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From high praise to the hot seat: How Miami's police chief saga became political theater

Photo of Miami Police Chief Art Acevedo
MATIAS J. OCNER
/
Miami Herald
Miami police chief Art Acevedo faces an uncertain future as the top cop in the city.

The ongoing conflict has captivated the public and escalated very quickly. What led up to it and where does it go from here?

The city of Miami government has been gripped by a circular firing squad of explicit accusations of misconduct, possible corruption and incompetence.

On one side of the squad are three sitting Cuban-American city commissioners. On the other, a Cuban-American police chief and, nominally, the Cuban-American mayor and city manager who helped bring him to the city.

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Residents of the city are in the middle of the melee, shielding their eyes from the carnage and ducking for cover to avoid the crossfire. No one can say with certainty what the total damages will be once the attacks come to a halt.

The unfolding situation has high stakes for the city, bringing national media attention and calling the viability and stability of the city government into question.

And now, the escalating battle has reached new heights: A related federal lawsuit against the city has been filed by businesses in Little Havana, alleging that the city “weaponized the very tools of government” in order to shut them down. The police chief has called on the Department of Justice to investigate the actions of sitting members of the city commission, and the FBI has acknowledged it is aware of the situation.

That same police chief has also faced public hearings entirely aimed at discrediting his actions in both the recent past, up to decades ago. The hearings are intended to push him out of office.

All of this happened within a very short time period — but how did it happen? And how did we get here?

Miami Police Chief Part 2: Ethnic Infighting And Reform

'The Chief Of Chiefs'

The drama began with the arrival of police chief Art Acevedo in March. Acevedo was the police chief in Austin, Texas for nine years, and most recently was the top cop in Houston for nearly five years.

But the political intrigue started with questions about how Cuban-born Acevedo was recruited to Miami.

“Obviously, the mayor has a relationship with the current mayor in Houston,” said city manager Art Noriega. “He connected us. The mayor spoke to him, I spoke to him. And he had nothing but positive things to say about the chief.”

The city manager technically made the hire, but the chief was really recruited by Miami Mayor Francis Suarez.

“The chief is someone who was recruited and hired because of his record. And his record is one where he was chosen by all the chiefs in the United States, all the big city chiefs, as their leader,” Suarez told WLRN in mid-September.

He pointed to the fact that Acevedo was elected by police chiefs across the country to serve as the current president of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, a national group of police chiefs.

“So, I mean, you’re getting the chief of chiefs,” said Suarez.

MIA_Art_Police_Chief_MJO_6.jpeg
MATIAS J. OCNER
City of Miami's incoming police chief Art Acevedo speaks during a press conference at Miami City Hall in Coconut Grove, Florida on Monday, March 15, 2021.

The controversy was that a formal interview process was underway in the Miami Police Department, a process that could have promoted someone from within. Three city commissioners — Joe Carollo, Alex Diaz De La Portilla and Manolo Reyes, the three Cuban-Americans on the commission — took issue with the mayor and city manager sidestepping the process. The hire of Acevedo came as unexpected Sunday night news to many in the city government.

“You had people from the area who were interested, applied for the position, went through the interviews, and it comes across as — they were not taken seriously,” explained Alexis Piquero, a criminologist and chair of the University of Miami's department of sociology and arts & sciences.”Whether that’s true or not, those are the optics.”

Noriega has said an outside hire was needed in order to institute needed reforms to the department.

In response to the surprise hire, the city commission passed a resolution in July that called for a ballot referendum asking city of Miami voters to give the elected commission more oversight of the hiring process for both the chief of the police and the chief of the fire department positions.

Mayor Suarez vetoed that resolution, saying it would put top candidates from other cities in a precarious position. In his veto message Suarez wrote: “What would happen with his/her current employer if everyone knows that he/she is applying for a new job, and what would happen if he/she fails to land the new job?”

“I don’t know what he’s afraid of,” Commissioner Reyes told the Miami Herald at the time. “Let’s have a very transparent process where we will be able to recruit the best candidates within our department and in the U.S.”

The question will not be on the November ballot, but it is not dead. Depending on the action of commissioners, it could still end up on the ballot in 2022.

