A day after it was revealed that City Manager Marc Ott punished Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo for disobeying orders and speaking about the controversial fatal police shooting of 17-year-old David Joseph, attention shifted Wednesday toward Ott, with politicians and community leaders criticizing his handling of the situation. One council member went as far as calling for Ott to be ousted from City Hall.
Tuesday’s revelation that Austin’s highest appointed official had punished the city’s top cop, lobbing an unexpected political grenade into City Hall, came nearly two weeks after Ott issued the reprimand, docking Acevedo five days’ worth of pay — $4,000.
Council Member Don Zimmerman said it was that lack of transparency that has led to his growing desire for Ott to be fired.
“When the city manager notified us, he didn’t even bother to attach the same documents that were sent to the media,” Zimmerman said. “I call that secrecy.”
Acevedo’s punishment throws into question how he and Ott will continue to work together. While Acevedo expressed disagreement in measured tones in a public statement issued Tuesday, a memo the chief wrote to Ott after learning of his punishment showed more indignation and questioned whether Ott’s decision would hamstring the chief’s ability to lead the Austin Police Department.
“Although I do not consider my actions to have been insubordinate, I will redouble my efforts to demonstrate due respect for your authority,” Acevedo wrote in his response to the reprimand. “However, I am struggling to understand how to perform my duties if I am restricted from meeting and communicating with police department personnel and cadets and asserting leadership authority as to the use of force policy and expectations.”
Council Member Kathie Tovo said Wednesday that the two appear to have a productive working relationship, at least outwardly.
“I think they’re both professionals and are accustomed to working together and appear to, at least from my vantage point, work well together,” Tovo said.
Acevedo’s punishment stemmed from two instances in which he discussed the Joseph case while an internal investigation was ongoing. Officer Geoffrey Freeman was eventually fired for using excessive force after he shot and killed the unarmed, naked 17-year-old on Feb. 8, police have said.
Following pressure from the City Council and leaders associated with the local Black Lives Matter movement, Acevedo stood side by side with activists three days after the shooting and announced that the investigation into Freeman’s actions would be completed at an accelerated clip.
It was a move that was sharply criticized by the Austin police union as signaling that Acevedo had already made up his mind to fire Freeman.
Austin NAACP President Nelson Linder said the nature of the Joseph shooting required special treatment from the chief.
“The idea that Acevedo’s actions somehow harmed officer’s Freeman investigation is false,” Linder said.
After learning that Acevedo had spoken about the shooting to a cadet class, the union’s president filed a formal complaint with the city. An independent investigation exonerated Acevedo of any policy violations, but it revealed that Acevedo had spoken twice about the shooting with fellow officers after Ott ordered him to refrain from discussing it until the investigation was complete.
A memo Ott sent to Acevedo informing the chief of his punishment states that during an April 12 meeting between the two, Acevedo agreed that his actions had been insubordinate, essentially admitting that he had disobeyed Ott’s orders.
But Acevedo said in his formal response that he didn’t believe he was acting insubordinately. He defended the two times he spoke about the shooting cited in Ott’s written reprimand, characterizing one of the instances as a passing conversation with the union president. The other was a meeting with the cadet class to clarify earlier remarks about police use of force that referenced the Joseph shooting.
Acevedo attempted to contact Ott before that meeting to explain, his response said. When he couldn’t reach the city manager, he informed Assistant City Manager Rey Arellano, who oversees public safety, of his intentions and reported back to Arellano after the meeting.
Meme Styles, leader of local activist group Measure Austin, said that while Acevedo has made inroads with the African-American community over police use of force, Ott has been “impotent on the issue.”
“It is a scary scene, that he would reprimand one of the biggest voices in Austin for remaining transparent,” Styles said.
CORRECTION: This story has been updated from a previous version that incorrectly characterized police Chief Art Acevedo’s punishment. Acevedo received a reprimand and was docked five days of pay, but was not suspended.