The Case of the Missing Case

What good is a review committee that doesn't get to review?

"I think there has been so much bad press about the chief lately that he is concerned that if there is one more potentially newsworthy case that shows the police in a bad light, he would look even worse," says Burd.

Contreras referred questions to HPD's office of media relations, which issued a statement by Nuchia in which the chief dismissed accusations of a cover-up by him as "lies and innuendo."

"I don't cover-up anything," he said. "Never have, never will."
The committee member with whom Burd spoke, and who asked not to be identified in this article, confirmed Burd's account of the member's conversation with Contreras. The committee member also said he was told by Contreras that it was not the first time a potentially controversial case has been withheld from the CRC.

"I think the integrity of the review system has been compromised," says the panel member. "They are short-circuiting us. When it hits their fanny, they get uncomfortable, so they don't even project it into the proper procedure.

Annise Parker, who recently took over as chairman of one of the three CRC panels and is running for an open City Council seat, also is disturbed that the complaint was never forwarded for CRC evaluation. As a committee head, Parker was able to review the internal affairs report finding there was no cause to sustain the excessive force complaint. Parker declines to reveal the contents of the report, but says she believes that conflicting versions of the birthday party disturbance basically boil down to "a pissing match" between the police and the Russians.

"I don't believe either side," she says.
Parker says that as far as she knows, the Nizhniy's complaint was the only such allegation that was not sent to a full civilian review panel in 1994.

A police spokesman explains that Nuchia has 180 days from the time a complaint is lodged to take disciplinary action against an officer. The time period was about to expire on Nizhniy's complaint, the spokesman says, and therefore Nuchia had to pull the case from the normal review process to take disciplinary action on the complaint regarding the missing beeper -- the only complaint by the partygoers that was officially sustained by the internal affairs division.

Parker, however, says she's not sure she buys that explanation.
"If internal affairs misrepresented the facts, I would want to know that," says Parker. "That's a real serious concern. So far I have seen no evidence of that."

Another CRC member, Jan Rayburn, says she's confident the review process is functioning as intended.

I don't know of any [excessive force complaints] that haven't reached us," says Rayburn. "I do know that Nuchia is very responsive to our panel. And he wants to make sure that we do get to see anything that would have any controversy."

Nuchia denies he intervened to change the outcome of the internal affairs investigation.

"However, if I were to want to tell internal affairs to change something to sustain because I think the evidence is there, I have the authority and the responsibility to do that," said the chief. "And if on reviewing a case I say change it to not sustained because the evidence is not there, I have the authority. I am the ultimate authority in the police department. Just because a captain thinks a certain way, that doesn't bind me.

"The administrative discipline committee [comprising the three CRC panel chairmen and Contreras] recommends discipline. The CRC reviews them and gives their opinion if it's different. And all of those things finally reside in me. And I am responsible to the mayor and the people. I make the ultimate decisions since I am responsible. And I don't hesitate to do that."

Still, critics of the investigation say the probe should have been reviewed.
"Why was the 180 days allowed to expire?" asks the CRC member who spoke to Burd. "We [CRC] have had numerable cases that the time had elapsed, but we still received it and gave our opinion on it."

"This being an excessive force complaint, it should have been assigned to a panel," adds attorney David Jones, who represents McCarthy, the partygoer charged with aggravated assault of a police officer. "It's bizarre."

Last month Burd and Jones outlined their concerns in a letter to Mayor Bob Lanier that was also sent to members of the City Council. At least one council member, Judson Robinson III, expressed interest in the case and assigned a staffer to investigate. Meanwhile, a Harris County grand jury is expected to begin hearing evidence this week on how police behaved at Alexander Nizhniy's birthday celebration.

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