Art Acevedo, Miami’s new chief of police, works hard to project a public image that threads the needle between appearing tough on crime and assuring more liberal members of the public that he takes their concerns about policing seriously.
He’s good at it. Last summer, while still Houston’s chief of police, Acevedo marched with Black Lives Matter protesters and called for police reforms—while city government increased funding for his department.
And it’s paid off. Acevedo will make $315,000 a year in Miami, according to reporting from NBC 6, which is around $85,000 more than his predecessor and an increase from his $295,000 Houston salary.
But while Acevedo’s public image may line up with the “good cop” cliché he’s made central to his personal brand, a review of his recent public statements show that Miami’s new police chief regularly plays fast and loose with the facts when it comes to addressing public safety.
From the role of the judiciary and juvenile justice to bail reform, here are five recent quotes from Acevedo about public safety and why experts say he’s mistaken.
“Here’s the problem. We’ve got a judiciary that simply does not care, by and large. You’ve got judges, criminal court judges, that are letting hard core criminals with a history of crime go in one door and out the other.”
The chief’s claim to ABC13 Houston that judges are letting “hard core criminals” out isn’t backed up by the numbers, said Jay Jenkins, Texas Criminal Justice Coalition’s Harris County project attorney, who pointed out that approximately 90 percent of the 8,500-odd people in county jail are being held pretrial—according to the county’s own data.
“If anything, the criminal court judges of Harris County are over-reliant on pretrial incarceration, in no small part due to the willingness of people like Chief Acevedo and others in law enforcement to intentionally lie to the public in order to inspire fear and score political points,” Jenkins said.
Harris County Criminal Court Judge Franklin Bynum told The Appeal that Acevedo was lying and trying to divert attention from Houston’s police department’s clearance rates under the outgoing chief’s management.
“This is a completely broken system that fails at the things it purports to do and fails in practice every day,” Bynum said. “Art’s answer was to lie, ceaselessly, every day, and attempt to use the power of his [position] to advance that lie: that he was the one true hero and everyone else was trying to get everyone else maimed and killed. That is obviously not true.
“What’s happened is they’ve taken that bail reform mentality that, quite frankly, for us it’s about justice and for others it’s about mayhem, and they’re applying it to people and suspects and people charged with murder, with robbery … It is a mockery of the criminal justice system, and I think that we are really going to have to take a hard look at what’s going on across the country.”
In a Washington Post Live event in March, Acevedo’s opposition to bail reform came to the fore. The police chief repeatedly blamed criminal incidents in Houston on bond leniency. But, while public data on who is released in Houston on cash bonds are limited, a closer look at the available information on murder rates tells a different story about the Texas city’s violent crime.
Since Acevedo was hired in 2016, the Houston Police Department’s clearance of murder cases continued what was already a significant decline. Before the chief took office, clearance rates had dropped from 89 percent in 2011 to 63 percent in 2015, according to an internal audit obtained by the Houston Chronicle. The fall continued under Acevedo, with arrests in only 48 percent of murder cases in 2020. Texas Criminal Justice Coalition’s Jenkins described it as “a precipitous drop indicative of a failure of leadership.”
Even when the department resolved a murder case and it headed to court—136 times since January 1, 2019, according to historical court records from the Harris County District Clerk obtained by Texas Criminal Justice Coalition—a majority ended in acquittal or dismissal.
Just because Acevedo and the department weren’t able to get the right person the majority of the time, said Jenkins, that’s no reason to blame the judiciary.
“It is these failures of Chief Acevedo and HPD, and not the pretrial release of individuals deemed innocent until proven guilty by the laws of our country, that continue to make a mockery of the criminal justice system,” Jenkins said.
Bynum added that Acevedo, in his efforts to blame the judiciary, was acting like a kind of Texan Don Quixote: “He tilted at a fantasy where we judges were the bad guys and he was the one good guy.
3. Juvenile Crime
“What’s happening in a lot of the big cities, and Houston is not unique to that, is that the gang organizations and the drug trafficking organizations, they are actually using juveniles as trigger pullers. We are seeing more and more juveniles involved in criminal enterprises, involved in armed robberies, aggravated robberies, aggravated assaults, and murders. I mean, we have 11 juvies that are charged with murder, of last count that I had in our county, 2 with capital murder, and then hundreds are charged with violent felonies. The OGs are figuring out, you know what? These kids can go in and out, and so they’re starting to use them, and it’s become a huge problem.”
