In a sweeping announcement, Mayor Sylvester Turner named four new department directors and a reappointment Thursday. Pending City Council confirmation, Art Acevedo of Austin will assume the position of police chief and El Paso’s Samuel Pena will take over the fire department.
“Acting Police Chief Martha Montalvo and Acting Fire Chief Rodney West have performed exemplary in dealing with some challenges and we are indebted to them for their service,” said Mayor Turner. “I had said all along that once we reached solution to our pension problems, I would move quickly to fill key positions. This is the team that will carry us into 2017 and beyond. We are going to build upon the successes of 2016 and be even more transformative, innovative and responsive.”
Acevedo has served as Austin’s police chief since 2007. His 30 years of law enforcement experience began as a field patrol officer in East Los Angeles. In Austin, he oversaw a department with more than 2,400 sworn officers and support personnel and a $370 million annual budget. He joined the department at a time when relations with minorities were strained due to questionable police shootings. He has been credited for a commitment to police legitimacy, accountability and community policing and engagement. His accomplishments include creating a special investigative unit to criminally investigate officer involved shootings and a new disciplinary matrix. Acevedo holds a Bachelor of Science in Public Administration from the University of La Verne, is a graduate of the FBI’s National Executive Institute and speaks fluent Spanish.
Pena joined the El Paso Fire Department in 1995 and then rose through the ranks to the position of fire chief, which he has held since 2013. He has previous experience as a fire fighter, paramedic, media spokesperson, advanced medical coordinator, Combined Search and Rescue Team member, Hazardous Materials & Special Rescue Task Force member and academy training chief. He has a Bachelor’s Degree in Criminal Justice and a Master’s Degree in Business Administration from the University of Texas at El Paso. He is a veteran of the U.S. Air Force where he served for four years as an air control specialist. Like Acevedo, he is fluent in Spanish.
The mayor also announced that he has selected Judge Elaine Marshall to be the new presiding judge of Houston Municipal Courts, Tom McCasland as the permanent director of the Department of Housing and Community Development and the reappointment of Phyllis Frye to another term as a municipal court judge.
The Statesman was the first to report on Acevedo’s hiring. Here’s the reaction from Austin:
During his tenure in Austin, Acevedo has flirted with several other major Texas cities, including Fort Worth, Dallas and San Antonio. Thirteen months ago, he withdrew from San Antonio’s hiring process and received a 5 percent pay raise and a new separation agreement should he be fired in Austin.
Austin Mayor Steve Adler released the following statement about Acevedo: “Houston is getting a world-class police chief. Chief Acevedo has made our community safer and closer and he is trusted and much loved by so many. Austin is losing a moral and joyous leader and I’m losing a friend.
“Losing Art Acevedo is a huge deal and replacing him will be a daunting task, in part because he gave so much of himself to his job and his community. But Austin is a safe city with a strong police force and we’ll have talented applicants to take his place. We’ll shortly have a new city manager and a new police chief, and this gives Austin a unique opportunity to enter a new era in our history.”
Here’s the Chron story, which is from before the afternoon press conference announcing the hires, and thus doesn’t have anything that isn’t in the press release or the Statesman story. All appointments need to be confirmed by Council, and they will be on the agenda for the November 30 meeting.
Fire Chief was the other big hire. Here’s the Chron story for that.
El Paso Fire Chief Samuel Peña has been tapped as Houston’s new fire chief, replacing Interim Fire Chief Rodney West, sources said Thursday.
Peña, 45, has led El Paso’s fire department for three years.
If approved by City Council, he would come to Houston in the midst of a contentious fire pension negotiation and as firefighters continue to voice concern about aging facilities and calls for new equipment.
Houston’s fire union stressed those challenges Thursday while urging Peña to stand up to City Hall officials.
“Job one for Chief Peña will be to better balance his obligations at City Hall against those he will have to the 4,000 firefighters who have earned his support,” the union said in a statement. We urge Chief Peña to challenge City Hall to commit to the ‘shared sacrifice’ imposed upon us by sensibly addressing the declining condition of the (Houston Fire Department) fleet and facilities, a too-often adversarial command staff and stalled contract negotiations.”
UPDATE: Here’s the updated Chron story:
Acevedo and Peña, who head smaller departments, said they look forward to the challenge of leading Houston’s public safety agencies, both the fifth largest in the nation.
“I am proud to be here in the city of Houston, and remember that criminals are the only ones who need to be afraid of the police,” Acevedo said in Spanish. “If you’re a victim … or a witness, come forward. We’re at your service.”
Peña comes from a department that responds to about 76,000 calls a year. In Houston he will see about four times that number and Thursday he said he anticipated a steep learning curve.
“I’m going to be drinking from the proverbial fire hose for a while, learning the processes and really getting to know the command staff, sitting down with the associations and the rank and file to find out what their priorities are, from their perspective, before we make any wholesale changes,” the 47-year-old said.
Acevedo, 52, inherits the difficult task of policing a rapidly growing city more than twice Austin’s size with a police staffing shortage and a tight city budget.
The city also is seeking to gain legislative approval for a pension reform deal that already prompted three top Houston Police Department chiefs to file retirement paperwork.
Acevedo asked the agency to have his back.
“I can just say this to the men and women of the Houston police department: I love cops. I love policing,” Acevedo said. “Just give me the chance to show you what the mayor saw in me.”
Phil Hilder, a criminal defense attorney and member of the city’s Independent Police Oversight Board, welcomed the selection of Austin’s chief.
“He has a very progressive history at the Austin Police Department and has been very responsive to community concerns and is open-minded to innovations and new ideas in policing,” said Hilder, who has also served as a federal prosecutor. “Policing is moving in a rapid direction, embracing new technologies which will require somebody at the helm who will embrace those innovations, in terms of training and to keep the community informed about where policing is going.”
Acevedo was known as an outgoing, progressive leader in Austin but weathered internal criticism over his handling of police shootings. Most recently, he fired the officer involved in the fatal shooting of unarmed 17-year-old David Joseph. The police union accused Acevedo of an “unjust and politically motivated firing.”
McClelland, Houston’s former police chief, warned of the obstacles the outsider could face.
“With community relations on the forefront, any outside police chief is going to have significant challenges … learning all the internal operations and managers and who are your talented folks in your organizations,” he said.
“He certainly was the right fit in Austin. …That kind of liberal progressive town, I think he was a good fit [there]. Houston is not Austin – we know that. How well he’ll do here, I don’t know.”
U.S. Marshal Gary Blankinship, a former Houston police officer and union president who has known Acevedo for a long time, described him as “very personable,” but also a resolute manager.
Acevedo’s police officers and federal marshals worked together in the recent arrest in Houston of one of three men charged with the attempted assassination of Austin District Judge Julie Kocurek in November 2015, Blankinship said.
“He’s very qualified to be the police chief of Houston – I wish him well and look forward to working with him,” said Blankinship.
Welcome to Houston, gentlemen. I too wish you all the best in your new jobs.