By Aaron Reiss
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If you need a measure of the backlash against affirmative action by put-upon white men, a good place to look would be the Houston Police Department, where the White Officers Association is the fastest-growing employee organization.
Of course, if you do look at the Houston Police Department, you'll also notice that its command, as well as its rank and file, is still overwhelmingly composed of white men.
Last week's filing of a lawsuit by the White Officers Association (in tandem with the American Civil Liberties Union) was the most visible move by the WOA since its formation in 1993. But the organization apparently has been growing quietly and steadily since its inception and now claims 532 members, according to HPD Sergeant Arnie Schulze, the group's secretary-treasurer. Schulze says that makes the WOA the third largest employee organization in HPD, behind the long-established Houston Police Officers Association and the Houston Police Patrolmen's Union. (The Afro-American Police Officers League disputes Schulze's contention and says it has more than 700 members.)
Whatever the case, the WOA has definitely become a force to be reckoned with. It's an officially recognized employee group, which allows its members to have their dues deducted from their pay checks. In addition, WOA officials sit in with representatives from other employee groups during their monthly meeting with HPD Chief Sam Nuchia.
One thing the WOA can't do, however, is have its representatives address and recruit cadets (that is, potential new association members) at the police academy. The other four groups that have requested to speak to the cadets are allowed to do so. Last week's federal lawsuit claims WOA members' First Amendment rights are being violated by Nuchia's refusal to grant the group access to academy cadets.
"I believe discrimination is discrimination, period," Schulze says.
Nuchia has thus far declined to comment on the suit.
The WOA was formed in response to the city's agreement to settle an 18-year-old lawsuit filed by the Afro-American Police Officers League. The settlement called for HPD to promote 106 minority officers over a five year period -- a move that angered many of the department's white rank and file. Schulze says his organization is also concerned over "the recruitment, employment and assignment practices" of the department. The WOA, he insists, is not the hate group it was portrayed as being immediately after its formation was revealed.
"Things are either equal are they are not," he says. "We are trying to address discriminatory practices within the department. Right now discrimination exists and the ones negatively impacted are white officers."
Schulze might get some argument on that point. Despite an aggressive minority recruitment campaign by the department over the past several years, white males still account for more than 60 percent of HPD's almost 5,000 officers -- in a city where Anglos now make up only about 40 percent of the population. Include white women and the percentage swells beyond two-thirds.
And HPD, you may have noticed, is headed by a white man who has a command staff that is made up primarily of other white men. Of the department's 34 captains, 33 are white males. The membership of the two major police labor groups is also overwhelmingly white.
Although the WOA may have dispelled its initial reputation, some officers in the department say it is viewed more as an organized political statement than a legitimate employee group.
"The White Officers Association is just a reflection of the current attitude in the country right now to do away with affirmative action," says one white cop who is not a WOA member and didn't want his name used in this story. "It's part of the backlash. Personally, I think we have too many associations as it is."
Doug Elder couldn't agree more. A white sergeant in the burglary and theft division, Elder is president of the Houston Police Officers Association, the oldest and largest of the HPD employee groups. Citing the fact that the HPOA, along with the rival Houston Police Patrolmen's Union, is appealing the terms of the settlement of the minority officers' lawsuit, Elder sees little need for the WOA. However, since it is a recognized employee group, he also defends the WOA's right to be heard and expand.
"I have a problem when you try to stifle somebody's ability to exist," says Elder, echoing the widespread assumption that Nuchia considers the WOA an embarrassment and wishes it would go away.
If that's indeed the way Nuchia feels, May Walker, the president of the Afro-American Police Officers League, is in agreement with the chief.
"The White Officers Association is redundant," she says. "Most white officers already belong to either HPOA or HPPU. They already are the white officers' associations."