020 City Council’s decision to defund the police; which included eliminating cadet training classes for a year and cutting 100 vacant positions.
Shortly after that vote Acevedo appeared in a place he could never resist while he was Chief in Austin, in front of the aforementioned TV cameras. In this instance he gave an interview to CBS Austin from his perch in Houston. Acevedo warned the citizens of Austin, “If you don’t speak up now . . . If you don’t speak up and absolutely set on fire those phone lines, the emails, the letters to your mayor and council. . . The economic engine that drives that great city, that provides the quality parks, the quality libraries, the quality life that we’ve enjoyed. . . is going to go by the wayside.”
He added that the national movement to defund police departments is driving good police officers out of the profession.
A few months later, shortly before eleven o’clock on election night 2020 (November 3) Acevedo tweeted:
“Texas Democrats can thank “socialist democrats and defund the police crowd” led by @GregCasar, @JimmyFlannigan and the rest of the Austin City Council. Fact, Americans and Texans want better policing, not de-policing, and they don’t want anything to do with any form of socialism.”
This tweet came as Democratic candidates in several Congressional Districts that include parts of Austin lost to Republican incumbents. While it is impossible to prove whether Acevedo is right on the impact of Austin’s defund the police vote, it is true that up until the Austin City Council defund vote, Republican incumbents had been on the defensive and Democrats were expressing more hope than they had in decades. Immediately after the Austin defund vote, however, the Republican Congressional incumbents switched their core message to charging that their Democratic opponents wanted to defund the police, with the Austin Council’s vote as Exhibit A. Pinning the Council vote on Democratic Congressional candidates was made easier when none of those candidates spoke out against the Council action.
Among those who voted to defund APD in 2020 and condemned Acevedo’s hiring in 2024 are: Alison Alter and Paige Ellis; along with the architect of that vote, Congressman Greg Casar; and mayoral candidate Kathie Tovo.
To my knowledge, however, while the folks mentioned above may not have revealed all their motives in attacking Acevedo, none of them ever let someone convicted of assaulting a woman — and accused of assaulting multiple women — walk free without being sentenced to jail time; none except DA Jose Garza.
In future installments we will elaborate on Jose Garza and his record. Also, the Council weighing in on who the City Manager hires raises City Charter issues — especially calls by some Council Members for them to be involved in high level hires going forward. We will discuss that in a future installment as well.
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