By Chris Lane
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When Sam Nuchia returned to the Houston Police Department as chief shortly after Bob Lanier was sworn in as mayor in 1992, most HPD officers couldn't have been happier. Much of the rank and file hated Nuchia's two predecessors, Lee Brown and Elizabeth Watson. Nuchia's appointment moved one homicide investigator to remark, "I'm going to buy a new pair of boots and a new notepad, because I'm going to starting kicking ass and taking names." Two years later, some officers would like to kick Nuchia there and are taking his name in vain.
The latest discord at 61 Reisner Street stems from Nuchia's plan to revamp the way officers are promoted to the ranks of sergeant, lieutenant and captain. Last year, in connection with a lawsuit filed by the Afro-American Police Officers League, federal authorities ruled that the multiple-choice testing system currently used by the department has an adverse impact on minorities. In an effort to come up with a plan that will pass muster with the feds, Nuchia's proposal calls for officers who pass the current test to submit to an "assessment center" where, for example, officials from other cities would come to Houston to conduct oral examinations judging the supervisory skills of officers up for promotion. Teams of "assessors" would then make their recommendations to the chief.
But that plan doesn't sit well with many officers -- especially white officers -- who are quick to point out that before his tenure with the Justice Department, Nuchia fared well under the old system, moving up to the rank of deputy chief (a position that no longer exists).
"Assessment centers are good if they are done right, if they are totally contracted out to an outside company," says one officer who has been following the situation closely. The officer is one of several who agreed to speak frankly but anonymously. "But the assessment-center process, the way it's designed here in Houston, would still leave the chief and the city personnel director in control of the selection of the assessors. That adds a lot of bias."
The officer points out that most major police departments use assessment centers but contract with independent organizations, such as the Police Executive Research Forum, to provide the service.
"Officers young and old and of all ranks are really concerned about the fact that in the end, the city personnel director would pick the assessors here," says the officer. "The city personnel director picks the assessors based on the recommendations of the chief. Now, the chief will tell you there will be a panel of officers from the department submitting names. But he will have the final strike."
In a circular sent to all officers, Nuchia acknowledges that there is a great deal of concern over how the judges for the assessment centers will be chosen. He then promises input from the rank and file.
"It is my plan to have a committee of officers chosen from the [police] employee groups," writes Nuchia, "who will review the lists of available raters from other agencies and make recommendations. I will review the choices and send the names to the city personnel department....
"The proposed promotion system is not a bargaining issue, but rather an attempt to improve our promotional process and the quality of our managers," Nuchia continues. "The present system is hit or miss in the quality of supervisors it produces. Over the years, I have seen a number of highly intelligent, capable officers not reach their potential in the department because they did not have photographic memories and were not willing to sacrifice months of time with their families and other pursuits to compete on a written multiple-choice test. I believe the new system would rectify this because it requires each participant to demonstrate his or her ability to perform in the new job."
In his circular, the chief also estimates the cost of the center at approximately $200,000 a year. And he promotes his plan as "the only system presently in existence that is universally recognized as valid by the federal courts."
Nuchia warns in the circular that without a valid testing system, the department will not be able to defend itself in court. He also claims that none of the police bargaining associations have presented alternative plans.
Not true, say the leaders of the two largest police groups.
"All officers would feel better about the process if they were more involved in it," says Mike Howard, president of the Houston Police Patrolmen's Union. The union leader says his group has suggested that the selection of the assessment teams be determined by a mix of officers, along with representatives from academia and the private sector. He also believes that the old test should continue to be an integral part of the promotion system. Doug Elder, Howard's counterpart at the Houston Police Officers Association, agrees.
"We know the courts have told us there are problems with the current test," says Elder. "It doesn't matter if we agree with that or not. It's been established, and that's the law right now."
Elder also characterizes Nuchia's plan as too vague.
"There wasn't enough clarification in it as to exactly what procedures would be followed and protections built in so that the assessment centers wouldn't be abused at the hands of politicians or someone who wanted to affect the outcome of promotions."