The Shake Up

The actions of Chief Acevedo have also rattled the city police department. The chief came on board as a self-described reformer, with the stated goal of issuing sweeping changes to the internal culture of the department.

Just after coming on, Acevedo spoke with WLRN and shared that he immediately intended to fire an estimated ten officers.

“I’ve now put internal affairs as of yesterday directly reporting to me as the chief of police,” Acevedo said in April. “We have cases that are languishing there that we want to fire people but apparently the cases are there for upwards to a year or longer, and these people, these officers are on the payroll.”

Chief Acevedo was brought here to institute reform and he deserves the opportunity to do so. Reform isn’t pretty to police officers because it goes against the blue wall of silence and some of the friends of the family will have to be held accountable.
Miami Police Major Dana Carr

During his short tenure so far, the police chief has repeatedly found himself in hot water over his outspoken demeanor and public persona. He angered the police union and some rank and file officers after saying officers might be fired if they don’t get vaccines for COVID-19, and was forced to issue a self-reprimand after being caught on camera cursing at a member of the Proud Boys.

The Miami Police Department was under sweeping federal oversight from 2016 through early 2021, due to a string of police shooting incidents dating back to 2010 and 2011. All of the people shot and killed by the police during that eight-month stretch were Black and several were unarmed, according to a findings report issued by the Department of Justice in 2013. Acevedo came on board after the federal oversight was lifted, but said cultural reforms within the department were still needed.

“It’s a balance and I’m fine with someone else taking over and conducting an independent investigation, but it has to be timely, and if it’s not timely I’m going to act in those instances when I believe people need to be fired,” said Acevedo.

Within months the chief relieved the city’s sergeant-at-arms, Luis Camacho, of duty, citing an ongoing internal affairs investigation. He demoted four majors without explanation, and brought in an old colleague from Houston, Heather Morris, to serve as a deputy police chief. The chief fired a high-ranking police couple for not properly reporting a minor car accident.

The shake up ruffled feathers in the department, and in an August meeting when he was addressing staff, Chief Acevedo made a comment about the pushback he was receiving that would change everything.

He reportedly said: “Miami is run by the Cuban mafia.”

Backlash Against Chief's Comments

The comment angered the Fraternal Order of Police and Cuban-American members of the city of Miami commission. They said the comments echoed attacks Cuban dictator Fidel Castro would lob at the Cuban exile community in an effort to discredit them.

The police chief issued an apology, saying he was not aware of the history of the “Cuban Mafia” being used as a slur.

But the comment was enough. A series of city commission meetings was soon called, entirely aimed at scrutinizing the police chief — and possibly pressuring the city manager to fire him.

In the days leading up to the first meeting, the police chief issued a scathing memo in which he accused the three Cuban-American commissioners of misconduct, interfering in internal affairs investigations, and possible corruption. He called on the FBI to investigate the commissioners, who make up three-fifths of the commission, and painted the criticism against him as a political witch hunt of the sort practiced by the Cuban dictatorship.

“If I or MPD give in to the improper actions described herein, as a Cuban immigrant, I and my family might as well have remained in communist Cuba, because Miami and MPD would be no better than the oppressive regime and the police state we left behind,” Acevedo wrote in the memo.

The commissioners categorically say all of the accusations of misconduct and possible corruption are false.

The FBI has acknowledged it is aware of the allegations in the memo, but the nature of any potential ongoing investigation, if any, are not known.

The memo and the “Cuban Mafia” comment loomed large over the commission meetings.

“If he had used the same adjective to any, any — think about any ethnic group — any. And said this is the “whatever mafia” and said they are similar to the people who oppress them,” said Commissioner Reyes.

“He would have been long gone,” interrupted Commissioner Diaz De La Portilla.

“Oh hell yes,” said Reyes.

The commissioners voiced frustration that the police chief only issued an apology over Twitter, and that he did not do Spanish language radio interviews to apologize for his comments.

Commissioner Joe Carollo led the meetings and he called the police chief’s Cuban roots into question. The chief was born in Havana but moved to the United Stated at four years old.

Unlike the commissioners, Acevedo’s family moved to Los Angeles shortly after arriving in the U.S.

