Sunday, June 7, 2020

Houston Police Chief's Record Belies His Reformist Rhetoric After George Floyd's Death

By Jacob Sullum - June 07, 2020 at 05:20PM

Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo is conspicuously positioning himself as an advocate of reform, transparency, and accountability following George Floyd's deadly May 25 encounter with Minneapolis cops, which set off protests across the country. But Acevedo's rhetoric is at odds with his record since he was hired to run the Houston Police Department (HPD) in 2016.

A viral video shows the police chief talking to protesters in Houston. Acevedo, who was born in Cuba and immigrated to the United States with his parents when he was 4, passionately condemns racism, calls for unity, and expresses outrage at Floyd's death. "We will march as a department with everybody in this community," he says. "I will march until I can't stand no more."

In a May 29 Washington Post op-ed piece, Acevedo acknowledges "the searing pain and anger that many Americans feel in response to the death of George Floyd," saying "the actions of the four officers involved shock the conscience, are inconsistent with the protocols of the policing profession and sabotage the law-enforcement community's tireless efforts to build public trust." He adds that "tragedies such as this one occur far too frequently in our country, especially in communities of color and low-income neighborhoods," saying "there is still much work that our profession must do to prevent more deaths like Floyd's and the destructive outrage that follows."

Acevedo, whose support for gun control has endeared him to left-leaning journalists, wants "zero tolerance for dishonesty" by cops and "wide-ranging" investigations of excessive-force allegations, considering not only the legality of police conduct but also "whether there were opportunities to de-escalate." He says officers, including police union officials, "must stand against corruption and abuse in their midst." He recommends revising "collective bargaining agreements" that impede "swift terminations" of "bad cops" and measures aimed at preventing those officers from being hired by other law enforcement agencies.

These are all good ideas. But Acevedo does not necessarily practice what he preaches.

Writing in the Texas Monthly, Michael Hardy notes that Acevedo has paid lip service to bail reform, saying arrestees should not be kept behind bars simply because they are poor. Yet he has actively resisted attempts to reduce pretrial detention, even as the Harris County jail has become a hotbed of COVID-19 infection. Hardy also contrasts Acevedo's verbal support for peaceful protesters with his department's heavy-handed treatment of them.

Another person who noticed Acevedo's public pose as a reform-minded police chief was John Nicholas, who is still waiting for answers about a January 2019 raid in which Houston narcotics officers killed his sister, Rhogena Nicholas, and her husband, Dennis Tuttle, at their home on Harding Street. "Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo seem to have all the answers about police killings and injustice around the nation," Nicholas writes in a Houston Chronicle op-ed piece published last week. "Their strident, authoritative comments about failed policing and keeping the peace in other cities and states leave quite an impression. Yet, in Houston, their continued silence about the murderous Harding Street no-knock raid by Houston police that killed my sister Rhogena Nicholas, her husband and their dog 16 months ago also speaks volumes."

The raid, which was based on a warrant alleging that Tuttle and Nicholas were selling heroin, stank to high heaven from the beginning. According to the official police account, the officers killed Tuttle and Nicholas during a gun battle that began after the cops stormed into the house and used a shotgun to kill the couple's dog.

Acevedo said Tuttle fired at the officers with a revolver, and he suggested that Tuttle must have known the armed invaders breaking into his home were police officers. But the cops, who were not wearing uniforms, knocked in the front door of the house at the same moment they supposedly announced themselves, then immediately fired a shotgun. At the time, a lawyer for Nicholas' family later said, she and Tuttle were napping in their bedroom. In these circumstances—which are similar to what happened during the Louisville, Kentucky, raid that killed Breonna Taylor last March—it is plausible that Tuttle thought he was defending his home against criminals.

Sixteen months later, it is still not clear who fired the shots that struck the four officers who were wounded by gunfire during the Harding Street raid. Yet Acevedo indignantly rejected the suggestion that they might have been hit by friendly fire. He also hailed the officers as "heroes," posthumously tarred Tuttle and Nicholas as dangerous criminals, and claimed that people who lived nearby had thanked the police for taking action against a locally notorious "drug house." That claim was inconsistent with the accounts of actual neighbors and the results of the search, which found no evidence of drug dealing. It also seemed odd that Gerald Goines, the officer who obtained the warrant, supposedly had been investigating the alleged heroin operation for two weeks but did not even know Tuttle's name.

