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February did not end on a happy note for Houston Police Chief Sam Nuchia. Nuchia has been struggling to come up with a promotions policy that would satisfy both African-American officers -- who had filed suit claiming that the existing policy was racially biased -- and their non-black colleagues. But two weeks ago he was rudely informed that his proposed solution was a bust. And more than that, according to many members of the department, Nuchia was told that his rank-and-file had begun to lose confidence in him.
The source of this information was a vote taken by about 60 percent of the department's 4,600 officers on Nuchia's plan to augment the promotion system's current multiple-choice testing system with "assessment centers" that would evaluate an officer's psychology. Though he attempted to garner support by bowing to certain demands from police unions, Nuchia was still embarrassed by his minions. They rejected his approach to promotions by a lopsided 77 percent to 23 percent -- an indication, some say, of how much Nuchia's status at HPD has eroded since he became chief in March 1992. It's an opinion that transcends rank.
"I think the whole department tried to send a message to Nuchia," was the way one black patrol officer, who requested anonymity, analyzed the vote. "I don't think it had anything to do with the assessment centers as a whole. I think what they were trying to tell him was, 'When you ask us to do something, don't make us force you to make modifications in order to make it work.' That's what it came down to. The whole process pissed everyone off so much they just said, 'To hell with it.' "
"When he came in here two years ago, the officers were ready to carry him around on their shoulders," said one high-ranking police official, who also asked for anonymity. "That's all changed now. Officers are finding out that old Sam is not that much different, personally, from the people he replaced."
Last year the City of Houston, faced with a lawsuit filed by the Afro-American Police Officers League claiming that the multiple-choice testing system had an "adverse impact" on minorities, decided not to fight and asked Nuchia to work out a compromise. Over the past several months, the police chief devised a plan that would have retained the present written exam but would have added "assessment centers": under Nuchia's plan, if an officer passed the multiple-choice test, he or she would then go before a board of assessors, which would evaluate the officer's performance potential and psychological makeup.
Almost as soon as Nuchia presented his proposal, the police department's two largest labor organizations -- the Houston Police Officers' Association and the Houston Police Patrolmen's Union -- came out against it. In an effort to win their support, Nuchia made several concessions to the unions. Perhaps most important was the chief's agreement to allow the labor groups to play a significant role in selecting the assessment teams who were to evaluate officers. Additionally, to reward officers who had already studied at length for the written exam, the passing grade on the multiple-choice test was raised from 70 to 75.
That, however, was not enough to bring the majority of officers into Nuchia's camp. According to Doug Elder, president of the Houston Police Officers' Association -- the largest of the department's labor groups -- there is lingering resentment within the predominantly white and male department.
"I think the biggest thing was when the city capitulated and settled the minority lawsuit without attempting to defend the system," said Elder. "That was an emotional issue that has lingered under the surface over the last year. That caused a lot of hard feelings. After that, I believe, the majority of the officers just lost confidence in the chief's motives.
"[Nuchia] stated that his motives were to come up with a better promotional system that would keep us out of court. But a lot of the officers believed that this was a way for the department to selectively promote more minorities. I don't know if that's true or not, but that's the perception that's out there."
Because state law requires that officers approve changes in the promotion system, Nuchia's plan now looks dead in the water. So, for the time being, promotions within HPD will continue to be based solely on the written examination.
That doesn't exactly please the president of the Afro-American Police Officers League. "We'll probably file another lawsuit, I can assure you of that," says the AAPOL's Mae Walker. "Why would we go back to a system that gave us adverse impact? Somebody's got to be a couple of quarts low to think that we would agree to go back to the old process.