by Robin Chotzinoff • Photography by Kate LeSueur
Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo arrives home with his 8-year-old son Jake and a load of groceries, slaps the bags on the counter, cranks up the grill, downs a tall glass of water and begins chopping onions. In an hour, he’ll head north to a vigil for a Hutto police sergeant, so there’s no time to change into civilian clothes. His cell phone buzzes. It’s another tightly scheduled day-turning-into-night, but Acevedo seems entirely relaxed. Dinner? He’s got this.
“I do most of the cooking around here,” he says. “I married a very smart woman [Travis County Chief Information Officer Tanya Acevedo], but cooking is not one of her fortés and we both work a lot of hours. So it’s usually simple stuff I love to eat—steak, pot roast, a Cuban salad.” He adds a liberal amount of salt to the plate of sliced vine-ripened tomatoes, onions and avocado—with olive oil, no vinegar!—and the dry-aged rib-eye steaks resting on the counter. “It’s a Cuban thing,” he says. “We love our olive oil and salt.”
Acevedo was born in Havana just before the revolution, and left with his family a few years after it, thanks to the LBJ-sponsored refugee policy that flew an estimated 300,000 Cubans to the U.S. and gave them a path to citizenship. Once settled in El Monte, California, Acevedo’s father, who’d been a police officer in Havana, worked menial construction jobs and read voraciously—reminding his kids that freedom is the greatest gift of all.
Eight years ago, shortly after moving from California to Austin to head the police department, Acevedo ran into Luci Baines Johnson at an event where both were scheduled to speak. He was uncharacteristically starstruck. “What in the world was I going to say to her?” he remembers. “I mean, who am I? Some cop, right? But if someone had told my father that I would end up the first Hispanic police chief, here, where LBJ spent so much time, he would have said they were crazy. And he had so much respect for the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act and everything LBJ did for refugees.” Acevedo’s father had died, but his sentiments lived on in his youngest son. He took a deep breath, introduced himself to LBJ’s daughter and the two became friends. “But still,” he now says, “did the stars align, or what?”
The elder Acevedos never took citizenship for granted. They expected their sons to give something back—not just in work, but in life. All that civic-mindedness was balanced, however, by plenty of hedonism and hospitality. “My parents had people over all the time,” Acevedo remembers. “I still go back to California at Christmas to roast a pig in the Caja China. We pretty much always ate dinner together, and we rarely ate out. I still remember my first restaurant meal in this country. Sirloin steak with fried shrimp, french fries and a strawberry shake with whipped cream. At Denny’s! I thought this must be how rich people eat.”
Upon graduating from the California Highway Patrol Academy in the mid-1980s, Acevedo worked a patrol in East L.A. It was a time of riots and gang violence, but also of new frontiers in food. “There was La Carreta, a little Mexican interior place with incredible food, and King Taco, the infamous place where I’d always order no chile and they’d always forget and I got tired of sending it back and learned to eat hot. I’m a foodie,” he says as he pats his stomach, “as you can probably tell. Being Cuban, I love my rice, but my doctor says I have to lay off.” Thankfully, the world is still full of meat.
Outside, on a deck overlooking acres of oak forest, he puts the rib eyes onto the grill, lets them cook a while, then covers them with a heavy dusting of Lawry’s Seasoned Salt, “which I hope you like,” he says, “because it’s the key to life. What’s in it? Everything a Cuban loves.”
Speaking of which, the chief observes, “a mojito would go down easy, wouldn’t it?” It wouldn’t do before the vigil, but some other night? That these sentiments are phrased as questions is no accident—Acevedo specializes in “community” policing, and that spirit extends to casual conversation. “What’s your story?” he asks—interrupting one of his own. “Where’d you grow up? How’d you get here?” Unlike some public figures, he’s a good listener. And he’ll share that mojito recipe, even though he can’t drink one tonight. Furthermore, “how about those Austin food trucks and barbecue joints?” he asks, and “isn’t it depressing when Hey Cupcake runs out of the 24 Carrot?”
He serves the steaks—perfectly medium-rare, with extra Lawry’s on the side—and goes to Hutto to pay his respects. A mere 24 hours later, Acevedo strolls down Fourth Street, on patrol in the middle of a standing-room-only marriage equality street party. Rowdy drunks who might otherwise avoid a uniformed officer seem thrilled to run into the guy they call “Chief Art”—shaking his hand, yelling into his ear, telling their stories. It’s another long workday that will stretch into the night, but Acevedo is exactly where he wants to be, in no hurry to move on.