Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo announced on Thursday that he was firing three officers and a sergeant who were involved in an April shooting that killed Nicolas Chavez, a 27-year-old who was stabbing himself with a piece of rebar and obtained a police Taser. On Friday PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler spoke with Chief Acevedo, who also serves as president of the Major Cities Chiefs Association (MCCA), about his decision to fire these officers and recent police chief turnover in MCCA agencies.


Chuck Wexler: You just fired three officers and a sergeant. What happened and why did you take this action?

Chief Acevedo: I’ve been here for four years now, and I’ve made my expectations very clear to the workforce from day one. I made it very clear that I was going to hold my men and women accountable for using time, distance, numbers, cover, and concealment to ensure that we operate tactically in a manor where we maximize the potential for everyone to safely go home, to jail, or wherever they’re supposed to go.

During the first 15-17 minutes of this incident, these officers didn’t do a perfect job, but they did a pretty good job of de-escalating, trying de-escalation techniques, and creating distance to eliminate the need to use deadly force on a suspect who was suicidal and stabbing himself with what they thought might be a knife or edged weapon, though it turned out to be a piece of rebar. At the end he had already been shot twice, shot at three times, beanbagged probably over a dozen times, tased around six times, and been on the ground for about ten minutes.

An officer put an empty Taser on the ground, this young man reeled in the Taser, and rather than backing up again like they had been taught, they held their ground, told him “don’t do it,” and fired 21 rounds, striking him 20 times, when he was arguably at his most incapacitated and posed no real threat of serious bodily injury or harm. Had they felt that that Taser could have hurt them, they should have simply taken three steps back. They failed to do that, and unfortunately somebody died who didn’t need to die. That’s why they’ve been indefinitely suspended.

When it came to the first two shots fired by the sergeant, he had just exhausted all of his beanbags, put his beanbag shotgun down, and as he transitioned to lethal the suspect advanced quickly on him and a constable. The sergeant said he feared for the safety of the constable and himself and discharged two rounds. By the time he fired, the constable was already behind the cover of a patrol car, but his chain of command and I felt that his use of force was objectively reasonable.

Minutes into this, after he was already shot, Mr. Chavez quickly gets off the ground, moves towards an officer, and another officer fired one round while a sergeant fired one beanbag. We found that to be objectively reasonable.

But when it comes to the 21 shots at the end, there is no defending that whatsoever. When we see shootings that should not have occurred, too many chiefs still fail to hold the officers accountable. I’m not saying that the officers are bad people or that they have bad hearts, but they made bad decisions that led to an unnecessary death and that’s why they were fired.

Wexler: Was this a suicide-by-cop situation?

Chief Acevedo: He said he wanted us to kill him multiple times from the onset of our contact. Rather than recognizing this crisis and dealing with it as a person who is not trying to hurt anyone but himself, towards the end we acted like this guy was a bogeyman who was going to kill us with 28 cops on the scene. The indicators are all there that he wanted to commit suicide by cop, but that doesn’t mean we should facilitate it.

Wexler: It’s been reported that your city’s independent police oversight board cleared the officers. Why do oversight boards and chiefs sometimes evaluate incidents differently?

Chief Acevedo: Here’s the problem with that. Number one, under Texas law, discipline over civil service in a police department rests solely with the police chief. The Independent Police Oversight Board’s (IPOB) role is to look at an investigation and comment on the thoroughness and on policy violations, not on discipline. The IPOB has four different panels.

The other piece of the disciplinary process is the Administrative Disciplinary Committee. That committee has every rank from assistant chief to the union vice president, as well as some civilian members of the department. It also includes the chairs of each of the IPOB’s four panels. So when the union said that the entire IPOB recommended no discipline, that’s not true because the panel member on the Administrative Disciplinary Committee voted for discipline up to 90 days’ suspension.

At the end of the day, you don’t get to violate the use-of-force policy or sound judgment and, as a result of those violations, we’re just going to suspend you. Basically we’re saying he died when he didn’t need to, and we should not tolerate that in law enforcement. I feel badly for the officers, but not everybody needs to be a cop. If you can’t think fast enough and just back up when a guy is already sitting there wounded, I really don’t need you to be a cop, especially since I’ve told you that since day one of your academy training.

Wexler: You addressed your academy staff this morning. What was your message to them?

Chief Acevedo: I wanted to make sure that they understood my determination about the lack of objective reasonableness in this officer-involved shooting. Too often when you fire somebody, the union will get someone from the academy to say something contrary – “that’s not the way we’re trained” or “that’s objectively reasonable.”

I went to the academy staff to make sure they understood that my expectation was that if they had a different opinion about my decision on the objective reasonableness of that officer-involved shooting, I better not hear about it for the first time during an appeal. My order to them was to come and tell me. I’m not telling them that they can’t say that during an appeal, but they need to tell me now.

I also told them that if they think they can convince me that there’s something I’m missing and there’s something I can go tell Mr. Chavez’s parents to explain why that was objectively reasonable, they should come and see me. If they could convince me, I’d rescind my decision. But I’m glad to say that after it was all over, a lot of them came up to me and said, “Chief, you were right on about this and thank you for your leadership.” That gives me hope.

Wexler: There has been quite a bit of turnover in MCCA departments recently. What are you hearing from your member chiefs?

Chief Acevedo: By the end of the year, we will have lost 17 of our 69 U.S. members. I think policing has become such a political hotbed that too many mayors don’t have the intestinal fortitude to just let chiefs do their jobs and, to a great extent, they’re scapegoating police chiefs.

Creating and maintaining a healthy culture is a never-ending process. When progressive, reform-minded police chiefs like Carmen Best and Erika Shields are being shown the door, bad culture wins. And when bad culture wins, good policing suffers and, ultimately, the American people suffer. Culture eats policy for breakfast, and you can’t maintain continuity in enforcing expectations while you have a leadership vacuum.

We have to rethink our policing leadership selection and retention process. We cannot have police chiefs be political in terms of being fired simply because a politician is scapegoating. We need to look at a model like the LAPD and City of Los Angeles charter, where it’s two five-year terms, and you can only really be fired for cause. Because if they think policing is bad now, it’ll get much worse with a vacuum in leadership.

Wexler: Does your decision to fire these officers help shape your agency’s culture?

Chief Acevedo: Yes, and we start setting expectations on day one. I talk about relational policing. I talk about Tamir Rice and David Joseph – young men who should not have died but did as a result of officers not using time, distance, numbers, cover, and concealment. I tell them that I’m going to hold them to those expectations, and the proof is in the pudding. If anyone doubted me, they aren’t doubting me now.

When I first got to Houston, I told them “if you lie, you die.” No one will survive a policy violation of untruthfulness. I’ve been saying that for thirteen years as chief. When we sustain a violation of untruthfulness, they’re fired.

The problem is that a lot of departments set a high bar but don’t enforce the standard. 


The PERF Critical Issues Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting this work.