Bad Boy In Blue

Union head Hans Marticiuc (rhymes with wreck) takes aim at the police chief, the mayor, other labor leaders and anyone else who gets in his way

The Lanier administration argues that Houston officers don't take home as much money in their paychecks as do their counterparts elsewhere because, in recent years, HPD employee groups have chosen increased benefits and better retirement options instead of raises. But better benefits, says Marticiuc, don't pay officers' rent and child support. He also likes to point to a 1994 police wage and benefit survey by the Labor Relations Information System of Portland, Oregon, which ranked Houston 210th in police compensation among U.S. cities with a population of 50,000 or more. (Houston didn't participate in the 1996 survey.)

Just two years after joining the department, Marticiuc was elected to the Houston Police Officers Association board of directors. HPOA had been founded in 1945, but by the time Marticiuc arrived on the scene, the organization was little more than a club whose leaders organized softball leagues.

In many ways, a firebrand such as Marticiuc would have seemed better suited for the more radical -- but much smaller -- Houston Police Patrolmen's Union, which had split from HPOA in 1979. Officer Bob Thomas was the union's first president; at the time, he presided over six other members.

But Thomas and his pals preferred hardball to softball.
"We came out with a union with no intramural sports and a get-in-your-face attitude," recalls Thomas. "We became very aggressive and we hired some very aggressive lawyers."

During the early '80s, HPPU was shamelessly confrontational. At press conferences, Thomas blasted Mayor Kathy Whitmire and her chief, Lee Brown. Union members picketed Whitmire's home and followed her to speaking engagements.

The tactics paid off: HPPU flourished. By 1984, the union had swelled to include 2,100 officers -- about half the force -- and it was challenging the older, more staid HPOA as the largest police employee group.

Marticiuc views HPPU's formation as the worst thing that ever happened to the Houston Police Department. He says he understands why Bob Thomas and others grew impatient with the old, slow-moving association; but their leaving meant that for the past 17 years the department's rank-and-file has been divided -- and thus in a severely diminished bargaining position.

HPPU's success put HPOA on notice: To survive, it needed to change. In 1985, association members elected Mark Clark, a serious-minded president who attended less to softball and more to politics. But HPOA remained more conservative and less confrontational than HPPU.

That changed with Marticiuc's election last November. Since then, says Thomas, Marticiuc has become the most aggressive labor leader the police department has seen since, well, himself.

During Marticiuc's presidency, the two police groups have reversed roles. Last summer, HPOA even dropped the wishy-washy "association" from its name and replaced it with the tougher-sounding "union." And thus the HPOA was reborn as the HPOU.

"I hate to say this," says Thomas, who's now a lawyer with the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, "but I think the union has turned into the association, and the association has turned into the union."

At his union office, on a small credenza opposite his desk, Marticiuc displays a framed picture of roadkill. At the base of the frame, an inscription declares, "There's nothing in the middle of the road except yellow stripes and dead armadillos."

Few would accuse Marticiuc of being middle-of-the-road. Immediately after taking over as president, he began running a series of gag photographs on the cover of Badge and Gun, the association's newspaper. The obviously doctored photos always portray the plight of fictional officer Don N. Out, and they're as subtle as a karate chop -- or as Marticiuc himself. On one cover, Officer Out stands in front of City Hall with a "Will Work for Food" sign. On another, he and Mayor Lanier -- his jowly face pasted onto a body wearing a Rockets uniform -- stand outside the Astrodome. In a speech balloon, Out lists his priorities: "Food ... shelter ... clothing ... kids' college ... insurance ... SPORTS?" Lanier orders him to get those priorities in order.

Badge and Gun's most audacious cover showed Lanier standing in a shower stall next to a uniformed officer who's bending over and bears the pasted-on face of HPPU president David Mireles. "Pick up my soap, officer," commands the Lanier figure. "Sure, Mr. Mayor ..." replies the Mireles figure.

Those photos -- coupled with Marticiuc's mayor-criticizing TV appearances -- struck a raw nerve with Nuchia. In June, the chief responded by issuing a general order concerning the circumstances under which an officer could and could not wear his uniform.

"Employees will not use their office in any manner for the purpose of furthering their own or another's political campaign interests," reads the order. "Employees will not appear in any political advertisement, whether in print or on video, wearing any portion of the department-issued uniform or any other uniform which resembles that issued by the Houston Police Department."

(Nuchia apparently didn't believe the general order applied to him. In September, he attended a Grandparents Day luncheon, broadcast by the Municipal Channel. During his speech, the chief -- in full uniform -- reminded his audience that he was running for the First Court of Appeals.)

No sooner had Nuchia issued that order than Marticiuc violated it. Alongside his column, Badge and Gun ran a photo of him in uniform.

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