He is not a Miami Cuban, a point Carollo drove home at the meetings.

“He says he is Cuban but I still haven’t seen anything about his past, not even his college transcripts, there hasn’t been any investigation,” Carollo told reporters in Spanish. “That he says he is Cuban and that he acts like a Cuban are different things. Because this man has never cared about Cuba until he got here.”

JoeCarollo092721.jpeg
Carl Juste
EVOKING THE M-WORD? Cuban-American Miami City Commissioner Joe Carollo holding forth against new Miami Police Chief Art Acevedo during a special commission meeting on Monday.

Referring to comments that the chief made at a Patria y Vida event in July that were critical of the Cuban regime, Carollo said the chief only then decided to act like a “real Cuban.”

“He was born in Cuba, but then because he’s Cuban, he was born in Cuba, he has the right to offend us like that?” asked commissioner Reyes, referring to the “Cuban Mafia” comment. “I mean Castro was Cuban too. Fidel Castro was born in Cuba, and the people that are oppressing the Cuban people, they were born in Cuba, too.”

A Reformer Or Not A Reformer?

The in-fighting, ethnic undertones to the ongoing dispute conceal another potential motivation for going after the police chief, said Stephen Hunter Johnson, the chair of the Black Affairs Advisory Board of Miami-Dade County.

Johnson was on the hiring committee that interviewed potential police chiefs and said he was unhappy about the way the chief was directly recruited and hired, but he broadly approves of the actions taken by the chief to restructure the leadership of the department.

“To the extent that he made a comment about the ‘Cuban Mafia’ and he found himself in hot water — not necessarily because there is no such thing, but because Fidel used that term to describe Miami Cubans — takes away from what it was that he was identifying,” said Johnson. “Which is: There’s a homogeneous clique of people who have exercised inordinate control in decision making within the Miami PD, and I think it has to stop. And I bet you there were hosts of Black officers and white officers who were in their heads clapping.”

“The chief’s offense is literally bucking the good old boy network in place. That’s his offense,” Johnson said.

Notably, members of the Miami Community Police Benevolent Association — a Black police union — support the police chief. Dana Carr is a major in the police department, and secretary of the union, and said the department has a long “history of allowing corrupt behavior” and of alienating any officers who try to break the mold.

“These practices were allowed by senior leadership,” she said. “Chief Acevedo was brought here to institute reform and he deserves the opportunity to do so. Reform isn’t pretty to police officers because it goes against the blue wall of silence and some of the friends of the family will have to be held accountable. Which may include up and to termination. But reform is necessary.”

Stanley Jean-Poix, the union president, told commissioners the chief has started much-needed reforms within the police department.

“When he came into the department he was the first chief I ever saw conduct a department-wide survey to give our opinions on what we thought was important. He brought the interview process back to specialized units. Before that it was the chief and his friends pick and chose whoever they wanted, there was no chance of advancement if you weren’t in the clique,” said Jean-Poix. “He formed committees talking about what are the right qualifications if you want to move up to become a staff member — what can you do to make yourself a better candidate? Before, no one ever told us that.”

“He brought diversity as you can see. We have now white females in certain positions, white males, we have Blacks,” he said.

An internal poll released by the Fraternal Order of Police, however, shows that a majority of officers do not have confidence in the police chief. The Fraternal Order of Police is the union that handles contract negotiations for the police department.

Commissioner Carollo says the police chief is guilty of hypocrisy and that he is in fact protecting bad officers.

Minor damage to the chief of police’s vehicle recently went unreported, the same offense for which he previously fired the police couple. In a commission meeting, photos of the vehicle damage were shown and the city manager acknowledged the proper paperwork was not filed in a timely manner, as required.

And Carollo pointed to one notorious officer who has cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars in settlements for excessive use of force. That officer was previously on desk duty but has been let back onto the street and has recently been raking in money on overtime on the police chief’s watch, Carollo said.

“This chief was the one that got him out, got him a five percent raise and look at all the overtime,” said Carollo, raising his voice. “The fake reformer. Mr. Acevedo — the fake reformer."

The Chief's Past, And Future, In Question

A central focus of the two commission meetings was Chief Acevedo’s history in law enforcement prior to joining the Miami Police Department.

