Miami’s Embattled Top Cop Compared City Leaders to Cuban Dictators

Chief Art Acevedo was a flashy hire when he arrived in Miami six months ago. Now his job is in peril after a series of clashes with city commissioners.,

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MIAMI — The hiring of Art Acevedo as Miami’s police chief seemed like an ideal match. Chief Acevedo, fresh off a high-profile stint in Houston, brought stature and swagger to a city infatuated with both. And as a Cuban immigrant maintaining law and order in the country’s largest concentration of Cuban Americans, his arrival had an air of celebratory inevitability.

That was six months ago. Now Chief Acevedo is at the center of an archetypal Miami political drama, replete with references to Cuban Communism and corruption, that has roiled City Hall and threatened his job.

Even before he moved to Miami, Chief Acevedo was something of a celebrity police chief, known as an outspoken critic of former President Donald J. Trump — despite being a Republican himself — and as a prominent proponent of police reform, especially toward communities of color and immigrants.

But the Miami imbroglio is not over policy. It is a clash of personalities between an ambitious new outsider and powerful city commissioners miffed over both Chief Acevedo’s surprise appointment and his tendency to say exactly what he thinks.

“He was someone who could come in from the outside and really effect change,” Art Noriega, the city manager, told the City Commission in a wild meeting on Monday. “Where we’re at today in particular is a function of the style and the manner in which that change is effectuated.”

Chief Acevedo has accused several commissioners of thwarting his attempts to “change the culture” of the department, as he said he had been hired to do, by improperly meddling in personnel decisions.

“These events are deeply troubling and sad,” he wrote in an eight-page letter on Friday in which he denounced how commissioners tried to influence an internal affairs investigation and then retaliated by defunding top positions in the Police Department’s budget. “If I or M.P.D. give in to the improper actions described herein,” he added, “as a Cuban immigrant, I and my family might as well have remained in Communist Cuba, because Miami and M.P.D. would be no better than the repressive regime and the police state we left behind.”

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“He was someone who could come in from the outside and really effect change,” Art Noriega, the city manager, said of Chief Acevedo at the meeting.Credit…Scott McIntyre for The New York Times

The political fight played out on Monday in a long airing of grievances by commissioners who demanded an investigation into Chief Acevedo’s past, his hiring and his recent actions — effectively putting pressure on the city manager to fire him. Commissioners cannot fire him because he does not directly work for them.

It was an unexpected turn both for the chief and for Miami, which has tried to prove it is a mature city ready to draw serious tech investors, only to find itself entangled in an ugly battle over its sixth police chief in 11 years. It was only this year that the Justice Department ended five years of oversight of the Police Department, which began after an investigation into the police killings of seven Black men.

Chief Acevedo was supposed to bring that era to a conclusion by enacting reforms and promoting an equitable, merit-based chain of command in the police force.

But he wasted no time in generating controversy of his own. He terminated two high-ranking officers and demoted the department’s second-highest-ranking female Black officer. He said his own department — rather than the Florida Department of Law Enforcement — should investigate police shootings. And he angered the police union by telling a local radio station that officers should get vaccinated against the coronavirus or risk losing their jobs.

Last week, a majority of members polled by the Fraternal Order of Police said that they had no confidence in the chief and that he should be fired or forced to resign.

Meantime, Chief Acevedo was making new enemies outside the Police Department as well.

At a demonstration in support of freedom activists in Cuba outside Miami’s iconic Versailles restaurant, the chief was caught posing for a photo with a prominent member of the Proud Boys. (He did not know who it was, the chief said.) Someone that day also recorded him swearing at a man who asked why he hung out with Marxists and Communists and supported the Black Lives Matter movement.

What especially incensed commissioners, in addition to the housecleaning at Police Headquarters, was when Chief Acevedo told a group of officers this summer that the department was run by a “Cuban mafia.” The chief later apologized, saying he intended it as a joke and had not realized that Fidel Castro had used the same phrase to refer to Cuban exiles in Miami who opposed his Communist regime.

The commissioners’ meeting to confront the chief on Monday quickly devolved into Miami-style political theatrics.

At one point, Commissioner Joe Carollo frame-grabbed a video clip of Chief Acevedo, taken before he worked in Miami, performing a raunchy dance at a fund-raiser. (In another clip, he was dressed like Elvis, prompting Mr. Carollo to tut-tut the tightness of the chief’s pants.)

A supporter of the chief at one point yelled at the dais and, as he stomped out of the chambers, extended a finger to the commissioners.

Mr. Carollo spent several hours reading news clippings and other documents about Chief Acevedo’s record in law enforcement agencies in California and Texas, including at least one allegation of sexual harassment that the chief has denied. Mr. Carollo repeatedly asked Mr. Noriega if he had been aware of those controversies before hiring Chief Acevedo.

“No, sir,” Mr. Noriega responded.

“He’s not accountable to anyone,” Mr. Carollo said of Chief Acevedo. “He’s not accountable to the city manager, not accountable to the residents of Miami — not accountable, period.”

Mayor Francis Suarez, who recruited the high-profile police chief from Houston in what was widely seen as a way to bolster the mayor’s national prominence ahead of his November re-election, did not attend the meeting. Commissioner Ken Russell, the acting chairman, was absent.

Mr. Noriega said he hired the chief in March after Mayor Suarez heard he might be available for the job and Houston’s mayor recommended him. But that circumvented a search committee that Miami had created to review police chief applications. Chief Acevedo never applied for the position. Now he makes $315,000 a year, though his total compensation package, with benefits, is worth more than $437,000.

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Mayor Francis Suarez introduced Chief Acevedo as the Police Department’s new leader in March.Credit…Joe Raedle/Getty Images

For his part, Chief Acevedo, who did not address the Commission, said in his letter that he believed he had angered some of the commissioners by refusing to arrest unspecified “agitators” and “Communists” at a public gathering in June — there were no agitators, his officers later concluded — and by declining to get caught up in commissioners’ unsubstantiated claims of code enforcement violations in one another’s districts.

The department had “wasted untold hours” doing investigations because of the “improper political influence” of these commissioners, he said.

Monday’s meeting began an hour late. Commissioners then took a two-hour lunch break. When they finally allowed public comment, five hours in, people lined up at the microphones, many of them angry at their elected officials for the day’s spectacle. Others raised commissioners’ own notorious records. Quite a few supported the chief.

The meeting ended in the evening, with commissioners scheduling a follow-up discussion for Friday. The mystery of Chief Acevedo’s fate lingered.

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