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Fired Miami police chief Art Acevedo says ‘the city was not ready for reform’

Miami Police Chief Art Acevedo attends a city commission meeting on Oct. 14, in which city commissioners decided to fire him six months into his job. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
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Miami Police Chief Art Acevedo was fired from his post Thursday after a feud with powerful city commissioners irked by his unexpected hiring, a brash remark about a “Cuban mafia” and a leaked memo filled with damaging accusations.

Looking back at his six-month tenure, the man known nationally as a blunt-talking, big-city police chief and frequent guest on television news shows defended his actions, saying city officials are using his firing to draw attention from their own wrongdoing.

“I feel frustrated because I was brought to a city to enact reform,” he said in an interview with The Washington Post on Thursday. “And unfortunately the city was not ready for reform.”

The firing ends a weeks-long duel with Miami officials, who held two lengthy hearings that touched on everything from Acevedo’s leadership style to the tightness of his pants during a performance as Elvis at a fundraiser. The ordeal also sparked a debate about change in a city trying to emerge as a tech capital but where local politics remains entrenched in old rivalries.

In a hearing Thursday, an attorney for the city brought up witnesses who described how Acevedo had offended rank-and-file officers with his abrasive approach. His lawyer, meanwhile, said he was being punished for sending a memorandum accusing city commissioners of using the police department to target opponents and of interfering with investigations.

After more than four hours of testimony, commissioners voted unanimously to fire him.

“It’s a litany of things,” interim chief Manny Morales said when asked by the city’s attorney to explain why Acevedo had lost the trust of officers. “But it perhaps boils down to the systematical or systematic demoralization of the police department that has been a result of his leadership style.”

Acevedo said that in hindsight he should have better navigated the “minefields” he would encounter while trying to enact reform. He declined to defend himself during the hearing, with his attorney saying the commission’s decision had already been determined.

“When you come to a city where politicians are definitely not interested in change, I now recognize I probably should have assessed this and looked for the minefields a little more closely,” he told The Post. “I probably moved too fast.”

Acevedo was hailed by Mayor Francis Suarez as the “Michael Jordan of police chiefs” when he was hired in April. But it didn’t take long for Acevedo to start ruffling feathers with actions and comments that quickly enraged a trio of Cuban American city commissioners.

He asked the U.S. Department of Justice to review the city’s internal affairs process and incidents of excessive use of force by officers, fired two high-ranking officers and demoted several well-liked supervisors. He angered some officers when he said, during a television interview, that they should get vaccinated against the coronavirus or risk being fired. But what perhaps sparked the most ire was his remark at a police meeting that a “Cuban mafia” rules Miami.

That struck a nerve in South Florida, home to hundreds of thousands either born on the island or of Cuban heritage, who recall Fidel Castro using the phrase to dismiss exiles.

Acevedo — who was born in Havana and raised in California — said that the remark was taken out of context and that he used it with humor to highlight the lack of diversity within the department’s ranks.

Though he said he regrets using the phrase, Acevedo also argued that it was being used as political fodder by Commissioners Joe Carollo, Manolo Reyes and Alex Diaz de la Portilla to further discredit him.

“I was using my Cuban sense of humor, and unfortunately it really hurt some members of the exile community, which by the way I am a member of,” he said. “I really regret making that comment, but it wasn’t malicious, wasn’t intended to hurt anyone.”

The feud with city hall escalated in September when Acevedo penned a memo to the city’s top leaders accusing commissioners of trying to interfere with an internal affairs investigation. He also claimed Carollo directed him to arrest “agitators” at an event in July to support an unprecedented wave of protests in Cuba. The memo incensed commissioners, who denied any wrongdoing.

In a long career that started in Los Angeles as an officer with the California Highway Patrol and includes stints as the chief of the Houston and Austin police departments, Acevedo said his time in Miami has been a “unique experience.”

And not in a good way.

“I have never experienced the vitriol of being attacked from the get-go,” he said.

In a two-page letter Monday, City Manager Art Noriega said he wanted Acevedo out because he had lost the trust of officers, used foul language while arguing with a protester and offended the community with his “Cuban mafia” remark. He also said Acevedo failed to quickly report damage to his vehicle and did not record vacation and personal time.

Noting that Acevedo is new to Miami, Noriega said Thursday that he should have done more to win the community’s confidence. The city manager said it took himself decades to develop relationships and an appreciation for “how to approach change.”

“Unfortunately, he never allowed himself as someone who is not from here to come in and earn the trust of the people he worked with and of the community as a whole,” he said.

Noriega likewise took issue with Acevedo announcing a policy on the coronavirus vaccines, which he said Acevedo did not have the authority to do.

The outgoing chief said he acted out of “love for his teammates and concern for their safety,” though he understood why it upset some and wished he could take it back. He added that Noriega’s suspension letter came after he declined to resign without cause with five months of severance pay and agree to waive his right to sue or take legal action against the city.

As the ordeal has dragged on, Acevedo’s onetime allies went silent.

Commissioner Ken Russell, who had previously has praised Acevedo’s support of criminal reform, said Thursday night that the chief had failed to meet “great expectations.”

“Being police chief in Miami requires building coalitions with politicians, unions and the public, and Acevedo did not accomplish that,” Russell said in a statement to The Post after voting for his ouster.

Suarez, who had been missing from city hearings, commented for the first time Tuesday, saying that the chief’s “personality and leadership style are incompatible with the structure of our city’s government.” He added that the ongoing dispute between the chief and city commissioners is “simply untenable and unsustainable.”

One of the few to come out in Acevedo’s defense is the president of the Miami Community Police Benevolent Association — the second-oldest Black police union in the country — who criticized Acevedo’s termination, calling it a premature decision.

“We are very disappointed because even though he made some mistakes, he has only been here six months,” Sgt. Stanley Jean-Poix told The Post on Tuesday. “He is an outsider. He is not going to get everything right in such a short period.”

Looking forward, Acevedo said he plans to continue to pursue a career in public service and would not say whether he intends to challenge his dismissal in court.

“I have retained counsel and I really believe that we have a duty to hold ourselves accountable, and so I am going to pursue whatever my attorneys advise,” he said.

Admittedly disconcerted — “I have never been fired in my 57 years” — Acevedo said he has found himself thinking of a framed card his father gave him for graduation that he keeps in yet-to-be unpacked boxes at the police headquarters. It reads: “He who perseveres triumphs.”

“I’ve made a lot of mistakes along the way,” he said, tearing up. “You can question my decisions, but I challenge people to question my heart.”

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