The announcement that Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo is heading to Houston has placed Austin in a state of flux, with two of its most visible leaders — Acevedo and former City Manager Marc Ott — leaving in a span of three months.
It also comes just as Travis County prepares to seat both a new district attorney and a new sheriff, creating an extraordinary amount of transition in local government and law enforcement. The changes to come have some worried about the uncertainty being created, while others are looking at them as an opportunity to shape a new era.
“I think this is an incredible opportunity for a new 10-1 council with voices from all over the city with disparate ideas and thoughts to engage the larger community and really put the 10-1 stamp on government moving forward,” Mayor Steve Adler said.
That stamp’s impression is what worried local activist Meme Styles on Thursday. The founder of the police accountability group Measure Austin said that, given the current political climate nationally, anxiety over Acevedo’s sudden departure was unavoidable.
“Honestly, I kind of feel in the same way with the new (Trump) administration,” Styles said. “My thoughts mimic that of insecurity and uncertainty, but I’m still optimistic when it comes to the underserved working together and working collaboratively.”
Some have estimated that it could take a year or more to select a new police chief. Filling that position could be complicated by the ongoing search for a permanent city manager. Interim City Manager Elaine Hart said that, no matter what, she would want the new police chief to be selected by a permanent city manager.
“I would recommend that to the mayor and City Council,” Hart said. “This is a very key public position to the city and my commitment when named as the interim (manager) to the city is that, on those kinds of decisions, I would hold off until a permanent city manager is selected.”
Acevedo’s chief of staff, Brian Manley, has emerged as the likely interim police chief, with several local leaders naming him specifically as the best choice for a smooth transition. Hart said she would pick an interim chief in the coming days and possibly as early as tomorrow. Austin police union President Ken Casaday said that Manley is the top candidate.
Local activist and Austin Justice Coalition co-founder Chas Moore said he would welcome Manley as the interim chief and said that he would be in favor of Manley assuming the job permanently since it would continue a relationship forged recently between police and advocacy groups focused on police reform.
“I would be naïve to say that I wasn’t concerned about Acevedo leaving, but I am also hopeful enough that we can keep doing like we have been doing with the Police Department,” Moore said. “I am willing to go out there and push for him to be the chief just because he has been there for 20-plus years.”
Though a national search will be conducted by a private firm, Council Member Leslie Pool said the winner might already be here.
“We have a deep bench of talent,” Pool said, noting that Acevedo’s departure to a larger city shows that “Austin is a good proving ground that launches people to bigger job opportunities.”
Unlike Houston, which kept its search for a new chief shrouded in secrecy, Hart said that Austin’s search for a new chief will be out in the open. It will emulate the 2007 process that led to Acevedo’s hiring, with input from advocacy groups and public forums for residents to weigh in.
Rumors of Acevedo being considered as Houston chief had been around for months but recently grew in volume. Despite that, it appears that Acevedo didn’t give Adler or the City Council a chance to match Houston’s offer. In previous years, the council has reacted to Acevedo’s considerations for other posts with pay raises.
“From my perspective, this has come very quickly,” Adler said. “I think that this was an opportunity he felt he just needed to take.”
Acevedo will helm a department more than twice the size of the Austin police force, in the fourth-most populous city in the country. It also has the potential to launch Acevedo — Texas’ most savvy politician, according to Casaday — to a national stage.
The outgoing chief’s popularity soared during his 9½ years in Austin. Adler called him a “celebrity” and a “rock star” at City Hall on Thursday.
However, whoever inherits Acevedo’s job will face a department with low morale among the rank-and-file officers, according to a recent survey conducted by the police union. The new chief will also have to guide the department through the reopening of a DNA lab that was shuttered after its practices were called into question.
Casaday said he hopes the new chief would take a new approach toward discipline.
“Just someone who is fair and thought out in their discipline, that uses their brain instead of their heart,” he said.