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.

But on balance, Sam Nuchia has turned out to be a very different sort of police chief than many people expected. Black leaders say he has already done more for minorities on the force than Lee Brown did in his eight years, and Nuchia's persistent politicking in the black community has paid off handsomely in public relations. When Nuchia joined Councilwoman Sheila Jackson Lee and the Reverend Bill Lawson at a news conference recently to announce the arrests of suspects in the murder of Levi Perry Jr., son of a prominent black Houston family, Lawson made it a point to look into the TV cameras and say the arrests should be a taken as proof by blacks, Hispanics and Asians that HPD "can work for you."

Nuchia has defied expectations in other ways as well. The HPD officers who thought his appointment was a signal for them to run wild in the streets again have been disappointed. And while most of the good men and women in the police department expected Nuchia to be tough on criminals, they didn't really expect him to be quite so tough on them. Some have even accused him of holding his troops to a higher standard than he holds himself.

Gay activist Sue Lovell, who sits on the mayor's Police Advisory Committee, professes a grudging admiration for Nuchia, although she remains miffed by what she maintains was a whitewashed internal investigation of the chaotic "Gate 4" melee outside the Astrodome during the '92 Republican Convention, a melee in which some witnesses said club-wielding officers went way overboard in subduing gay protesters. She suggests that the explanation for Nuchia's performance as chief -- both the positive and the negative -- can be traced to his rigidly formed view of the world.

"Sam Nuchia's world is black and white," Lovell says. "There are no shades of gray. If you're a bad guy in his world view, even if you're not doing wrong, you're still a bad guy. And the world is good guys and bad guys."

At no time was the Houston police department more distrusted by the community than in the late 1970s, when Nuchia was earning his stripes. A spate of controversial incidents tainted the department with a national reputation for racism and brutality. The cases of Joe Campos Torres, Randall Webster and others earned the men and women of the department, rightly or wrongly, the tag of The Wild Bunch.

"I inherited all these problems," recalls Harry Caldwell, police chief from 1979 to 1981 and Nuchia's onetime mentor. "The first thing I had to do was to bring the department to a strong degree of accountability. The theme of my administration was accountability and reform, to re-establish the department's reputation in the community and to hold it accountable to this community. Every police chief since than has been able to build on that foundation. And every chief of police since my administration has dealt with a different set of problems."

It didn't seem, though, that Nuchia would be one who had to deal with those problems. Using the law degree he had earned at night, Nuchia retired from HPD in 1987 and went to work as a federal prosecutor. But Bob Lanier's election in 1991 on a more-cops platform -- and Harry Caldwell's strong recommendation of his one-time protege to the new mayor -- led Nuchia to pin on his badge again and take the reins of HPD. Nuchia was faced with a shortage of officers, the result of budget priorities in the administration of former mayor Kathy Whitmire, and an overabundance of crime. But in addition to beefing up the ranks and taking a more traditional approach to fighting crime, Nuchia, with Lanier's encouragement, made a decision to address the racial atmosphere inside HPD -- to make the department more reflective of the city, to make it a place in which racism of any kind would not be tolerated.

Nuchia's desire to bring wholesale change to the department grew out of his experiences both as a young patrol officer and as a management-level cop. "At the time," he recalls, "I used the allegory that the department really needed to be literally pulled up by its roots and replanted so that we can start down a path that's somewhat different from where we were in the '50s and '60s." One of his goals, he explains, was to foster a sense of trust among black and Hispanic officers -- a goal he suggests has largely been accomplished.

"I can't take full credit for that. I think it's an idea whose time had come," Nuchia says from behind a large wooden desk in his huge, windowless office on the third floor of HPD's central headquarters. "But, on the other hand, I think that it's something that I actively pursued. It was my feeling that I could not gain the trust of the minority community if the minority officers on the department did not have the feeling that the chief and, ultimately, the organization would treat them fairly and be concerned about the things that they were concerned about."

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