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.

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."

When Nuchia took over as chief, one of the most pressing concerns for minority officers was a lawsuit that had been filed by the Afro-American Police Officers League challenging the system of testing for promotion within HPD. Filed in 1975, the suit was languishing when Nuchia took command. But with Nuchia's endorsement, and at the urging of Mayor Lanier, the city stopped stonewalling and reached a compromise, agreeing to changes in the promotional tests and to the promotion of 109 blacks and Hispanics over a five-year period. Though lauded by many minority officers, the settlement didn't go over as well with the white rank-and file, and has been challenged by the two largest, predominantly white, police unions.

"The black and Hispanic officers organizations came to me and said that they were pushing the lawsuit because it had been dormant for too long," says Nuchia. "Rather than fight it out in court, they said they would rather have a settlement and were willing to make some concessions. I had the department's lawyers and the city's lawyers look at their case from a legal standpoint, with the consideration that if legally they were likely to win, it would be better to make the best deal we could. And our lawyers were convinced [the minorities] would have no problem establishing a prima facie case [of discrimination]."

Nuchia says that by settling out of court the city was able to get a better deal than other cities that have faced similar suits. One advantage of the settlement, he says, was the provision allowing the department to spread the 109 promotions over five years rather than making them all at once. Some critics have accused the chief of simply looking out for the city's best interests, rather than the interests of minority officers. However, the fact remains that it was under Nuchia that Houston, 17 years after the discrimination lawsuit was filed, finally dealt with the concerns of its minority officers. And his efforts to deal with racism at HPD haven't stopped there.

Toward the end of Elizabeth Watson's stint as police chief, racial tension festering in HPD began to surface. Minority officers went public with complaints about racist messages written on bathroom walls and broadcast on police radios. The tension was particularly acute at the Northeast Substation, a dingy, bunker-like structure in the predominantly black Fifth Ward. There, blacks complained about bad assignments and unorthodox forms of discipline, such as being made to wash cars after it was discovered that some officers had filed for overtime pay that they hadn't earned. Shortly after taking over from Watson, Nuchia made significant changes at the substation, bringing in a new captain and, perhaps more important, a black lieutenant to clean up the problems. Nuchia acknowledges that dealing with the Northeast Substation was one of his priorities, but says the recruitment of minority officers is an even higher one.

"I made sure that my recruiters and the commanders of my recruiters understood that when I said that we intended to hire minority officers, that they understood that I really meant that," he says. "We were going to be very honest and up-front in our approach to the community in telling them that, and [in telling] the minority recruiters themselves that when they brought [in] a recruit we would not find some excuse for not accepting him."

Nuchia has indeed made a concerted effort to change the ethnic composition of the department. As of this April, 62.5 percent of the 4,600 officers of the Houston Police Department were white males. However, since Nuchia became chief in March 1992, 66 percent of the 839 officers who were graduated from the police academy and moved onto the force have been minorities and women.

In the words of one 20-year black officer, "There's now a black lieutenant in homicide and a black sergeant in recruiting. I never thought I'd see that. We're still behind, but we're moving."

May Walker, president of Afro-American Police Officers League, echoes that sentiment and credits Nuchia for the improved atmosphere. Walker believes minorities have fared better in HPD under Nuchia than they did under Brown, the city's first, and thus far only, black chief.

"Brown had to come in here and not be a black chief," says Walker. "He had the job of coming in here and being a chief of police. He did a lot of things, but he was very careful so that the media wouldn't say he did it for a 'black' reason."

Another black officer agrees: "Brown couldn't do it because Brown was black. Nuchia, coming from the feds, and knowing what has happened in the department, he wanted to straighten it up and get it done. He didn't hesitate. Brown was here eight years and he never addressed the [race] issue. He just pushed it aside."

However, one minority officer who has had close dealings with both Nuchia and Brown believes Brown was reluctant to seek change simply because he was afraid of its impact on his career.

"Brown's ambitions obviously went further than the Houston Police Department," says the officer. "He didn't want any controversy to hamper his movement." Brown, who left HPD to become New York City's police commissioner, now serves as President Clinton's drug czar.

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.

"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."

Lloyd Kelley, a first-term member of the Houston City Council and a former Houston police officer, dared to question whether Lanier's recent tax increase to add more cops was necessary. He says that Nuchia wasn't happy about that, and bridled at questions from council members during hearings on Lanier's budget proposals.

"There's a danger when you get a military figure or a police chief who thinks that you can holler the code words 'national security' or 'law enforcement' and suddenly everybody's supposed to become chilled and aren't supposed to ask any more questions," says Kelley. "We're all supposed to bow down to the god of security. I believe the chief of police is supposed to be treated like any other department head. He's supposed to explain what he's doing and explain how he's using his money and not be treated like some prima donna. And I didn't treat him like a prima donna. And he didn't like being questioned."

To gay activist Parker, Nuchia's not a "baffle 'em with bullshit kind of guy. I have always felt that when he told me something , whether I liked it or not, it was true and I could believe it and it was not going to change. Of course, this little mini-scandal [over the Wright letter], that bothered me a lot. Because that was the one thing that I was sure about Chief Nuchia. I could believe what he told me."

Nevertheless, Parker applauds Nuchia for making the department more reflective of the community, including gays.

"He seems really committed to a more diverse police department," says Parker. "I think he wants a first-class, professional police department. And he wants it to reflect the diversity of Houston. But I also think he wants it to be his police department and when he says, 'Jump!" they say, 'How high, sir?'

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