Acevedo, in short, reflexively defended his officers, despite evidence that the warrant was fishy and that the raid was reckless at best. Later it emerged that Goines had lied in his search warrant affidavit, describing a heroin purchase that never happened by a confidential informant who did not exist. He now faces state murder charges and federal civil rights charges in connection with the deadly raid. Another narcotics officer, Steven Bryant, also faces state and federal charges for backing up the story that Goines concocted to obtain the warrant.

The Harris County District Attorney's Office, which is reviewing drug cases that Goines handled, so far has identified 164 dubious convictions. One of them involved none other than George Floyd, a Houston native whom Goines arrested in 2004 for allegedly selling him a small amount of crack cocaine. Floyd pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 10 months in jail.

Acevedo wants credit for uncovering Goines' deadly dishonesty. "What would have been more tragic for this community, and for this department, than the incident itself is for the department to have failed to investigate it to the extent that we did," he told former Houston Chronicle reporter Keri Blakinger, who covered the Harding Street raid, in a Texas Monthly interview last February. He also wants credit for the reforms he announced after the raid, including high-level approval for no-knock search warrants and a requirement that narcotics officers wear body cameras during raids.

The dangers of no-knock raids, especially in cases involving nonviolent crimes, have been a subject of national discussion for decades. The importance of body cameras in documenting what happened when raids go horribly wrong likewise was widely recognized long before Acevedo decided that his drug warriors should wear them. In this case, body camera footage could have clarified the circumstances that led to the senseless deaths of two people. Acevedo's belated adoption of these policies hardly makes him look like a forward-thinking reformer.

Nor does Acevedo's insistence that the crimes committed by Goines and Bryant did not reflect a "systemic" problem within the HPD's Narcotics Division or the department generally. The HPD employed Goines for 34 years, and prosecutors so far have sought dismissal of 164 drug cases he instigated over a period of at least 15 years. It is hard to believe that no one else was complicit in Goines' shady practices spanning more than a decade, either by actively assisting him, by looking the other way, or by failing to adequately supervise his activities. Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg says her office is investigating "other officers" in Goines' squad.

A few weeks after the disastrous operation that killed Nicholas and Tuttle, Acevedo  promised he would "leave no stone unturned to determine the good, the bad and the ugly." John Nicholas has his doubts:

When will the city finally tell the truth about—or even address—the killings of my sister and her husband? When will the city release any of the forensic and ballistics information, statements by Houston Police Department personnel that may or may not support the city's stories and evidence on the ground, the audit of narcotics units and disciplinary action, if any, taken against its managers?

Although the Harris County District Attorney's Office is reviewing cases that relied on the testimony of Gerald Goines, when will the police department carry out a full review of the entire unit and its managers with full accountability? How many other families were victimized by the decades-long corruption of HPD Narcotics Unit 15?

How high did knowledge of the illicit activities of HPD officers Goines and Steven Bryant go in the police department?

Our independent investigation found evidence that an HPD shooter fired blindly through the home's walls and into the house, including the likely fatal shot at my sister on her own couch. Who killed my sister in the barrage of bullets fired from outside her home?

What happened to the evidence our family's independent investigation of the killing developed? Why does the question of "friendly fire" and the likelihood that my sister was shot blindly while seated on her couch remain unanswered?

Acevedo's response to the Harding Street raid—including his praise of the officers responsible for it; his credulous acceptance of Goines' dubious justification for the warrant; his casual defamation of Nicholas and Tuttle; his automatic rejection of the possibility that officers shot each other; his bizarre insistence, even after Goines' search-warrant fraud was revealed, that the cops "had probable cause to be there"; his denial of systemic problems; and the stonewalling described by Nicholas—is not exactly a model of the transparency and accountability he claims to favor. If Acevedo had any shame, his reaction to the death of George Floyd would have featured less grandstanding and more introspection.


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