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.

"There were too many things happening all at one time," says Elder. "The city's settlement of the [minority] lawsuit, a change in the health insurance benefits [requiring higher employee premiums]. I think it overwhelmed officers. I think the settlement of the lawsuit, which we didn't agree with on the grounds on which they settled it, I think a lot of officers, rightfully or wrongfully, felt that whatever the administration was going to do with promotions, there was an angle there. And that the assessment center was merely a tool to allow the chief to appoint people to positions."

HPPU president Mike Howard is more critical of Nuchia. Howard, who admits he and the chief have not gotten along well, says rank-and-file support for the chief must be divided into two categories. "As far as law enforcement goes, he'd probably be rated very high by officers," says Howard. "As far as handling things internally within the department, he would probably be rated very poorly. The minority lawsuit -- a lot of officers felt that was not handled properly."

Racial problems in the department have been blown out proportion, Howard contends.

"I think there may have been a small problem, and I don't know if [Nuchia] was misinformed, mislead, bamboozled by some people, or what," he says. "But I think by the actions that have been taken, that problem has [expanded] from a very minute one into a small problem." Most of the existing problem, he says, is the result of the settlement of the minority lawsuit. "I think," says Howard, "[that] it's driven more of a wedge between officers in the department that it has corrected any past ill."

Nuchia, however, claims he expected to lose support among some white officers. "It is difficult to explain, and I have on numerous occasions, that this is the law," he says. "If you don't like it, then somehow you have to change the law. We have to operate within it. And you can produce the court cases and the EEOC and Title Seven and all those things that apply to this law. But a great deal of [the argument] is on an emotional basis that it was generally felt that the [promotional] tests were fair among the troops. And to try and convince them otherwise, from an emotional level, wasn't possible.

"Many of them thought I should have fought [the lawsuit] instead of making a deal. And that has caused a lot of emotional turmoil within the department and lessened the amount of trust the troops have in me."

But there are other factors responsible for the strained relations between Nuchia and his rank-and-file. Howard says Nuchia is heavy-handed when it comes to disciplining officers and claims the chief has found a loophole in the disciplinary system that places officers at an extreme disadvantage. He accuses Nuchia of using "a little bit of blackmail" when disciplining officers.

According to Howard, on some occasions when an officer goes before the chief to receive his or her punishment, Nuchia first threatens the officer with termination, but then decides to give the officer one last chance. Instead of termination, Howard says, the chief offers the officer a suspension without pay-- if, that is, the officer agrees not to appeal the decision to an arbitrator. Says Howard, "He's taking away our right to appeal."

Howard himself has felt the wrath of Nuchia. Earlier this month he and his partner, Mike Knox, were disciplined for mistakes that were made in the labeling of evidence. Knox was suspended without pay for 10 days, Howard for two. Both officers were also involuntarily transferred out of the department's Westside Gang Task Force, a task force they had been instrumental in establishing. Both are appealing their suspensions. Howard charges that Nuchia dealt harshly with him and his partner because they've been critical of the chief. The union leader also says that, considering some of Nuchia's own shortcomings, the chief has been hypocritical in disciplining officers. Howard points to Nuchia's misstatements in his letter to Clymer Wright and notes that other officers have been fired for lesser infractions.

"It's okay for the chief to play word games and be less than candid," charges Howard. "But if an officer does it, it's a termination. It's a firing offense. So, a lot of officers that thought a great deal of him looked at that and said, 'Well, shit, since he's the chief, he can do it and it's no big deal. It was just a misunderstanding.' He lost a lot of credibility. A large amount of credibility."

A high-ranking white HPD official, who asked not to be named, agrees with Howard that Nuchia's unbending personal style has alienated many officers.

"I think he's lost a lot of ground," says the official. "I think he got off to a hell of start. But I think a lot of it is things like his intimidating nature. When he first made chief he would ask for opinions at command staff meetings. But if it wasn't something he agreed with, he'd embarrass the shit out of [the person making the suggestion]. So now nobody says anything. Because it's got to be his way or no way at all."

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