Last month, there were two officer-involved shootings in the Austin area. But the community reacted differently than it had in a not-so-distant past. After the shootings, there were no marches, no press conferences from civil rights organizations, and no riots.
It’s almost like one can mark the history of the Austin Police Department in the community as “Before Art Acevedo” and “After Art Acevedo.”
Before Art Acevedo became APD chief, there was Stan Knee. His tenure was very different.
So, what are some of the things that have changed since Acevedo took over the police department?
Officer-involved shootings are controversial no matter what. Some turn out to be legal and done by the book. Others reveal how in a split second, officers can make very bad decisions.
Recent reactions to officer-involved shootings are far different from the outcry Stan Knee experienced from Austinites during the almost nine years he spent as APD chief.
Knee now leads Seton hospital’s security department. He remembers how raw the community’s feelings were during his tenure.
“You’d have to step back to 1997 when I arrived,” Knee said. “At that time  there was lawsuits pending, police officers suing the police department, there was a lack of teamwork within the police department; I guess that’s the best way to put it. There was no bond with the community ... especially with the minority community.”
Knee said there were issues inside and outside the department. Just to see how much those issues permeated into the community, let’s go back to June 2005. It’s only been a few days since Officer Julie Schroeder killed eighteen year-old Daniel Rocha in southeast Austin. Protests erupted immediately.
Ericka Gonzalez came into the KUT studios a few hours before she led a group of students in protest.
“I just think it’s very unjust the way that APD does not have any other alternative but to kill.” Gonzalez paused for a second, “I’m not saying all APD are murderers but [Officer Schroeder] clearly murdered an innocent youth of color.”
Under Chief Knee, APD was seen by some as unapologetically racist because every person killed by the department during that period of time was a person of color.
Knee left the department in 2006.
Then in 2007, an officer shot and killed 25 year-old Kevin Brown, who was black. That killing came in a period of limbo. There was an interim chief but no clear leadership.
KUT caught up with Wanda Mays in June of that year. Mays was at her family’s restaurant called Sam’s Barbeque just one block from where Kevin Brown was killed by police. Mays is a long time East side resident.
“The chief and all that, the Mayor, they’ve never been out here. Ain’t never been to the east side, we don’t know who they are, we just see them on TV.” Mays said, her voice rising. “[They] haven’t been to the east side. Introduce yourself, you gotta come introduce [yourself to] people, let them know who you are.”
Mays wasn’t alone in her discontent. And Austinites didn’t hide it: there were press conferences from civil rights groups and minority groups. People carried signs on the streets calling the police every unflattering name in the book. Some groups managed to get the attention of the national media when the U.S. Justice Department decided to investigate the APD’s use of force.
Acevedo quickly became a media darling. He gave reporters his cell phone number and became accessible at all times. That’s something none of his predecessors ever did.
Acevedo says he learned to engage the media after the Rodney King scandal that shook the Los Angeles police department to its core. Acevedo started his career in California.
“Information travels very quickly,” said Acevedo. “I realized that if you don’t get ahead of that information flow and you don’t participate in that information flow, somebody else is going to put out that information, somebody else that may have an agenda that is not of pure heart.”
Acevedo’s strategy is simple: engage the media and be on the ground at every community event – shaking hands and kissing babies. Former Chief Knee applauds that strategy.
“I come from a different time.” Knee said. “Although we worked very diligently to build a rapport with the community, often times we were hindered by the fact that for a period of time we could not release information about internal affairs investigations.”
Knee remembered how a cultural shift within the department came about. “Subsequently during my tenure the Texas courts upheld that we could indeed release the entire investigation.”
Then, Austinites demanded that bad cops were not investigated by APD but instead by an independent entity. The city created the Office of the Police Monitor. That created a bridge between the community and the APD.
Knee says all those steps taken together began the healing process. “I think that [APD is] benefiting today by some of the things we did back then, but clearly one of the things that I see different is the significant amount of trust this community has in the chief of police.”
One thing that has yet to change is the department’s record of questionable shootings. Jim Harrington with the Texas Civil Rights Project worries about that.
“There should not have been the vehicular shooting on 12th street and Airport,” Harrington said.
He goes through a list of all the recent shootings: “That person that was mentally ill should not have been killed. Those two kids, you know, parked by the police station should not have been shot at and one of them killed.”
Harrington is filing a lawsuit this week on behalf of the man who was stopped by an officer last month for running a red light. The officer shot at the man when he stepped out of his truck. The man wasn’t injured. The incident is still under investigation but it has not caused the turmoil similar cases caused during Knee’s term.
Acevedo says that’s because he is transparent with the community.
“People can make their final determination and if they don’t want me to be the Chief,” Acevedo said. “I’ll find another job. But at the end of the day, there’s nothing that I would want to hide.”
Acevedo continues to discipline officers whose actions are found to have violated policy. He fired two officers just last week. But he fiercely defends his department, too. He says APD needs relief in the form of more manpower. That’s another thing Acevedo has going for him - his officers know he’s constantly lobbying on their behalf.