Commissioner Carollo spent hours reading a laundry list of scandals and accusations from the chief’s past, dating back to the 1980s when he was with the California Highway Patrol. For example, the commissioner cited a scandal involving the mistreatment of rape test kits when Acevedo was the chief of police in Austin, Texas.

In a surreal moment, he showed video of a pair of fundraisers the chief participated in, dating from 2008. Carollo froze the image to comment on the bulge in the chief’s pants, calling his character into question.

“That he would go out publicly with pants like that, in that fashion, where his midsection are in pants so tight like this — is this something that you would believe is appropriate for a police chief?” Carollo rhetorically asked the city manager. “The only time that you would see me like that is when I played football, but that’s because I had a jock strap.”

Some of the accusations and scandals read into the record were either unsubstantiated or lacking full context. One scandal cited by Commissioner Carollo dating back to the 1980s was over the chief allegedly showing nude pictures of a subordinate to other officers. However, Acevedo won a nearly $1 million settlement in a lawsuit with the California Highway Patrol over that incident, saying that he was the victim of a retaliation campaign aimed at discrediting him.

Art Acevedo wearing a Houston Police uniform when he served as chief in that city
Art Acevedo during his tenure as Houston police chief

Still, scrutiny of Chief Acevedo’s past was news to many in Miami. City Manager Noriega admitted to the commission that he did not perform a full vetting of Acevedo before bringing him on board as the top cop.

“Did we do an in-depth vetting of him? No,” Noriega said.

Noriega said he mostly took the word of Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner that Acevedo was good for the job upon hiring him.

However, using the chief’s past against him now in Miami is not proper, said Piquero, the criminologist.

“Most of that material was available for people to see. If they chose not to look for it, the onus is on them for not looking for it, not on the chief,” said Piquero.

Eyes On The Commission?

The other main factor at play for the chief’s future in Miami is the accusations of misconduct he lobbed against the three Cuban-American commissioners. In particular, Acevedo wrote in his memo sent before the commission meetings that commissioners Carollo and Diaz De La Portilla had pressured police to conduct code enforcement investigations into businesses in one another’s districts.

Similar allegations are not new. The owners of the Little Havana bar Ball & Chain have long charged that Carollo has directed code enforcement against the business for political reasons, charges that Carollo denies. The popular bar has been closed for business due to the ongoing enforcement actions.

On the heels of the Acevedo memo, Ball & Chain and another Little Havana restaurant filed a $28 million federal lawsuit against the city of Miami, alleging that the city has "weaponized the very tools of government" for political reasons.

The lawsuit cited the Acevedo memo as corroboration.

But Miami's city manager said the police chief has not provided evidence to support his claims of misconduct. The targeted commissioners categorically deny any truth to the allegations in the memo or the lawsuit.

The Missing Mayor

Commissioners voted last week to create an investigative body that would look into all the allegations of misconduct, which would be overseen by the commission itself. The investigation would look into any potential misconduct by the police chief, the sitting commissioners, or any other city of Miami employee involved in the ongoing dispute.

The commission took a vote to cut some funding to senior staff members, which were expanded by Acevedo, and to use that funding to hire new patrol officers. They cut funding for the deputy police chief — the position occupied by Acevedo’s former Houston colleague Heather Morris — from the city budget.

Two City Hall sources told WLRN the chief is unlikely to last much longer in the position. Publicly accusing three sitting commissioners of misconduct and inviting a federal investigation was one step too far for him to walk back from, they said.

Noticeably absent for the intrigue? Miami Mayor Francis Suarez. He attended neither of the commission meetings, despite personally recruiting the police chief to the position. The mayor recently said he places full faith in the city manager, who would technically be the one to retain or fire the chief, but he has otherwise stopped commenting on the drama.

When he was brought on board, Suarez referred to Acevedo as the “Michael Jordan of police chiefs.” He told WLRN in mid-September that he still supported the police chief.

“In a city as complex as Miami can be, there are all kinds of subplots — some that are public and some that are not completely — that motivate some of the things that we see,” he said at the time. “I support the chief and I also support the commission’s desire to create accountability at that position, and we’ll all see how it plays out.”