Attorney Tamar Birckhead, a former professor of law at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told The Appeal that this comment from Acevedo, which also came during the Washington Post Live event, followed a pattern.
“These are old, tired canards that law enforcement uses to justify the harshest penalties for juveniles,” said Birckhead. “Not only is there no evidence that there is an increase in the number of juvenile offenders, but there is no evidence that older people are intentionally using younger ones to commit murders.”
The claim that gangs are using juveniles as hitmen struck Alex Vitale, professor of sociology at Brooklyn College and author of The End of Policing, as an indication that Acevedo just doesn’t take the realities of public safety very seriously. “These problems are rooted in deep social insecurities and the young people involved in violence have almost always previously been the victims of violence themselves and that victimization has never been addressed in ways that could help break the cycle of harm,” Vitale told The Appeal.
Plus, said Vitale, Acevedo is missing key components in how things got to this point in the first place—a perspective that conveniently elides addressing the systemic problems that have led to the violence.
“It’s time that we … talk to people working in high violence communities about how to intervene in the lives of young people to break the cycle of violence through credible messengers, trauma counseling, and access to adequate housing, incomes, and health services,” Vitale said.
4. Criminal Justice Reform
“We have criminal justice reformists. Now they’re saying, you know, 17 or 18, the brain hasn’t fully developed. And so now what they’re talking about is trying to push to not charge these individuals until they’re 25. So, imagine what’s going to happen if reformists get their way. Look, I’m a refugee. English is my second language, I grew up in a rough little town, and guess what? My brain didn’t develop, and some would argue it still hasn’t developed, but I didn’t go around shooting people, robbing people, stabbing people, beating people.”
Attorney Birckhead told The Appeal that this comment—also made during the Washington Post Live event—raises questions about the chief’s basic competence. The tropes are “no less offensive than the destructive trend in the 1990s to casually label adolescents who commit crimes as ‘superpredators,’” she added.
Beyond being offensive, Acevedo’s claim is inaccurate. The chief is hypothesizing about policies that would use adolescent neuroscience to create a permissiveness toward juvenile violence. That misrepresents how neuroscience is already used in the criminal justice system to evaluate adolescents’ decisions and actions, without being permissive.
“No less than the U.S. Supreme Court has relied on both neuroscience and social science to hold that kids’ brain development and psycho-social development are different than adults and, thus, they should be treated differently in the justice system,” said Birckhead, “beginning with the ways in which law enforcement initially investigates crimes to the harshness of the sentencing penalties imposed by judges.”
5. Reform-minded Prosecutors
“I’m not sure what the end game is, because chaos is not what the American people want.”
This comment about reform-minded prosecutors from Acevedo came during a “fireside chat” with the Manhattan Institute in February.
Attempts by prosecutors like Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner to revamp their city’s approach to crime and incarceration strike Acevedo as a threat to public safety.
But as The Appeal reported in 2019, a University of Pennsylvania and University of Virginia study on Krasner’s efforts to limit the use of cash bonds for misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies in Philadelphia did not affect recidivism.
The study’s findings indicate that hyping up the “chaos” threat from bond leniency is inaccurate. A Loyola University study emphasizes the point. After a new Cook County policy allowed more felony defendants to be released on bond, there was no statistically significant increase in new crimes by those awaiting trial.
One of the University of Pennsylvania study’s authors, Aurelie Ouss, told The Appeal that while the policy in their study applied primarily to low-level crimes, she didn’t know of any municipality using bond leniency for violent crimes.
“We can’t really speak to what would happen if conditions of pretrial release were more lenient for violent offenses,” said Ouss. “But to my knowledge, this is not really the policy that different jurisdictions are considering.”
While Ouss said she finds the general debate over pretrial requirements interesting, it’s far from clear that bond leniency is being seriously considered anywhere with respect to the kinds of criminals who might cause the “chaos” Acevedo warned of.
“I don’t know of any place that is moving towards relief without conditions for these violent, serious crimes,” Ouss said.