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Facing South Florida: One-On-One With Art Acevedo

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Art Acevedo, who is the police chief in Houston, was a surprise choice to succeed Jorge Colina.

Video Transcript

JIM DEFEDE: In a surprise move, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez announced the city was hiring Art Acevedo to be Miami's next police chief. Acevedo, who is the police chief in Houston, didn't apply for the job and was instead recruited in a whirlwind courtship. Acevedo has had his problems in Houston-- a skyrocketing murder rate, a scandal-plagued, police-involved shooting, and a habit of picking fights with politicians and reporters.

The Cuban born Acevedo came to Miami in 1968, when he was four years old. But he grew up in California. We started by talking about his family and his uncle, who was a commander during the Bay of Pigs Invasion.

ART ACEVEDO: My father and my family were anti-revolutionaries. My uncle, [INAUDIBLE] was part of [SPEAKING SPANISH] 2506 in the Bay of Pigs. My father was imprisoned during the Bay of Pigs, as we were still in Cuba. They escaped on a boat-- my mom's sister and my uncle and his brothers, [? Segundo. ?]

And no, I mean, look-- Cuba was a free country. And I remember growing up, in high school, I had a teacher teaching world history my junior year. He was talking about how great Cuba was under Castro, all these great things that they did.

And they knew I was Cuban. And I can feel my blood pressure rising. Because this guy was trying-- in my mind, he was trying to brainwash young kids to think that the Castro regime was good. So I raised my hand. And needless to say, by the time I was done informing him of my family's and other Cuban families' experiences, he actually moved in a different direction.

JIM DEFEDE: How long was your father imprisoned after the Bay of Pigs?

ART ACEVEDO: My father, not too long. But I had an uncle-- my mom's brother was imprisoned for 20 years as an anti-revolutionary. And I don't want to talk too much about it. But needless to say, we were staunch anti-communists.

And when you become a police officer, you're weighing in on issues that are societal issues through the prism of a public safety perspective-- in Texas, you talk about anything to do with firearms or anything to do with universal background checks, that makes you a socialist or a communist. And, you know, them there are fighting words to a Cuban refugee raised by gusanos, which you know is what Castro called us-- worms.

JIM DEFEDE: Can I just ask what-- you say you don't really want to talk about it. Is your uncle-- your uncle's not still in prison obviously. Is there a reason why you don't want to want to get too specific?

ART ACEVEDO: He's long gone. And I would hate for-- you know, that's still a repressive regime. And I would hate for repercussions for anybody--

JIM DEFEDE: You still have family there in Cuba.

ART ACEVEDO: And I'd rather not talk about it.

JIM DEFEDE: You said in your press conference earlier today, you love being a cop. You've said that on many occasions. What do you love about being a police officer?

ART ACEVEDO: You can make a difference. I mean, I think that public safety and feeling safe is something that should be one of the most fundamental services that government should provide as a nation. Municipalities should provide a community.

And I think that to me, being able to intervene and save a life or intervene and restore a life-- I mean, I remember years ago when I was a young cop and a patrol officer. I arrested this guy and it was a drunk driver. And he fought the heck out of me, right. And I mean, it was a physical altercation. And I was able to overcome that.

But about six months later, I'm in court. And here there was this man. And he comes up to me and he goes, officer, do you remember me? And I go, well yeah, I remember you. So he goes, I wanted to say thank you. So this is a guy I arrested-- I want to say thank you. Thank you for changing my life. I didn't realize I had a problem until you arrested me.

And it really opened my eyes. And I've been on the wagon for six months. And it's those kind of moments, or the Harveys, when you get the lead from the front or the LA riots, when you're there as the only acting sergeant-- and whatever, all the things we've been through. I love people in law enforcement. At the end of the day, when you really break it down, it's all about people. And we're in the people business.

JIM DEFEDE: Let's talk about the decision to come to Miami. You keep getting asked the same question over and over and over again. Why would you move from a department that is as large as the Houston Police Department is, larger than the entire city of Miami city employee population, larger than the budget for the city of Miami-- to come to a department that is relatively small?

ART ACEVEDO: OK. Well, first of all, let's be clear, OK? If I'm a member of the Miami community or the South Florida community, I'm offended. I'd be offended. As a man that's been traveling to Miami and seeing its amazing growth and evolution into this world class city-- just go check out that skyline.

