Sam Nuchia in Black and White

Houston's top cop has been a pleasant surprise to the city's black community. But in his own department, it's a different story.

The scene inside the radio studio overlooking Greenway Plaza has all the makings of a High Noon showdown.

Behind the microphone sits Jew Don Boney, the rail-thin and laser-intense black activist who's been a thorn in the institutional side of the Houston Police Department for almost two decades. Enter Police Chief Sam Nuchia, a tall, beefy, dark-complected white man whose erect bearing, Dick Tracy-like jaw and steely, all-business countenance gives him the look of a cop sent over from central casting. Flanked by three black assistant chiefs, his driver and his director of media relations, Nuchia is, as usual, dressed in his street-cop blues -- a marked contrast to his last three predecessors, who favored corporate business attire for their public appearances.

There's another thing that sets Nuchia apart from his recent predecessors. While it's not unusual to find a Houston police chief appearing on a local radio talk show, sitting down to a microphone to take questions from Jew Don Boney on his noontime program isn't something you would have found Lee Brown, a black man, or Elizabeth Watson, a white woman, doing. Nuchia and Boney is a strange pairing, fraught with possibilities for a combustible confrontation: Nuchia, the old-school cop's cop who came up through the ranks when head-cracking HPD officers were a feared presence in black and Hispanic neighborhoods, whose appointment as police chief in March 1992 was heralded by some white cops as a return to the good old days, matching wits with Boney, the hot-headed critic of the white-run criminal justice system who gives no quarter when he perceives racism and injustice -- as he frequently does.

But there is no showdown today, no angry exchange of views that encapsulates the pent-up frustrations of Houston's black community or of HPD officers. Instead, listeners to KYOK are treated to an engaging, thoughtful, even friendly discussion. Boney, whose public style sometimes seems to veer solely between stridency and open hostility, questions Nuchia in a firm but polite tone. And Nuchia, who fields queries from reporters, City Council members and police subordinates with generous portions of arrogance and impatience, responds in kind. His appearance with Boney, scheduled to last only an hour, stretches to 75 minutes. At one point, Nuchia says that more prisons are not the only answer to crime and suggests that more funding for social programs is needed to keep youngsters on the straight and narrow.

"If we don't get a handle on it so that we quit producing so many criminals," says Nuchia, "we will never be able to build enough prisons to hold them."

Boney jokingly responds that the chief should be careful of his words. "You better watch out," he quips. "People will be calling you a liberal."

"I am as tough and mean a law enforcement officer as there ever was," replies Nuchia. "But there's not very many law enforcement officers who want to see children become criminals."

It was a winning performance, so winning that one skeptic who phoned in to Boney that June afternoon suggested that Nuchia sounded a little too good to be true, that perhaps the chief was hiding his true colors and just tailoring his comments to appeal to Boney's predominantly black audience.

The listener's skepticism was understandable. Sam Nuchia -- the grocer's kid from Beaumont who signed up with HPD in 1967 only three years out of Catholic high school, who worked his way through night school to earn undergraduate and law degrees while climbing up the ranks from patrolman to deputy chief -- doesn't seem to be the kind of cop who would attempt to build bridges between HPD and the city's black, Hispanic and gay communities.

He's certainly left little doubt that he's the hard-nosed, crime-busting cop he portrays himself to be. Almost as an article of faith, he attributes the signal accomplishment of his two and a half years as chief -- a 30 percent drop in Houston's crime rate -- to a return to a simple, old-fashioned method of crime prevention: putting more cops on the street. Armed with increased funding from Mayor Bob Lanier, Nuchia has been able to increase police presence while pretty much abandoning the touchy-feely "neighborhood oriented policing" concept advanced by Lee Brown and Elizabeth Watson. Perhaps because of that get-tough attitude, Nuchia's tenure hasn't been completely free of the excesses that were a hallmark of the "old days" at HPD -- recall the "zero tolerance" sweeps through predominantly black neighborhoods in 1992 or the "Gate 4" clash between cops and gay protesters outside the Republican National Convention that same year.

There also have been episodes involving Nuchia personally that hearken back to a time when Houston's police chief and his department felt they weren't accountable to the public. The one that probably did the most damage to Nuchia concerned a letter the chief wrote to term-limits activist Clymer Wright last year in which he told Wright that all the witnesses in a Wrightrequested perjury probe of Councilman John Goodner had been interviewed when, as Nuchia later acknowledged to the Houston Post, none of them had even been contacted. While Nuchia later characterized his misstatement as an honset mistake and blamed the media for creating an issue to "poision the citizens' confidence in city leaders," the episode hurt his credibility inside and outside his department.

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