Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo has been reprimanded, stripped of five days’ pay and warned his job is in jeopardy after his boss said he didn’t follow orders to stop discussing the controversial police shooting of an unarmed teen in February.
At the center of the penalty against the chief, City Manager Marc Ott said Acevedo had been insubordinate, according to documents obtained Tuesday by the American-Statesman and KVUE-TV.
But Ott also laid bare his ongoing concerns about Acevedo’s performance unrelated to the shooting, warning in an April 15 memo that he could be fired for future misconduct. Ott wrote in the blistering two-page memo that he had previously documented “operation and judgment concerns” about Acevedo in August 2011, but didn’t specify what those concerns were.
In the aftermath of the shooting, Acevedo made comments that the police union claimed showed he had prejudged the case and potentially violated the officer’s right to a fair investigation.
“Some APD personnel who were interviewed during the course of this review expressed concern that they would suffer retaliation from the department as a result of their involvement in this matter,” Ott wrote. “You are reminded that the city has a policy of zero tolerance for retaliation.”
The documents show publicly for the first time dissatisfaction among some in city management for an official who has been arguably the most visible in local government since arriving in Austin in 2007. It also reveals years of strain between Ott and Acevedo, who was hired from the California Highway Patrol by then-City Manager Toby Futrell.
The suspension comes after Ott in September gave Acevedo a 5-percent pay raise and a new separation agreement granting up to six months of severance pay should he be fired. In return, Acevedo withdrew from the San Antonio Police Department’s search for a new chief. Acevedo now earns about $206,086, and the five days without pay would mean a loss of about $4,000.
Ott also ordered that, as an additional condition of the discipline, Acevedo must get prior permission from the city manager’s office for future work-related travel.
Acevedo said in a statement Tuesday, “I respectfully differ with the city manager and Austin Police Association about my public remarks and response to the officer-involved shooting on February 8, 2016. I acted in the best interests of the City of Austin, Austin Police Department, and community after a tragic incident that cost a young life and ended a police officer’s career.
“While I disagree with the manager’s reprimand, I recognize his right to exercise that authority,” Acevedo said. “The manager and I have worked together for nearly nine years. Disagreements are inevitable. I look forward to putting this behind us and continuing a productive partnership.”
The discipline against Acevedo came after comments he made soon after David Joseph was shot by officer Geoffrey Freeman, who Acevedo has since fired for excessive force.
Freeman’s attorneys have said he fired at Joseph, 17, who was nude and wasn’t armed, after the teen charged at him in the streetwhen Freeman responded Feb. 8 to a disturbance in Northeast Austin.
The shooting prompted immediate community backlash, with many questioning why an officer used deadly force on a suspect who had no way to conceal a weapon.
Acevedo responded with a news conference Feb. 11 with representatives from several community groups, including Black Lives Matter — a decision that angered many officers and their union who thought the gathering showed Acevedo had already decided that Freeman erred.
Documents show that, several weeks later, Acevedo visited the department’s police training academy, where he again discussed the shooting.
That meeting prompted a formal complaint to Ott by the union, and Ott hired an outside investigator, Larry Watts, to look into whether Acevedo’s comments were inappropriate or showed a bias against Freeman.
Watts found Acevedo hadn’t violated any policies, but wrote that “while I do not find a policy violation, I do believe that the department and city of Austin would have been better served if he had refrained from discussing the Freeman case at that time.”
Soon after Acevedo’s visit to the academy, Ott met with Acevedo and, the city manager wrote, “I directed you to let the administrative investigation process proceed in its normal course; to cease meeting with groups, including APD officers and cadets, and talking about matters connected with the pending officer involved shooting investigation.” He also was told not to discuss the case with union President Ken Casaday, Ott wrote.
According to the memo, Acevedo proceeded to discuss the case with Casaday on March 3, and returned to the police academy March 4 to hold a mandatory meeting with cadets and training staff.
“Both meetings were in reference to the events that occurred at the academy earlier that week,” Ott wrote.
The memo said that Ott met with Acevedo on April 12, gave him an opportunity to respond about why he had conducted those meetings, and that Acevedo agreed that his actions had been insubordinate.
“I fully expect that you will address your performance in regard to these issues,” Ott wrote. “I want to make clear that future misconduct or a serious failure to adhere to our principle of the best managed by showing further poor judgment in the performance of your job duties will lead to additional personnel action up to and including termination.”