Policing leaders need to align their views with the public

By Chief Art Acevedo
Houston Police Department

I am a supporter of traditions. They serve an important role in keeping the positive parts of the past alive.

When it comes to policing, the heritage we celebrate, honor and maintain should be a tradition of excellence.

But tradition should not be about the evolution of an organization. Too often, policing agencies fall back on tradition as an excuse to prevent change. We must never allow our careers to become so calloused that we stop changing.

Here’s a good example. Most policing agencies in the United States require officers to keep all tattoos hidden from the public. That means officers with tattoos on their arms have to wear long sleeved shirts or cover sleeves if they are to have any interaction with people outside the department.

Working in Texas while wearing long-sleeved shirts takes a toll on officers. It’s hot and can be quite humid.

That’s why after taking over as chief of the Houston Police Department last November, I decided to allow our officers to visibly display their arm tattoos. Those found on the hands, neck and face still cannot be displayed in public, nor can tattoos that would be considered offensive.

I had taken the same step as chief in Austin, Texas, and our officers that had tattoos frequently expressed their happiness and comfort to me. The same thing is already happening here in Houston.

We have to remember that community values change over time. These days, tattoos are just so commonplace in society, from surgeons to the guy that mows your lawn. Tattoos are now part of our culture.

As policing leaders, too often our policies focus on history instead of the present – and that meant they were focusing on values that have changed.

When you consider the Texas heat, if we are going to be a progressive department and create an environment where people are comfortable to come to work, this was just a step we had to take.

People are happier now. For me, there’s no question that employees are more productive when their needs are being met.

There has been no push back from the community or government leaders, which was the same experience I had while in Austin.

I am sure there are a few people in our department who are traditionalists and don’t like it, and I respect that view.

But think how many men and women have served in the military. They went into it for their patriotism. They wanted to protect our country on the front end. Now their service is done. They come home and want to protect the country here on the backend, and in a lot of cases, they have to hide their tattoos or they aren’t even hired in the first place.

Let me say this to them: Welcome to the Houston Police Department. Come give us a try.  We are good to go.

There is another benefit too.

Tattoos are very personal. From my perspective, they can personalize officers. I have witnessed them create conversations between officers and the public, and those discussions are pretty friendly.

Tattoos often tell stories. Those stories open up doors for the officers, helping portray them as human beings. Cops are pretty quiet people when it comes to their personal lives, but get them talking about their tattoos and you increase the opportunity to build a bond with a member of the public.

That’s exactly what I want. We are a big city with big-city opportunities and big-city challenges. Quite frankly, we have bigger issues to deal with – and if tattoos help build those relationships, to me, it’s a no brainer.

In case you are curious, no, I do not have any tattoos myself. When my mother was alive, she always threatened me with bodily harm if I ever got one. I’d be afraid she would come out of the grave and hit me with a 2-by-4 if I ever did.

But that’s why as leaders, we cannot force our own values and views on our employees. They have to be reflective of the communities that we serve. It’s just the right thing to do.

 

Art Acevedo, who was sworn-in as chief of the Houston Police Department (HPD) in November 2016, leads a department of 5,200 sworn law enforcement officers and 1,200 civilian support personnel.  A proponent of community policing, Chief Acevedo refers to the proven practice as “Relational Policing,” an opportunity to forge a relationship with each citizen an officer comes in contact with. The first Hispanic to lead the HPD, Acevedo brings a unique understanding to the concerns of the diverse communities in the City of Houston.  Born in Cuba, he was 4 years old when he migrated to the United States with his family in 1968.  Acevedo grew up in California and earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Public Administration from the University of La Verne in California.  Acevedo began his law enforcement career in 1986 with the California Highway Patrol.  He rose through the ranks and was named Chief of the California Highway Patrol in 2005.  Acevedo most recently served nine years as Chief of the Austin Police Department. Chief Acevedo holds various leadership positions with the Major Cities Chiefs Association and the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

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