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 even if Brown didn't deliver as much as some minority officers had hoped, he was without question immensely popular in Houston's black community. And given Nuchia's ties to the department's good-old-boy days, his selection as chief didn't exactly set off demonstrations of joy in minority homes.

"After the departure of Lee Brown, it was pretty much suspected by the minority community [that] we were going to be in a stalemate kind of period for black progress, for minority progress, for that matter, in the police department," says the Reverend James Dixon, one of the most prominent of Houston's politically active black preachers.

Nor did some of Nuchia's early actions endear him and his officers to Dixon and other black ministers. With marching orders from Lanier to get tough on criminals, Nuchia implemented "zero tolerance" sweeps in the predominantly black Fourth and Fifth Wards, sweeps in which people suspected of committing even the most minor of crimes were rousted by the police.

The operations produced numerous charges of abuse. Three black teenagers were ticketed for simply walking the wrong way down a one-way street, and there were reports of public strip searches of black men. A few ministers even got caught up in the sweeps. The policy produced outrage in the black community and prompted a tense meeting between Nuchia, Lanier and a score of black ministers. Dixon, who participated in the day-long session, describes Nuchia as receptive and sensitive during the discussions. And Dixon says it may well have been that the problems were the result of some HPD officers misinterpreting what Sam Nuchia is all about; that some officers did, indeed, believe that the bad old days were here again.

"Chief Nuchia deals with law enforcement from a strong-armed vantage point which, in this kind of environment, some of that is necessary," Dixon says. "But the interpretation of that in the minds of some officers, I think, was twisted."

The meeting between Nuchia, Lanier and the black ministers -- a meeting Dixon says was emotional for some of the clergymen -- produced a resolution in which the chief and the mayor pledged that "discriminatory enforcement of the laws will not be tolerated in any instance." The resolution also promised more sensitivity training for officers. Although there have been isolated incidents of questionable police behavior since the meeting, there have not been widespread accounts of abuse. And that's a condition that has not gone unnoticed by Boney, who has been at odds with almost every Houston police chief to serve since the mid-1970s. Boney agrees with Dixon's suggestion that the some of the HPD rank-and-file misjudged Nuchia.

"Some officers thought that Nuchia would sanction that kind of behavior," Boney says. "They now had a white male chief again after a considerable amount of time. They may have felt that the good-old-boy network would have the opportunity to reassert itself. I think Chief Nuchia, as he became aware of issue, made it real clear that he would not tolerate any of that kind of behavior within the department.

"We don't have racial slurs in the bathrooms as we did under Chief Watson, on the same floor as her office. We don't have near the number of complaints that we used to have against the Houston Police Department. Thankfully so. And I to say that a lot of that belongs to the way [Nuchia] has carried out his administration.

"There is still a good-old-boy network within the department that refuses to change. But because of the structure it's hard to get them out. Northeast [substation] has been a particular problem, and it's not solved yet. But it's better than it was, and he brought in some better leadership. And he really acted on it quickly, whereas the problems festered under Chief Watson."

But despite the racial progress made under Nuchia's watch, Boney, Dixon and other black leaders, as well as some minority officers, say there's still room for improvement, especially when it comes to making the department mirror the entire community. Some contend that Nuchia hasn't actually done much beyond what he would have eventually been forced to do by the courts.

On the other hand, some minority officers feel Nuchia may have moved too quickly; that by pushing the settlement of the promotions lawsuit he has actually exacerbated tensions within the department.

"It should have been more gradual," says one minority officer involved in the negotiations over the lawsuit. "Let's face it, it made non-minority officers feel like the world was crushing down on them. Some officers feel he has catered too much to minorities."

That is very much the opinion of the leadership of the two major police labor organizations, the Houston Police Officers Association and the Houston Police Patrolmen's Union. Both groups have appealed the settlement of the minority lawsuit. The two organizations' frustration with Nuchia came to a head last March during a vote over a Nuchia plan to have "assessment centers," or psychological evaluations, become part of the promotional process. The HPOA remains neutral on the proposal, but it was strongly opposed by the HPPU. By an overwhelming margin, Nuchia wound up on the short end of a department-wide vote on the issue. Only 24 percent of those voting supported his plan, while 76 percent opposed it. HPOA president Doug Elder says officers feared Nuchia would use the centers to his own political advantage.

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