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Ask the Chief – Miami: An Interview with Art Acevedo

*This interview is the fourth installment of Ask the Chief, a BPR interview series with police chiefs from around the country.  

Art Acevedo was sworn in as the Miami Chief of Police on April 5, 2021. He is also the President of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, an organization of 79 chiefs, commissioners, and sheriffs representing cities in the United States and Canada. He has previously served as Chief of Police in Houston and Austin, as well as for the California Highway Patrol. 

Sam Trachtenberg: You were recently sworn in as chief. Are there any reform policies you hope to institute? 

Art Acevedo: Yes. We’ve already started working on our body-worn camera policy to make sure that more officers wear cameras, especially when they’re doing search warrants. We’re also looking at our no-knock warrant policy. We’re not doing those unless they’re approved by me, and the only way I will approve a no-knock warrant is in a hostage rescue situation. We also want to make sure that officers are careful with the necks [of the people they are arresting]. When you manipulate the neck things can, and frequently will, go wrong. I’ve only been here since April 5th. Progress is sometimes not as fast as you’d like, but we will be reinventing our department in a lot of ways that move us further into the 21st century.

ST: How do you teach your officers about the history of race and policing in your community? 

AA: Right now, we are actually going through our final assessments of what we are teaching in our training academy. Our Hispanic officers here have never been a minority in terms of the workforce or the city that they live in. I was the first Hispanic police chief in both Austin and in Houston, they haven’t been in that position. When you haven’t walked in those shoes, you may lose your sensitivity in terms of having an appreciation for what communities of color have gone through. 

We recently invited the Miami Heat to work with us and created a program talking about the history of race relations, policing, and the disproportionate impacts [on communities of color] over the years. Teaching history is important. 

That said, when bad policing has occurred, that ill-advised use of force was not because someone didn’t know the history of policing, it’s because they didn’t have enough training in terms of tactics, de-escalation, and tactical repositioning. 

ST: I spoke with Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw last week, who told me about  a pilot program she recently implemented that sends mental health professionals alongside uniformed officers to deal with certain crisis situations. Are programs like these—which aim to limit the type of interactions police have to be trained for—the future of policing? 

AA: That is the future of policing. I spent almost five years in Houston where we had a co-response model—we had clinicians with us in the police cars. We also had clinicians in the 911 call center to diagnose potential mental health crisis calls so we could know to intervene and help that person. I think that you’re going to see programs like the one we started in Houston continue to grow across the country, including here in Miami. 

I actually wanted to expand that program in Houston, but we just couldn’t get enough people to be clinicians. I hope that our congressional leaders and state legislatures will consider loan forgiveness programs for people to get at least a master’s degree in social work or psychology or any of the understaffed disciplines that help us deal with folks in crisis. That way we can encourage young people to come and enter the field as operational clinicians that respond alongside law enforcement.

ST: With all the stigmatization surrounding police these days, it seems to me that the job would appeal to racist or at least apathetic individuals. What’s your take on that? 

AA: When we’re talking about anything in life—whether it is policing, communities of color, neighborhoods, religions, or whatever—we’ve got to be careful with our broad brush. We’re not having a problem recruiting people of color to be police officers. The majority of the class at our police academy here in Miami are not white males or white nationalists. They’re people of color, they’re women, they’re Black, and they’re Hispanic. A lot of the cities with these diverse populations like Miami and Houston are successful in recruiting culturally competent people that come from the communities that we serve. 

However, as the President of the Major Cities Chiefs Association (MCCA), which represents the seventy largest police departments in the country and the nine largest in Canada, I can tell you that that’s not true across the entire nation. We still have to work on recruiting a workforce across the nation that’s reflective of the communities that we serve. And we have to work on recruiting people that have the right mindset and the right heart. I’m hopeful. I’m one of those glass-half-full kind of guys.

ST: What would you say is causing lower recruiting numbers for police departments around the country?

AA: Some would say that it’s all about the anti-police sentiment or the protests. I would also argue that, historically, when the economy is doing well and there’s a lot of job openings, it makes it difficult to recruit because people have many other options. Policing has always been one of the most scrutinized professions in the United States. When people have options and entry-level cops don’t make very good money in a lot of places, it makes recruiting a challenge.

ST: Is it a public safety issue that so many people feel threatened by the presence of police? 

AA: I’ve been a cop for thirty-five years. Even to this day, when a police officer comes behind me and I’m in my own car, I tighten my seat belt and check that my music is not too loud. It’s human nature. The police have to sell two products nobody wants to buy: tickets and jail. Nobody wants to get a ticket and, certainly, nobody wants to go to jail. But I think that for communities of color and poor communities, the fear often goes beyond just that. And that is not good for anybody, including police officers.

One thing that we’re working on in Miami is requiring police officers to have to make time every day to stop at a park or walk a block and check in with small business owners. We want our officers to meet people outside of the 911 call loop. When people call 911, they’re not at their best. They’re usually not calling 911 to invite us over for a cup of coffee, so we’ve got to get officers to be intentional about meeting members of our community during normal times. That way they can get to know each other without anyone worrying about going to jail or about the cops being there. I think that you’re going to start seeing more and more of that across the country. 

ST: How important is building trust in enabling police officers to do their jobs well?

AA: I don’t talk about community policing anymore. I came up with something called relational policing. As far as what my officers can do, I always remind them that first impressions are long-lasting. I tell them to conduct themselves in such a way that they are making friends and not foes for the police department. I created an acronym for the main tenets of relational policing—TREEAT: transparency, respect, engagement, emotional capital, accountability, trust.

T is transparency. Everyone in the criminal justice system needs to be transparent. The R is respect. The number one complaint about police officers is not corruption, it’s not police brutality, it’s not racial profiling—it’s rudeness. The first E is engage—I’ve got to engage my police officers to engage the community. When you’re engaged in the community in a transparent, respectful manner, you start building the next E—emotional capital. And then the A is about accountability. We’ve got to hold each other accountable. Finally, if we’re transparent, respectful, engaging each other, building emotional capital, and holding each other accountable, we’re going to end up building trust. When we build that trust through relational policing, I think we’ll end up with better outcomes for everybody. It ain’t that complicated.

ST: Is there a police department that you look to as a gold standard for what policing should be? 

AA: I don’t think there’s such thing as the gold standard. It’s a process that never ends: making your policing better, making yourself better, or making anything better. I like to say I look at whatever police department I am at as the gold standard. I look at the Miami police department as the gold standard. I looked at the Houston police department as the gold standard when I was there for almost five years or the Austin police department—I was there for almost a decade. But when my cops say, “Chief, we’re number one. We’re the best,” I tell them, “If we’re the best, I’d hate to see the second-best,” because we have to be better. We have to seize every day as an opportunity to do better as individuals, units, divisions, organizations, and ultimately as a profession and a society.

So I would say, no, there’s no one department I look at as the “gold standard” because I know for certain that there is no department that is perfect. There is no department that couldn’t use improvement. But I can tell you there are a lot of good departments out there and we have a lot of good leaders.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.