You know, I was there just yesterday. And that skyline, the vibrancy, the melting pot from around the world-- I mean, you got people that are-- they're fair-skinned. And you go say hi, and they're European. But they're part of Miami. And you've got Jamaicans, you got Haitians, Dominicans, Cubans, Venezuelans. You got people from around the world. And it's just there's such an energy there.

And it was the timing for me. The timing was really good timing. My mayor-- my mediator [INAUDIBLE] he's got a little over two years to go. Well, that's nothing. You know, that's gonna go by like this. And the opportunity to go to Miami presented itself.

Art Noriega, the city manager, and Mayor Suarez did a phenomenal job of giving me the "whys" I should come to Miami in terms of our conversations. And to me it was a no-brainer. I want to continue policing, hopefully be able to stay there at least five years, because you can't affect much change unless you do at least five years in a location.

JIM DEFEDE: You marched with Black Lives Matter protesters in the wake of George Floyd. Most people sometimes don't remember George Floyd came from Houston. So there was a real tie to Houston in the case. Why did you march with the BLM protesters?

ART ACEVEDO: Well, first of all, Black Lives Matter means different things to different people. BLM means different things to different people. And like I always tell people that-- put away your broad brushes. Because there are more radical elements of that movement as there are bad police officers. There's good and bad in everything.

But people that want to use the broad brush, we don't throw away the baby with the bathwater. My community was hurting. This community was hurting. Our biggest protest was 60,000 people. And I disappeared for about three hours in angry crowds to listen, to feel, to hug, to shed tears.

Because I think in the spirit of relational policing, which is what I talk about all the time, you have got to touch the people in the flesh. They've gotta know you. They've gotta know your heart.

And I think as a result of the way we handled those protests, in the biggest melting pot city in the country-- I had a mayor from another big city call me. How did you do it? How did your department do it?

And I had colleagues from other departments saying, what were the successes and what were the failures? And then we as police chiefs across the country have shared notes on the good, the bad, and the ugly. So I think it's important. People have to see you out there when they're hurting. And they have to be heard.

JIM DEFEDE: You're not shy when it comes to social media. You're not shy when it comes to speaking out. You know, some might even say that sometimes your outspokenness has got you in trouble with different people, that even sometimes you can outshine elected officials.

ART ACEVEDO: This community here, we're not gonna achieve perfection. Anybody who thinks that we're not gonna have bad shootings-- but we have to do everything we can to prevent those. And then when they happen, the community recognizes we have to hold people accountable. And we have to keep pushing for perfection, understanding we won't reach it.

But the community is always watching what's going on. And they're gonna judge us, not just by what we say and do, but also what we fail to see and do. As a police chief, I think we have to call balls and strikes as it relates on public safety matters of public safety.

And I'll be real honest with you. You know, people think I want to run for office. Are you kidding me? You know, with safe districts all over the country, with gerrymandering all over the country, I couldn't be elected as dogcatcher because I try and be pragmatic and common sense.

So I think I have to weigh in. That's our job. Because that's how people will know whether or not they can trust you. And I think that on balance in the communities that we've been, people trust their police chief and they trust their police department.

JIM DEFEDE: Well, you haven't been shy about even tangling with the governor of Texas, Governor Abbott, when it came to the mask mandate. You said that you thought that that was-- the fact that he was no longer mandating masks, it was a terrible idea. You're coming to a state where the current governor, Ron DeSantis, may be even more hostile when it comes to mask wearing and has made it clear that he won't even allow local municipalities to pass pro-mask ordinances. What's your view of what you're coming into and of the position that if-- and if Greg Abbott was wrong, is Ron DeSantis wrong here in Florida?

ART ACEVEDO: You know, what my position is-- and as I spent time in Florida last week, it's like what's happening here. Most Americans, whether they're Texans or Floridians, are people of conscience; people that care about their neighbors. They care about their relatives. They care about their co-workers. And they care about their friends. And they care about strangers. And most people, the very vast majority, are following the recommendations of public officials.

And I think that as long as people are good, it kind of helps us overcome decisions that may be shortsighted by members of elected bodies. So I'm not sure what the policy is. But I look forward to coming to Florida. And I look forward to being me.

And again, I love South Florida. I've been going there since, again, 1975 every year. It was our summer vacation every year. I've got family there. And I look forward to getting to know this community and the community getting to know me.

JIM DEFEDE: We'll be right back.